Families with broadband have a world of online learning at their fingertips but not all of the web is built with children in mind. This is a parent's guide to the internet for kids and teenagers.
There's no doubt that broadband is a fantastic resource in the digital age. For children the internet's a learning tool, a place for friendship and entertainment. For parents it can be a nightmare as many dread what their little ones might access.
But luckily there are ways of keeping children safe online. From installing parental controls, to simply chatting with your kids about what's right and wrong, and why. Being internet savvy is a necessity in modern life, so don't scare your children off of using it, but don't shy away from explaining the risks. it'll help them make wise choices from the start. When the time comes to let them explore the web, it's a good idea to surf with them at first. Suggest some sites you think they might like and encourage them to tell you what they're looking at online.
The information in this guide should help give your children a good introduction to the web. We've also included some general advice for keeping everyone safe online.
Websites for children
The internet can be a daunting place and there are certain uses for a broadband connection we'd rather our little ones didn't stumble upon. Each of the following sites can offer a safe, educational and fun web experience for kids as young as five or six years old.
It started life as a free online game for kids and in its basic format that's essentially still what it is. But Moshi Monsters has grown into almost the equivalent of Facebook for under-13s. Once their parents have responded to an approval email, kids can join as a member and adopt their very own Moshi Monster. There are no real names or photos on profiles - kids simply care for their creature by solving puzzles and earn themselves virtual rewards. They can spend their pretend "Rox" currency - which children 'earn' by completing puzzles, online currency is not available to buy for real currency as is the case on other social games sites - and kids can also interact with each other, making friends and exchanging messages.
The aim of Disney's Club Penguin is to work with parents to provide a "fun, safe online experience" and it does this in a number of ways. From live moderators and filtered chat to an ad-free gaming environment, the whole thing is built with children's safety in mind. While playing at Club Penguin, kids can explore concepts in reading, maths, budgeting, teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking and more. And by adding the Parent App to your Facebook profile you can connect and engage with your children's Club Penguin activity, monitoring their experience.
If you've got digital TV at home, your kids are probably hooked on Nickelodeon but nowadays it offers much more than just teatime telly. The official Nick website is packed full of games and competitions where children can play for free and win prizes. When entering they'll be asked to give some details, including their parent's email address for approval. Kids can also stream clips from their favourite Nickelodeon shows, so make sure you have unlimited broadband or a suitable download allowance before letting them loose!
Advice for parents of online tots
If your child asks a question to which even you don't know the answer or you simply want to provide a visual illustration of something you have been discussing, sit down together and find it online. Demonstrate the internet's power as a learning tool, but explain that not everything on the web is true and accurate. Show them other ways to learn about new topics too.
Don't let your child surf unsupervised until you feel they're mature enough to understand the risks and steer clear of danger. Ensure you have parental controls installed to block adult content - most broadband providers now offer this at no extra cost. Anti-virus software is also important.
Make sure you tell your kids - and remind them frequently - that they can talk to you about anything they've seen online, and that if anything makes them uncomfortable they should leave the page and let you know immediately.
Websites for older kids
These days, by the time most children reach secondary school they already know how to get what they want from the internet, and the different things it's useful for. But it's important that parents keep a hold on the reins and stay involved with what the kids get up to online.
Here are just a few websites ideal for children reaching adolescence:
As a parent, do you worry that your kids are growing up with little interest in the important issues affecting us all? The First News site features the top headlines and more obscure stories from around the world, presented in a way that's engaging and accessible to young readers. Bold designs bring the articles to life and more light-hearted features help hold their attention for longer. It's great for encouraging awareness and confidence in discussing current affairs. The comment boards under every news item are testament to our kids' debating skills!
It's been around far longer, but Habbo Hotel is essentially a kind of Moshi Monsters experience for older kids. Membership is free - although there is an option to purchase credits for special in-game items - and players create their own cartoon likeness to move around the hotel, interacting with other users in chat rooms and socialising. Chat filtering is quite effective and the moderators are always eager to stamp out inappropriate conversations. However, parents should still teach their kids how certain topics are unsuitable for online discussion, and never to share their details with strangers.
A social network that's built around young people's interest in gaming, Friendster is focused on helping kids and teenagers stay in contact with friends while playing games online. Unlike some websites, the games on Friendster don't require any actual downloading or installation - all they need to play is access to reliable broadband. And as with many such networks, members can use an "avatar" to hide their true identity, which should help keep them safe.
In many ways it was the precursor to Facebook, but the social website Myspace is very much still in existence, and it's recently seen a massive surge in membership. Myspace is great for young teens eager to get involved with social media as its core focus is music and discovering new bands, artists and genres to enjoy online with friends. Take note, however, that as with Facebook, the terms of usage for Myspace stipulate that users must be aged 13 or over.
Advice for parents of online teens
Supervise your children's internet use as much as you can without spying, and ideally without snooping at their private messages and conversations. It's important to monitor what your kids are up to, but it's better to establish mutual trust than to simply follow their every move.
Occasionally check your web browser's history for any inappropriate content. If you find anything distressing, raise the issue in conversation but don't act too severely the first time. Explain why you think it's unsuitable for them and warn of consequences should they visit the site again.
Remember it is better to educate young people and encourage proper use of the internet than to punish them for looking at something they shouldn't. You want them to feel they can talk openly with you about what they do online, so that if they ever encounter a problem you can help.
If your children download movies, music or games, make sure they're using legal and reputable websites. Teach them about the problem of piracy and explain how serious its implications can be. If you have a big family, you may want to consider an unlimited broadband package so you don't incur unexpected charges for exceeding your download limit.
Websites for parents
The internet's not just useful for kids and teenagers - parents too can benefit from its wealth of tools and resources. If you have young children, Nick Jr is a great website for parenting tips and help with activity planning. There are also lots of discussion boards on sites like Mumsnet, which provide a forum for parents to exchange tips and tricks, get advice, or simply meet other parents. It's also important to see the opportunities certain websites can bring, even if they don't immediately jump out as a strictly educational resource.
For example, as your kids reach their teens, being their friend on Facebook is a really good way for you to monitor their activity and friendships without getting too involved. And don't forget YouTube can be a fun and engaging way to teach children of any age about new things that are hard to explain without a visual aid. Think of those awkward questions on science and volcanoes that you don't feel equipped to answer. Just fire up a video and watch it together. For more information and advice, visit the government's internet safety website.
The internet can also buy you a precious few moments of peace and save you money. Apps like BBC iPlayer can allow you to stream children's TV favourites such as Octonauts and Charlie and Lola for free rather than having to buy DVDs or pay for iTunes downloads.
Fast and reliable broadband is nowadays seen as essential by most British households, not least those with youngsters who are eager to explore every corner of the web. In order to keep them safe, it's important to use anti-virus software and parental controls on your home internet connection.
The following UK providers, as well as several others, offer all their customers on a family broadband package the option of installing parental controls and security programs:
But online safety is not just about installing the right software, it is equally important that children and their parents alike fully understand the potential dangers of using the internet. Adults need to educate younger users on the risks and how to avoid them.
To find a broadband package that suits your family, use the free and impartial price calculator at broadbandchoices. It's one of only a handful of sites approved by Ofcom for price comparison information you can trust.