How many of us can remember life before the internet?
To our children, it must seem like we grew up in the Dark Ages! The advent of the internet has changed the face of our modern-day world forever. Never before in history have people had so much information to hand at the touch of a button. We’re connected to others in a way that couldn’t be comprehended even fifty short years ago.
But to our children who have grown up in a digital age, this is their ‘normal’. Our children live by making friends online through gaming platforms, constantly contacting their peers, and seeing how their idols pass their time.
More than 70% of the UK population have a social media profile and spend on average more than four hours a day online.
Technology changes and evolves continuously. The internet is an essential part of our lives, but there is no escaping from the increasing need to be aware of what dangers lurk behind the keyboard. As adults, we can find it challenging to keep up with the new messaging platforms that eternally spring up from apparently nowhere – let alone who it is our kids are chatting to.
But whilst we need to help them keep safe, we don’t want to scare them witless and make them feel like there’s danger around every corner. After all, they’re still just children. Every child deserves a childhood free from fear.
Each day can seem like a knife-edge between ensuring that our children are protected and can still enjoy all the great things the online world offers.
Just like in the offline world, what they see and whom they speak to online can impact their behaviour. Remember, children will show you before they ever tell you that they’re unhappy, anxious, or angry.
The 4 Cs of Online Safety highlight the issues that arise when we talk about staying safe whilst using the internet.
The 4 C’s:
Content is all around us – from the newspapers and social posts we see, adverts, the information we get from the news on TV, emails pinging into our inboxes and messages from loved ones, we are surrounded by content, good and bad, true and false.
Is that content always appropriate? The answer is probably no.
We can filter much of it out because our adult brains have had more time to learn those skills.
Our children don’t even need to go looking for inappropriate information. Often, the algorithms push content on them so it’s not their fault that they’re seeing this sort of stuff.
Inappropriate images, pornography, offensive or extreme views, suicide, violence, misogyny, racism, dangerous advice, or simply news that used to only be shared after the watershed…
It’s a scary list that even some adults struggle to cope with.
Fake news articles are prevalent these days on our newsfeeds.
How many of us have run a check on the validity of a post we’ve seen? Our children may not know that this is an option and, by then, their impressionable minds have already soaked it up.
Children are now able to build strong friendships with people anywhere in the world. They discover new friends with the same interests as they have. They can build strong connections with these individuals that they can carry into adulthood, much as we did with our school friends. It means that they can see how others live and explore cultures gently by asking questions and learning just how beautiful and diverse our planet really is.
Most online games have messaging services built-in to the platform to ensure that people aren’t tempted away from it. It’s a clever marketing strategy but it also means that it is hard to monitor the messages and other content that our children might be subjected to.
The sad fact is that the age restrictions imposed by these games are often easily bypassed.
Harmful contact is defined as bullying, ‘pile-on’ harassment, grooming, and sexual harassment… all of which can cause serious distress.
The Alan Turing Institute estimates in a report that around 33% of people in the UK have been subjected to online bullying.
Grooming is a well-publicised fact as one of the dangers. And rightfully so. But it is still happening, despite the police force having whole dedicated teams working around the clock on this.
Children may not be able to fully understand that the person they’re speaking to online isn’t exactly who they say they are.
Bullying is a huge issue, and some group chats can develop almost a ‘mob’ mentality. Maybe the child sees that their online friend is annoyed with someone and wants to show alliance… and so it begins, innocently enough.
Even a child searching online for information to help them explore their own sexuality can open a plethora of issues when all they’re looking for is answers on how they’re feeling.
Aggressive advertising and pressure to spend money can be just as harmful. Online gambling adverts now come with a warning on the dangers – so why would we assume that our children won’t be just as affected by this issue?
Financial vulnerability is just as much of a concern these days, especially if you’ve been trying to teach your child about handling their pocket money with bank cards such as GoHenry. These cards are great for building confidence in our kids, but they can leave them exposed to being convinced by unscrupulous people to pay for things to make their new online ‘friend’ happy.
Companies make their money through sponsorship and advertisements, which means there is no escaping them, but children can be coerced into sharing personal financial information (usually a parent’s bank card!) without realizing the consequences of this.
It is even possible to ‘steal’ currency within games – or be charged for outfits for a character. We may have swapped Pokémon cards or football stickers but these days, things are a lot more advanced.
This refers to behaviour that causes or increases the likelihood of harm online.
From a young age, our children are taught how to behave in certain situations, from mirroring parents, relatives, and siblings, right through to being in the classroom with their peers.
But they can also mirror what they have seen online.
Cyberbullying can be defined as inappropriate conduct – posting spiteful or harmful comments.
Making, sharing, and sending explicit materials – whether knowingly or unknowingly is detrimental and can cause some serious embarrassment and even deep trauma for the person featured in the images.
And, as we all know, once it’s on the internet, it’s pretty much impossible to retrieve the images and stop them being shared.
Now, all of this could make you want to take your family, run for the hills and live off-grid forevermore! It doesn’t seem like there is a lot to commend the online world, despite the fact that I said there are so many benefits from engaging with the internet! But the truth is that there is so much great stuff out there, and our offline and online worlds are thoroughly intertwined.
So why have I just shared all of the awful ways our kids (and us) can get caught out online? Because knowledge is power! Just like everything in life, there are risks, but understanding the risks and how to navigate them means that we can get the best out of life as safely as possible!
You can’t have one without the other.
I’m going to share with you a true short story about just how effective and impactful online safety can be…
This happened recently to a 15-year-old secondary school student (we’ll call her J). She lived with her Mum (a friend of mine), stepdad, and older sister. Both children had grown up in the online world. And J is happy for this story to be shared.
J had been the victim of cyberbullying and online hate in year 7, and she knew the feelings that this situation brought about.
J saw a year 8 student being bullied in a group chat with her school peers. It contained hurtful comments that were extremely difficult for J to read. J sent a private message to that student, asking if she was okay.
The year 8 child replied that she didn’t understand what was going on, and why her friends were behaving in such a hate-filled and spiteful way.
J didn’t know this year 8 student but asked to meet up with her the following day at break time. J then took the year 8 student to the head teacher. She’d taken screenshots of the online conversation and highlighted the issue to the school.
This triggered a school-wide assembly to highlight this problem, letting the students know that if any child had been a victim, there were teachers that they could speak to.
J explained to Mum that she couldn’t have it on her conscience if the year 8 student had harmed herself and she’d stood by and done nothing.
So why am I telling you this story?
Because Mum had been proactive in trying to understand the online world, had done online safety training, and as a result she’d had many, many conversations with her children on what was and was not appropriate.
Did it work every single time? No. Nothing is 100% perfect.
Was it worth the time, patience, and explanations about the importance of staying safe online? Yes! Absolutely. And in this case, it meant that not only were her children safe, but her daughter J has been able to help another child and influence her whole school!
The law is slowly being reformed to allow for elements that have been mentioned above to be criminalised and become a prosecutable offence. But it is up to us as adults – whether we’re in a professional capacity such as a teacher or care worker or if we’re a parent or foster carer trying to get to grips with it all – to keep the children in our lives safe. And that can feel like an enormous task!
Communication and knowledge are the first steps in allowing careful conversations to take place so that children know that they have an outlet for any worries or anxieties that they may have.
Perhaps they have seen some inappropriate words from one of their friends. They know that it isn’t right but don’t want to be the ‘snitch’.
But that conversation could be the critical breakthrough to end that cycle
Checking your child’s online activity – knowing passwords – speaking with them perhaps as you would asking about their school day and letting them know that if they have any concerns, you are going to listen, is vital.
Many children will be reluctant to share any such information for fear of losing their electronics – after all, it is their contact with their friends and peer groups. But being able to reach an understanding – and remembering that we are the adults in the situation, is so important.
Observing behaviour, use of language, and noticing any significant changes can be key.
This can all feel like a LOT to figure out and learn! But you don’t have to figure it out on your own – all of these issues are covered within my online safety training courses, which I deliver in person or via zoom. I create space for you to ask any questions and I support you in becoming more confident in the online world our children are so comfortable in. I currently have the following training available and have plans to add to these in the future:
If you are interested in knowing more details, or would like to chat about other ways I can support you or create something bespoke for you or your team, please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org