Single mum Denise Van Outen is determined to protect her daughter from the dangers of the online world – and she’s using a comic strip to help her.
The performer and presenter admits she’s a technophobe, and until recently didn’t really understand how to use parental controls on her 12-year-old daughter Betsy’s phone.
“I hold my hands up, I wasn’t very good – I’m a bit of a tech-phobe and I don’t really know how to work a lot of phone apps,” says the 48-year-old from Essex. “Quite often, I have to ask my daughter, and she seems to know a lot more than me.
“But you suddenly say, ‘Hang on a minute, I’ve got a daughter who’s a tweenager’ and you hear all sorts of horror stories about what children are exposed to online, and trolling – there are so many dangers, and I think it’s important for parents like myself to have a real understanding and be able to discuss it with your child properly.”
It’s why Van Outen is working with EE, who have created a Dennis the Menace comic strip with Beano, promoting their new PhoneSmart Licence (eephonesmart.co.uk) to educate children on how to stay safe and be kind online.
“I remember the Beano from when I was younger, and I love Dennis the Menace – it was my nickname at school,” she recalls.
“It’s a bit retro, and it gives you a talking point, because I think it’s really hard to sit down with children, pre-teens and teenagers to discuss the dangers online, but this is a really fun, free, educational course to help kids stay safe. It’s also about being kind, because this is something we’re all faced with now – trolling, young impressionable people seeing things they shouldn’t, or being spoken to in a certain way.
“Betsy laughs at me because there are so many things I don’t know how to work on a phone. But that’s where alarm bells ring, because if I don’t know how to work a lot of the apps and games, how can I monitor it?”
She admits she’s only just started to understand how to use parental controls, but stresses: “I keep an eye on how long Betsy’s on her phone, and I’ve put all these things in place, different settings that we’re told to use. It was all new to me, I didn’t know they existed!
“Once you understand and get your head around how your device works, it’s not hard at all knowing what to do.”
Van Outen says Betsy got her first phone when she was 11, and is not yet allowed to use social media platforms like Instagram.
“You try to protect your children for as long as you can,” she explains. “My daughter hasn’t got an Instagram account. I’ve held off her being on there, or any of those social platforms, just because I worry about her – she’s a young lady developing, and they see all these filtered, perfect bodies. I want her to understand what life’s like in the real world.”
But despite her mum insisting she doesn’t go on social media platforms, Betsy has still seen things that have upset her on her phone, and Van Outen is a firm believer that parents and children regularly chatting about what they see and do online, is an important way to limit any potential damage.
“I’ve always tried to have conversations with her – I think it’s key that you discuss everything with your kids,” she stresses. “We’ve had a lot of conversations after Betsy’s seen things that have been inappropriate – she’s seen things on TikTok that flash up and, for a young girl, are quite scary.
“We always talk at bedtime. Sometimes, she can be a bit quiet and I’ll ask her what’s wrong and she’ll say she saw something that upset her, and we’ll talk about it. I think sometimes kids can be a bit embarrassed to say something, especially if it’s anything sexual, or something they might feel a bit uncomfortable talking to their parents about.
“It’s important that your kids know you’re there, and nothing’s going to shock or surprise us, we’ve all been there.”
Van Outen says she’s also concerned about the advertising messages her daughter and other youngsters are bombarded with online.
“I forget that at her age she reads something and thinks it’s genuine and real – you need to be aware of what’s true and get a real understanding of it.”
The busy working mum admits she uses her own phone a lot, but is aware she needs to be a role model for her daughter, so tries to minimise use outside working hours.
“I’m as guilty as her for using my phone – I look sometimes and think ‘Oh my God, I’ve been on my phone for hours!’ – but I travel everywhere and I don’t take a laptop with me, so I do everything from my phone.
“Don’t get me wrong, though, that’s when I’m working – when I’m at home in the evenings, I put my phone down. I’m too busy to be honest – I’m either ironing her school uniform or prepping for the evening meal, getting the lunchbox ready…
“I really do try and be there for her and not on my phone. I don’t always get it right, like all parents, but I do my best.”
The new school year brings new challenges for parents. Help keep them informed with our resources designed to teach parents about online safety issues. Learn more here >> https://t.co/Tc9JdWYnVt #onlinesafety #teachers #backtoschool pic.twitter.com/nGCjNN4UaF
— Internet Matters (@IM_org) September 9, 2022
Van Outen split with Betsy’s dad Lee Mead in 2013, and subsequently had a seven-year relationship with commodities trader Eddie Boxshall, which ended in January this year. But her priority is, of course, her daughter.
“I’m very lucky because we’re very close,” she says proudly. “There’s only the two of us, so she does open up to me about pretty much everything, and I’m quite pleased about that. I’ve been a single parent twice in my lifetime, so on both occasions, there’s just been the two of us. We only have each other to talk to sometimes.
“I do hope she’d come to me about anything that concerned her. You never know for sure, because as kids get older, they can get in situations where they’re a bit more embarrassed, but I try and remind her every day that I’m here if she wants to talk to me, and I won’t judge anything.
“I’ve got open ears and an open heart and I just hope I can help her as much as I can, and guide her through her life.”
Denise Van Outen is supporting the EE PhoneSmart Licence campaign to help children stay safe and be kind online. Visit ee.co.uk/beano for more information