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Keeping kids safe online: How to set up parental controls for their new tech this Christmas

Need to set up an Xbox for kids? Wondering how to use parental controls on iPhone? Want to know the best way keep kids safe on social media? Our tech guide for parents signposts all the info you need to help keep your kids safer online this Christmas.

Parents are advised to set up tech gifts for safety before the unwrapping happens. Image: DC Thomson
Parents are advised to set up tech gifts for safety before the unwrapping happens. Image: DC Thomson

With Christmas just around the corner, the living rooms of the north are bursting with presents just waiting to be unwrapped.

But, if there is tech for a child under your tree, have you thought about how you can keep them safe once they start using it?

With smartphones, consoles and tablets topping Christmas wishlists for kids of all ages, it’s important parents are prepared to set up all the necessary controls to protect their offspring as they head online.

With that in mind we have put together a guide to why and how you should be setting up tech devices before handing them over to kids this Christmas.

Annabel Turner, founder of Aberdeen-based online safety enterprise Cybersafe Scotland, explained: “On Monday there’ll be wrapping paper flying off gifts and excited begging for the next present.

“But attempts to set up parental controls can often go out the window as children are just desperate to get on new devices and play.”

Annabel instead recommends that parents take the time to install a first layer of parental controls before devices are even wrapped.

Luckily for parents, the big tech firms provide a great selection of tools to help parents gift their products with confidence.

Setting up parental controls on a iPhone or iPad

Apple, for example, offers the Apple Family Sharing function, which allows parents to control and monitor their child’s use of the device in an age-appropriate fashion.

By setting up Apple Family Sharing via the “Settings” menu on an iPhone or iPad you can retain a good degree control over your children’s content and connectivity.

Options include parental app approval, which pings an alert to your own Apple device each time your child attempts to add an app.

There is also an optional communication safety setting that detects photographs that appear to contain nudity before they are sent or viewed and provides signposting to age-appropriate guidance and resources.

Setting up parental controls on Android

Of course, with the market pretty equally split for smartphones in the UK, some families will need to instead use Android parental controls when setting up a child’s mobile.

The Family Link setting on these devices allow parents to control what their children can access in the Play Store by setting a “maturity level” as well as a pin code for purchases.

Parents may also wish to monitor usage at device level, with device specific controls also available for smartphones from popular manufacturers such as Samsung.

Setting up parental controls on consoles

Games consoles are a popular gift choice, but some parents are unaware of the level of access they offer children to the online world and vice versa.

Gone are the days of inserting a disc and playing alone, console gaming often takes place in an interactive space – but where interaction exists there is potential for exploitation.

A recent study by communications regulator Ofcom found that, when using video games,  25% of children aged eight to 17 played with people they didn’t know outside the game – and 22% “talked to” those people.

Parents should therefore oversee the setup of their children’s player profiles to ensure the interactions allowed are age-appropriate.

Gaming platforms permit parents to limit the content children can access and to control their levels of connectivity – for example, you may wish to limit children to playing and communicating only with known contacts from their “real life”.

For individual advice on how to set up each console, head to this amazing gaming safety resource from the Entertainment Software Rating Board which offers step-by-step instructions to help set up controls on consoles including the Xbox, Playstation 5 and Nintendo Switch.

Don’t forget that popular online games also offer in-app controls that parents can adjust to help ensure their child’s online safety.

Roblox parental controls allow parents to set up a pin, limit the in-game chat function and apply account restrictions that prevent that account from being searched by phone number as well as blocking incoming chat messages.

It is also possible for parents to block chat in Minecraft – another top pick for kids at Christmas.

Families will also be pleased to learn that Epic Games, the tech giant behind kids’ favourite Fortnite, also offer controls to help adults choose how their children experience the online gaming space.

Fortnite parental controls include options to manage use of voice and text chat.

Social media safety for kids

Of course, not all kids want to get online to game – for some the allure of the internet is more social – or specifically, social media.

Ofcom reports that, by the age of nine, more than half of children have a profile on an online platform that allows social interaction, and this figure rises to 95% of 15-year-olds.

If your child will be using the device they receive this Christmas for social sharing, it is important to consider steps to keep them safe here as well.

Snapchat parental controls allow you to keep an eye on who your kids are connecting with online, see who they are messaging and restrict sensitive content on their account.

Photosharing platform Instagram has a function that allows you to supervise your teenager’s Instagram account, while TikTok offers a family pairing option that lets parents filter content by keyword as well as offering a restricted mode that restricts exposure to inappropriate content.

Discord’s Parent Hub offers instructions on how parents can setup a child’s Discord account‘s sensitive media settings as well as controlling friend requests and direct messaging.

While Facebook is a less popular platform for children, parents whose children use the app should help them to configure their Facebook privacy settings for safety.

Child-friendly wifi connections

If children will be using your wifi connection to access the internet this Christmas, it is your responsibility to ensure it offers the safest online access available.

If you are providing a child with a device capable of accessing the internet independently you should also be taking advantage of the provider’s parental provisions.

To help with this, Internet Matters offers step-by-step instructions to help parents set controls on most broadband providers and mobile networks.

Internet Matters CEO Carolyn Bunting MBE explained: “The festive season is a common time for children to receive a new device. Whether it’s brand new or one that’s new-to-them, it’s vital that parents set the device up safety before wrapping them up. This will ensure parents stay in control of what their children can access and when, giving them a better experience as soon as they unbox it.”

Create a safe space for kids to discuss online experiences

Even with all of these controls in place, children may still come across concerning content online.

For this reason it is important that parents speak to their kids about online interactions and make it clear that they can come to them with anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

In their tips for giving tech this Christmas, the UK Safer Internet Centre says: “It’s important to remember that no filter is ever 100% effective on its own and talking to your child about what to do if they see something that worries or upsets them is key.”

Parents can find information on supporting children who are anxious about something they have encountered online on the Cybersafe Scotland website.