Ensuring that your children are absolutely safe and protected online has become as critical as securing them in the real world.

You would not drive without putting your child in a seatbelt. Or hand them a carving knife without showing them how to use it. So do not put them online without ensuring that they are educated about the risks.

This is the word from Anna Collard, senior vice-president: content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 Africa, who says there are strong similarities between the real and virtual worlds, and therefore both need the same approaches and caution.

“There are nearly half a million online predators active on the internet every day and children between the ages of 12 and 15 are particularly susceptible,” she points out. “Around 89% of sexual advances occur in internet chatrooms, on instant messaging and even gaming sites. Children are at constant risk. It is critical that there is more awareness of online threats, grooming and predators.”

As Collard says, this is of particular concern because around 40% of children remove their privacy settings to attract more friends and followers, and only 20% of children are aware of the dangers.

In a recent webinar released by KnowBe4 and Kelee Arrowsmith from Personal Safety, the team unpacked the harrowing landscape with hard facts and emphasised the importance of educating children and parents.

“We need to make our kids aware of the dangers and how to protect against them,” says Collard.

There are six steps that every kid should know when it comes to online security.

The first is to check the profile picture of the person who is talking to them, as this will help them to identify if the profile is fake. It is not just human predators that sit behind fake profiles, but also bots. One way to check is to copy the profile picture and check on Google image search if it appears elsewhere – often photos are stock images or stolen from other people. Another thing that is suspicious is if there are very few images on their wall, then it could be a fake account.

“Predators try to secure trust by sharing interests, offering gifts and compliments and being really nice,” says Collard. “They try to build rapport and trust with their victims. Then they ask for personal information, turn you against other people and keep steering the conversations to sex.

“The behaviour can escalate to the point where they ask for explicit photos or threaten the victim. And kids are ashamed to tell their parents or get help.”

Arrowsmith confirms that predators in the real world follow similar modus operandi too. “We have to tell our kids that if someone is too nice to them, offers gifts and asks them to keep secrets, they need to tell the parents or a teacher.”

Children need to know that this kind of behaviour is not normal and that they are not at fault. By telling kids that these are warning signs, you are preparing them and giving them insights that they can use to protect themselves. It is important to help children see the dangers by having open and honest discussions about the threats in ways that are relevant to their age and their understanding.

“Focus on providing children with strong spatial and general awareness skills,” says Arrowsmith. “When you walk into a restaurant, for example, ask them what they see. Get them to practice really looking at situations and environments and help them to apply this practice online. They will be better equipped to notice a fake profile picture or when someone is behaving oddly.”

It is equally important to not focus exclusively on the negative things, as this could scare kids off and limit their opportunities for engagement. The right approach is to focus on teaching them the facts in smart and playful ways that give them innate skills and perceptions that can protect them if they become a target.

Arrowsmith suggests using role-play to showcase desired behaviour. For example, parents can use their kids’ dinosaurs or teddy bears and play out how the plant-eater (kid) should react if the Rex (the predator) tries to touch its hair. By assertively saying “No, stop this, I do not want that and if you do not stop, I will tell someone.” We can model to the children in a playful way how to act should they ever be in that situation.

“Teach your kids how to remain aware in all situations, online or offline, not to share personal information, and how to report, block or mute someone,” concludes Collard. “As a parent, you can give your kids the best possible defence by helping them put these rules and safety precautions in place. Education and understanding are absolutely critical, both in the real and virtual world.”