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Safer Internet Day 2015: How to protect yourself online

Safer Internet Day may have launched more than a decade ago, but the World Wide Web can still be a hive of negative, inappropriate and offensive content.

According a study by the UK’s Safer Internet Centre, almost a third of British 11-16 year-olds claims to have been targeted by mean or cruel online behaviour within the last twelve months. Meanwhile, on a commercial scale, last year saw high-profile security breaches strike eBay, Staples, Sony Pictures and many others.

Read more: Twitter admits losing users over failure to tackle online trolling

And yet, the Internet can also be a force for good: an educational tool, a global communication network, or a voice for someone being silenced.

The aim of Safer Internet Day is for individuals across the globe to promote the safe and responsible use of digital technology so we can all “create a better Internet together,” and there are a number of methods you can use to keep yourself safe online.

Tackling trolls

Whatever age you are and no matter how successful, online abuse can be extremely hurtful, but Internet services are increasingly taking a proactive stance against offensive content. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently emphasised that his own company was not doing enough and will be taking a more hard-line approach to online trolls in future.

However, there is also plenty that individuals can do to stay safe online. Blocking and reporting offensive users is a legitimate approach to cleaning up social networks. Some, like Facebook, even have an online dashboard, so you can track your report and see exactly what action has been taken.

Parental controls

The average age for a child to receive its first mobile phone is 12, with a third of those devices being smartphones. One in three children now own a tablet of their own, while approximately 34 per cent of UK nine to 12-year-olds have a Facebook profile, despite the site requiring users to be at least 13 years of age. Clearly, online technologies are being put in the hands of children at an increasingly young age, meaning that parents have a growing responsibility to ensure their safety.

Set up child-friendly filters and parental control settings on your device to ensure your children are not subjected to harmful content, but also have open conversations with your children about technology. By opening up a dialogue, your child is more likely to tell you if they encounter something offensive or suspicious while surfing the web and you can help deal with it appropriately.

Know your devices

You might think that having the family PC in the middle of the living room in full view means that your children will remain safe online under your watchful gaze, but this is no longer enough. Smartphone, tablets, games consoles, smart TVs and soon a whole host of wearables and Internet connected devices will provide online access and bring new safety challenges.

It’s also not just children that need to be careful, adults need to take the same safety precautions with their other devices as they would with their PC. Smartphones in particular, contain a goldmine of information regarding their owners that online criminals would love to get their hands on.

Users should set up passcodes on all their devices and be aware of exactly what information their sharing and with whom.

Educate yourself

One of the best ways to stay safe online is to take a proactive approach to computer safety. Keep up-to-date with the latest security news including what the major threats are and what methods are being used by cyber criminals.

This is particularly important considering the rapid pace of technological change. Next time you buy a device that can connect to the Internet, like a new smart TV, read up on its privacy settings and any online reviews. You may be surprised to learn just how much data you’re sharing with third-party companies and how unsecure that information is.

Stay alert

In 2014, global cyber-attacks increased by 48 percent, as criminals try sophisticated new methods to target their victims. Online crime can strike at any moment, so individuals need to be alert at all times. Alongside the basics such as installing anti-virus software and using complex passwords, Internet users need to scrutinise their communications. Is that a legitimate email? Would your friend really send you a link like that?

Read more: Australia unveils cyber-bullying plans

Unfortunately, as attacks become ever more complex and subtle, it is crucial that we do not take everything at face value when online and remain vigilant against theft, fraud and other online crimes.

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with IT Pro Portal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.