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Keeping children safe in the online world of social media platforms

Control options that apps and platforms have already put in place can help shield children, and ourselves, from perils such as unwanted images and sextortion scammers

Smartphones are a great window on to the world, but they can also show up some aspects of society we would rather our children did not have to encounter just yet.

So how can we try to protect them from the worst the world has to offer? The best place to start is with the built-in controls that apps and platforms have already put in place.

Instagram

Instagram has become the latest social media platform to increase protections for younger users, testing new features to help shield them from potential scammers, criminals and intimate-image abuse.

The company last week said it would introduce a new nudity protection feature on the photo-sharing platform that would prevent unwanted nudity arriving via direct message. Images that have been flagged as containing nudity will be blurred by default for users under 18 but adults can also turn on the new feature, meaning they are less likely to get a surprise nude message.

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“While people overwhelmingly use DMs to share what they love with their friends, family or favourite creators, sextortion scammers may also use private messages to share or ask for intimate images,” Meta said. “To help address this, we’ll soon start testing our new nudity protection feature in Instagram DMs, which blurs images detected as containing nudity and encourages people to think twice before sending nude images.

“This feature is designed not only to protect people from seeing unwanted nudity in their DMs, but also to protect them from scammers who may send nude images to trick people into sending their own images in return.”

And if you do decide to send an intimate image, the platform will prompt you to exercise caution, perhaps trying to weed out those who may be sending the messages on a whim and will regret it. It will also point out the option to unsend the messages, if they have changed their mind, and warn anyone who tries to forward sensitive images.

TikTok

The hugely popular video platform has been the centre of controversy ranging from a potential cybersecurity threat to the manipulation of its algorithms and the pushing of content that is unsuitable for children.

But still it continues to rack up the user numbers, reaching more than two billion people every month. And it particularly appeals to younger users.

If you are concerned about what your child is being exposed to on the platform, there are some controls you can put in place to limit what they can see. The first stop should be Restricted Mode, which will filter out some of the more mature content. Once enabled, it will also remove the “Following” feed on TikTok.

TikTok also has a Family Pairing option that can be used to monitor older teens, from their time spent on the platform to managing privacy settings.

Apple

Apple’s Screen Time controls allow parents to restrict or monitor everything their child does on their Apple device, from in-app purchases to downloading media content and reducing the amount of time you can spend on certain categories of apps each day.

You can block out certain times of day, for example, to encourage children to focus on their homework, mealtimes or sleep. And if you need to give access to educational apps, the controls are nuanced enough to allow for exceptions to these blanket bans.

But one addition to the company’s list of controls may help parents feel a bit better about their child’s use of a smartphone.

By turning on the Communication Safety setting, you can enable automatic detection of nude photos and videos. The images received on their device – Mac, iPad or iPhone – will be blurred and a warning displayed that the message contains sensitive content. Users will also get a pop-up giving them options to get further help, to message a grown-up if they are under 13 or to block the contact from further communication.

That detection works not only for those being received and viewed, but also for material that is being sent from your child’s phone. While Apple won’t prevent young people from sending intimate messages, it will offer age-appropriate guidance and resources to help them make a safer choice.

And if they decide to proceed, the Communication Safety feature will suggest alternatives again, and reassure children that it is okay not to engage in that type of messaging.

Crucially, Apple doesn’t have access to the photos and videos; all the work is being done on the device.

Again, it’s not just for underage users. Adults can implement the sensitive content warning on their own devices to filter out unwanted nudes in inboxes or via Airdrop, protecting against a popular “prank” that has backfired in the past.

To turn on the Sensitive Content warning on an iPhone or iPad, go to settings and choose Privacy & Security. Scroll down to find the Sensitive Content Warning option, and turn it on. You can leave it on all supported services by default, or turn it on and off for those you feel necessary.

Android

Android has a host of parental controls that can be used to block out inappropriate content for underage users. It is all controlled through the Family Link app, which is available on both Android and iOS.

Through the app, you can implement content restrictions remotely for Chrome, YouTube, Google Play and even Search. You can also control third-party apps, disabling messenger apps if you are not comfortable with your child having access to them, or disabling your child’s ability to sign into new apps with a Google account without permission.

Family Link will also give you control over what data your child gives away, from web search history to what they have watched on YouTube.

WhatsApp

WhatsApp recently reduced the minimum age for use of the platform in the EU from 16 to 13, a move that has not gone down well with authorities, but brings the region in line with the rest of WhatsApp’s markets.

Meta’s messaging platform is popular because it is easy to use, familiar and cross-platform. But it can also give away quite a bit of information on your private activities, from your location to what you might assume are private photos.

There are ways to reduce the risk though. WhatsApp has some privacy protections that you can implement to restrict who can access certain information. Under Settings and Privacy, you will find a number of options to reduce the amount of data you display publicly. For example, the “last see and online” option can be turned off, and the ability to view your profile photo limited to certain contacts. Your WhatsApp bio can also be restricted

You can also cut off the ability to be added to a group automatically, limiting it to contacts only, with everyone else forced to send a private invite that can be accepted or rejected.

The ability to view your live location in chats can be monitored here too, and you can remove it from chats if you have previously shared it.

Because WhatsApp offers the ability to call, there is also the potential for nuisance or spam callers. You can silence those automatically in settings too, although they will still show up as a notification or in your calls tab, but at least you can blissfully ignore them if they arrive. And you can subsequently block these numbers, adding them to a list of contacts that cannot send you messages or make calls.