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Without their daily school timetable, extracurricular activities and homework to keep them busy, children and young people will likely spend more time on their devices over the school holidays. Parents struggle to juggle work and childcare. The alluring glow of the screen soothes bored minds as restless fingers scroll through Instagram Reels or TikTok videos to keep loneliness at bay. How safe are children and young people online? And how do you talk to the children and young people in your care about the murky waters of internet safety? We look at how to broach the subject, what harmful content and inappropriate activity looks like, and how to deal with any concerns that may surface during or after talking about how to stay safe online.

Talking about online safety

Sometimes it can feel easier to avoid the subject of staying safe online with young people because talking about it would mean leaning into difficult conversations. Maybe you fear pushback and don’t want to be accused of interfering in something that doesn’t involve you. But protecting vulnerable people both offline and online is a conversation we all need to have – children and young people are spending more time online than ever before and the amount of harmful content available to them is mushrooming at an alarming rate.

It’s important to have the conversation, but it’s crucial to do so in an open, non-judgemental, and non-accusatory way. Be aware that the children and young people you’re talking to may have already been exposed to inappropriate or adult content on the internet and could get defensive or shut down when this conversation comes up. The WeProtect Global Alliance estimates that 54% of those who regularly used the internet as a child (now aged 18–20) were the victims of at least one online sexual harm.

Build trust and broach the subject in a calm manner. Let children and young people know they’re in a safe space and allow them to ask and answer questions at their own pace. Start the conversation but make space to listen to any worries they might have.

Children and young people hate to feel as if they’re being lectured to, especially if they think they know more about the internet than the person talking to them. Although talking about the dangers of the internet can feel heavy and dark, you can keep the tone friendly and conversational and deliver your message in engaging and memorable ways. For younger children (Key Stage 2), Digital Matters is a free online learning platform to teach online safety through interactive lessons and immersive storytelling. Watch the learning videos together and talk it through to check their understanding.

Make sure they understand who else they can talk to. They might feel embarassment, shame, fear or confusion when you're talking to them, and may prefer to open up in another context to another person. This could include another adult family member, a teacher, or a safeguarding officer in school.

The forms harmful content can take

What does harmful content look like? The internet can be both a dark and an illuminating place. Like any technology, it is often used for good, and often used for more nefarious purposes. Cases of mental health problems in children and young people have grown in recent years, especially during the pandemic as children and young people spent even more time online. With that in mind, you don’t want to leave the young people you’re talking to fearful and anxious about every session of online activity. However, it is important to raise awareness of potential dangers and exposure to inappropriate content. This can include:

  • Pornography
  • Violent videos or images
  • Suicide ideation
  • Extreme hoaxes and dangerous pranks
  • Content that incites hatred towards gender, race, disability, and sexual orientation
  • Pro-eating disorder content
  • Cyberbullying
  • Impersonation
  • Trolling
  • Identity theft
  • Phishing for personal details

Social media can be a great place to connect with people we know. But harmful content is proliferating at a staggering rate across all social media platforms. If you think this is fearmongering, you need only look at the research and statistics on the age and rate at which children are being exposed to extreme pornography. Perpetrators of abuse and those who are actively attempting to offend are using social media to groom vulnerable people.

The age of the young people in your care will inform how you talk about these issues, but raising awareness is vital. Let them know that it’s not their fault if they’ve been exposed to harmful content and that they can talk about it with a trusted adult, free from judgement and shame. If they feel shame, how will they talk about something that has worried or upset them?

How to stay safe online

Having talked about what harmful content or activity online looks like, the next step is to talk about how to stay safe online. Here are some tips:

  • Be ‘Share Aware’. Remind the children and young people in your care that whatever they share online, usually stays online. Be aware of what you share, because you don’t know on whose screen it may end up.
  • You might think it’s unrealistic for children and young people to ask their caregivers to set up parental controls on the internet. What young person wants their screen time and online activity restricted? But you could try to help them understand the rationale behind the decision if it’s one that’s been taken at home. Explain that their caregivers are trying to protect them from harmful online content and activity, and that it’s better not to have seen something upsetting in the first place than to deal with the after-effects of something you can’t ‘unsee’. Explain that parental controls are put in place for their safety.
  • Underline the importance of keeping personal information – their home address, name, email addresses, telephone number, school name– private, and to never reveal this information to anyone they meet online. If someone they have only engaged with online asks to meet them in person, they need to report it.
  • Emphasise that their mobile devices, if they have them, are for their sole use, and not for anyone else to use unless they are a trusted person. Remind them to make sure they log out of all their social media accounts before they leave a public computer.
  • It can feel embarrassing to talk about with children and young people, but the sharing of personal and intimate photos needs to be addressed. In 2020, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) confirmed 68,000 cases of self-generated imagery, ‘a rise of 77% on 2019, and self-generated imagery accounts for nearly half (44%) the imagery… In 80% of these cases, the victims were 11 to 13-year-old girls. Girls can find themselves getting requests for intimate images of themselves from strangers online or boys in their school. Encourage children and young people to report this, and not to feel shamed into doing anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
  • Underscore the importance of using a different screen name in any chat forum or public space. Sexual offenders targeting children and young people will look for details like names and date of birth.
  • It’s difficult to avoid inappropriate content on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube entirely. Talk about social media settings and how they can be adjusted to help minimise this sort of content. This means doing your research, but don’t be surprised if some of them already know what to do. Go through the sorts of platforms the children and young people in your care use and how you can change settings to public or private/follower mode.
  • Tools like SafeSearch on Google filter out explicit or unsuitable content. Talk about how to report or block inappropriate content using each platform or video’s settings.
  • Ask them to reflect on what sort of content makes them feel good, and what sort of content leaves them feeling anxious or depressed. Are the influencers they follow a good influence on them? Remind them that they can choose who they follow and what sort of content they consume.

Dealing with concerns about internet safety

The harsh reality is that the internet is only as safe as the people who use it. While we can encourage children and young people to stay safe online and follow the tips listed above, we can’t stop them being exposed to harmful or upsetting material or activity altogether. Users will need to manually report or block individual posts on some platforms like Twitter.

However, you can build trust and encourage open and honest conversations about anything upsetting a child or young person in your care. Preventing harmful content at source is not a reality yet, even as the controversial Online Safety Bill goes through UK Parliament. In the meantime, reporting harmful content is paramount in creating safer places online, so strongly encourage this. Ofcom says 67% of 13 to 24-year-olds have seen harmful content on social media, but only 17% report it.

What to do if a child or young person reports upsetting online content

Having talked about how to stay safe online, what if a child or young person reveals that they've been negatively affected by content they’ve come across online? If you're worried about something a child or young person has experienced online, you can contact Thirtyone:eight’s Safeguarding Helpline for free support and advice. Call us on 0303 003 11 11. The Thirtyone:eight Safeguarding Helpline is staffed by trained professionals who can provide expert safeguarding advice and guidance. You can also email us at [email protected]. If the child or young person is in immediate danger, contact the police dialling 999.

Summing up

The internet can be a scary place, but talking about how to stay safe doesn’t have to be if you prepare for that conversation with the children and young people in your care and think through how you’ll deliver these key messages. The worst thing we can do is ignore the issue and hope it goes away. Prepare in advance, use the many tools and resources available (because there is plenty of that sort of content on the internet too), and if you’re concerned about a child or young person in your care and need professional safeguarding advice, call us on 0303 003 11 11

(Please be aware that Thirtyone:eight is not responsible for the content or security of external sites.)

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