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How to tell if your children are talking to strangers on their tech

Yahoo News UK speaks to privacy and security experts on how to ensure children are not talking to strangers on their devices – and what to do if they are.

Could your children be talking to strangers online? (Getty Images)
Could your children be talking to strangers online? (Getty Images)

For hard-working parents, technology such as tablets and games consoles can be a godsend, buying precious minutes of peace.

But there's also the very real fear that children might be talking to strangers online – or worse, being groomed or manipulated.

Yahoo News UK spoke to privacy and security experts on how to ensure children are not talking to strangers on their devices – and what to do if you discover that they are.

Being open about technology use is important, says Brian Higgins, security specialist at Comparitech. Problems tend to creep in when children are using tech alone in their bedrooms, so where possible, families should normalise using tech around each other.

Higgins said: "Insist, if you can, on communal-area screen time at least for a few hours so that you can check what's going on. Doing homework in the lounge, checking socials while you all watch TV, normalising sharing groups and content wherever you are able."

Watch out for acronyms

Children tend to use slang and acronyms with each other, but there are certain acronyms that are worth watching out for – and which could be a sign that a child is conversing with people they should not be talking to, Higgins warns.

He says: "A fundamental way to spot inappropriate online relationships is to understand communication mechanisms. Acronyms are prevalent and often serve to disguise harmful messages. AYA/YOY ['are you alone?'/'you on your own?'] is commonly used to check if messages can be sent safely. 420 refers to cannabis. GNOC is 'get naked on camera'. 99 means 'parents are gone'.”

Is your child obsessed with being online?

Other tell-tale signs that a child is talking to people online include when he or she becomes secretive about their technology, says Chris Hauk, consumer privacy advocate at Pixel Privacy.

Another 'alarm bell' is when children become obsessive about being online, Hauk warns.

Could your child be messaging people without your knowledge? (Getty Images)
Could your child be messaging people without your knowledge? (Getty Images)

He says: "If you walk into the room and your child quickly turns off their computer's monitor or toggles to another screen quickly, or if they turn off their smartphone or tablet quickly, they could be talking to strangers. Or, at the very least, they are doing something they're not comfortable with you knowing about/

"If your child becomes secretive about their online activities, becomes obsessive about having to be online, gets angry when you won't allow screen time, or if they become withdrawn, they could be talking to strangers."

Gifts in the post

It's worth keeping an eye on packages and other gifts arriving at your house, Hauk says. "If your child receives gifts, snail mail, or packages from someone you do not know, they could be talking to strangers online."

How to check on children

Parents should periodically check their child's computer or mobile device for chatting apps, then open the apps and take a look at the child's conversations and contacts lists, says Hauk.

Make sure the apps are set to not allow strangers to reach out to your child to start a conversation.

"Don't be afraid to check your child's computer or mobile device for pornographic images. Be especially wary of images that appear to be of the 'amateur' variety. Make sure you know all of your child's passwords. If they change them without consulting you first, they could be trying to hide their conversations with predators."

If you are worried that your child is talking to people they should not be, call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email help@NSPCC.org.uk.

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