Many children in today’s society have easy access to the internet, whether it be using their smartphone, computers, tablets, at home, in school or with friends. UNICEF reported ‘’globally, one in three internet users is a child’’. Therefore, as parents are not always in control of what their children see online, it is important that parents are educated on how to keep their children safe online. This article will focus on defining the types of online risks children maybe be subjected to, help parent to recognize the signs that their children may be at risk and provide some top tips on ‘how to keep children safe online’.
Online Usage for Children and its Risks
Ofcom noted the number of children having an increased access to the internet, their figures state:
- Children aged nine and 10 using as smartphone has almost doubled from 23% in 2018, to 50% in 2020, and by the age of 15 almost all children have one 94%
- WhatsApp is used by almost two thirds of older children, which has increased from 43% in 2018 to 62% in 2020, Facebook 62%, Snapchat 68% and Instagram 66%
- One in seven older children in the UK use TikTok, an app that allows users to create a 15-second video, an increase from 8% in 2018 to 13% in 2020
UNICEF has interviewed more than 10,000 teenagers across 25 countries on experiences of harassment, bullying or unwanted sexual comments online. They found that more than half of participants stated their friends participated in risky behaviors. They found that eight out of 10 18 year olds worldwide believe young people are in danger online. Interestingly, most teenagers agreed that meeting new people online was important to them, and 36% stated they could strongly tell in someone was lying about their identity online and more than 80% said they could deal with sexual comments online.
UNICEF have stated that governments have a duty to coordinate responses between law enforcement, schools, and internet providers to provide better protection for children online. They have found that 94% of UK and US teenagers believed they could protect themselves on social media, perhaps showing the benefits of being educated in online safety.
Additionally, The Belfast Telegraph published an article in 2020, stating that two-thirds of children in NI claim to have witnessed hateful content online. In support of this, Ofcom released a study in 2019, on children’s media and online life, they found that 43% are increasingly concerned about the content their children view online, with Ofcom’s study focused on children’s use of well-known apps and the possibility of being bullied. The study was based on 3,500 interviews of parent and children in the UK, they found that, 51% of 12-15 years olds saw hateful content online last year and this has jumped to 62%. Therefore showing the importance of a parents need to increase their knowledge and awareness and of online safety. Ofcom’s study supports this as they found that 85% of parents interviewed stated that they were likely to speak to their children about staying safe on the internet.
This research shows the increase in the number of children having access to the internet and their increased exposure to risk.
The internet can be dangerous for everyone, but children in particular are more vulnerable. An online risk is the likelihood of a person being exposed to a danger or adverse situation, during their time online. Children can be at risk on the internet from people that they know or strangers.
Online risks can take place through electronic devices with access to the internet, such as:
- Apps, for example, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.
- Social networking sites, for example, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc.
There are specific types of risks that your children may be exposed to such as:
Cyber Bullying: this refers to bullying through sharing communication and information on the internet. Bullying itself is when a person(s) repeatedly and intentionally verbally or physically abuses another person causing them psychological or physical harm, and can be conducted by an independent or a group of people. Examples of cyber bullying include; sending hurtful messages, setting up fake profiles, sharing embarrassing stories or pictures of someone and posting hurtful material on social media. The Department of Education in 2011 found that 15.5% of children in Year 6 and 17% of children in Year 9 were subjected to cyber bullying in the two previous months. In reality we know the figures are likely to be much higher as many children and young people do not disclose their experiences for fear of being ‘in trouble’ with their parents or schools.
Online Scams: this is when a person makes a dishonest or illegal plan, which often involves tricking people in order to obtain something, for example, make money or steal personal information. A person can be scammed via text message, email, fake websites, social media, etc. A Scammer may often try to sell you something, send you an urgent or alarming message, threaten, providing links to click on etc. Children and young people tend to be inexperienced and more trusting when it comes to interactions online which makes them vulnerable to online scammers.
Privacy: this refers to the risk of private information such as, personal details, location, accessing your accounts, stealing cookies. For example, your information may be given to other websites; you may be subject to identity theft or online tracking (allowing a third party to build up a profile on you based on your private information). Children may be more vulnerable to privacy online threats as result of their lack of awareness or digital skills.
Recognising the signs that your child has been exposed to an online risk
It is important parents are able to recognise signs that their children may be experiencing abuse online, for example, your child may:
- Becomes obsessive about being online
- Spend an increased or decreased amount of time online
- Show emotions of sadness, anger or irritability after being online
- Keeps secrets about what they are doing online, for example, turning off their phone or laptop when you enter the room
- Talk about new ‘friends / people’ they’ve met online
- Be withdrawn from family activities after using the internet
- Receives phone calls or texts from people or numbers you don’t recognise
- Receives gifts of packages from an unknown person
- Is looking at inappropriate content
Tips on How to Keep Children Safe Online:
- Report abuse: this is an important step to take when something goes wrong in order to keep your child safe online. You should explain to your child the importance of talking when something goes wrong online and if they are feeling scared. Reassure them everything will be okay and they are not in the wrong. In the case of abuse, firstly, you should report abuse to the website or app being used (there is often a section in setting which allows you to report abuse, sometimes it may be under the tab ‘help’). If you feel the abuse is more serious and requires immediate attention it is important that you contact the police and file a report. It is important you talk to someone you trust if you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed about your child’s online safety. You can also contact a local charity such as Parenting NI based in NI or NSPCC operating Nationally if you have concerns about your young persons online use.
- Teach your child the importance of keeping safe online: showing your child how to keep their profiles on private (refer to Parenting NI links for specific app guides). This option is often found in settings under the tab ‘privacy’. You should also stress the importance of setting passwords and not sharing personal information online.
- Encourage your child to speak openly about their online activity: this will allow you to build up a trust with your child and keep control of what they are doing online.
 Unicef (2016) https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/07/poll-reveals-teenagers-concerns-over-online-abuse