This piece was originally published on 19 August 2014.

A quarter of British kids skip sleep or meals to go on the internet, more than in any other European country. With rising reports of cyberbullying, and more young people encountering self-harm sites and porn, the Children’s Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, explains how to protect our kids online.

“For children, the ability through technology – whatsapp, Instagram, BBM, MMS – to keep in touch with people is hugely valuable. But we need to create a resilient generation that is critical of what it is looking at and capable of working out whether it is safe to do what an online contact is asking them to do.

It is our responsibility to teach what being safe actually feels like and how it is lived. Asking: If it is a stranger in the real world when a car pulls up and a man asks you to you to get in, how is it not a stranger when it is a person who you have never met but you are talking online? Or would you tap somebody on the shoulder that you’d never met on a train or a bus or in a queue somewhere and say do you want my phone number?

Use the same skills you use when you’re having any parenting conversation – how to cross a road safely? Look, listen, be aware

It’s about giving children the personal tools – the inner voice that says ‘am I sure this is safe?’ ‘If my mum saw me would I be comfortable?’ ‘If we talked about it around the Sunday dinner table with grandma, would it be ok?’ Use the same skills you use when you’re having any parenting conversation – how to cross a road safely? Look, listen, be aware. When you set foot on the crossing are you absolutely certain that you’re safe?

At home make sure you know where your children are when they’re on the computer, how long for, that they do come and join you for meals and that you do talk about what they’ve learnt. What that doesn’t do is protect them the minute they go out of your sight. That is why we need to instil that sense of ‘I can actually turn this off and my life isn’t going o be adversely affected if I do’. That sense that ‘I don’t have to believe what you’re saying about me or eachother and this is making me doubt myself and fell negative and I’m not playing anymore’.

Bouncebackability – that something happens to you and you are able to deal with its consequences and to learn from it and move on. Resilience comes in when they are engaged in negative chat-rooms or negative messaging – because there are cases that come very strongly to the fore that are heartrending about children who have considered that somebody else is in charge of how they see themselves, that somebody else is in charge of what they do.

As well educating our children to be resilient in and of themselves and to say ‘actually I don’t have to listen to this’, how do we also educate them not to be a perpetrator? Not to be someone who trolls somebody, who sears at somebody? Who says vile and unpleasant things that they would never dream of saying to that person if they were in the same room. Why is it alright to actually be the person you would not like if you were listening to this and it was being fired at you?

It is one of your parental rights – just the same way that parents have always checked who you friends were, and always checked if you were OK at school – it’s part of parenting to know what your child is doing online. A very important part of your parenting in the 21st century is to be aware of what’s happening in the 21st century.

It’s a great shame if the UK leads the world in children who interact better with people they don’t know on the other side of the world than they do with their friends from next door

Children also need to be encouraged to switch it off. To go play football, go for a walk, spend some time with their friends. Watching a film on TV rather than playing on interactive web-wide game or whatever. It’s very important children have social time and down-time, and that that should be as mixed as possible. If you’re parent or carer and you know you have a child who is squirreled away and absolutely spending hours and hours a day on the internet you do actually share a responsibility for helping to break that addiction if it truly is an addiction.

When was the last time you spent time together? Does your child take meals back or do you insist that everybody switches off – including you mum and dad – and that you spend proper quality time as a family? It’s a great shame really if the UK leads the world in children who interact better with people they don’t know on the other side of the world than they do with their friends from next door. And if it’s happening under your roof and you’re the adult in this relationship then actually ‘because I said so… we’re switching it off and we’re going to the zoo, or we’re going for a walk, or we’re going to see your grandma, we’re going to make a cake…’ Because I said so is a good enough reason.

It is extremely easy as an adult to get to the stage where you are always on. As an individual I have to make a decision to go out birdwatching or hillwalking or whatever, without my technology. For a number of reasons the internet is a brilliant resource but it’s negatively important if it gets to the stage where it rules your life. Like anything is.”

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