What children do online and through social networking
Children and young people go online to connect with friends, and make new ones, to browse the internet for information, chat with others and play games. They may:
- search for information or content on search engines like Google and Bing
- share images and watch videos through websites or mobile apps like Instagram, Pinterest, Vine and YouTube
- use social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter
- write or reply to messages on forums and message boards
- play games alone or with others through websites, apps or game consoles
- chat with other people through online games, BBM (Blackberry Messenger), games consoles, webcams, social networks and tools like Whatsapp
When online, children and young people can learn new things, get help with homework, express themselves creatively and connect with friends and family.
There are also risks, but by understanding and talking about the dangers you can help keep your child safe online.
The risks and dangers of being online
Children and young people may see illegal or inappropriate content online, such as:
- child abuse images
- dangerous advice encouraging eating disorders, self-harm or suicide
- excessive violence or race hate materials
Some websites show illegal content. Others that are legal might have unregulated advice or are meant for adults only.
Children may come across inappropriate content accidentally, or they may look for it because they're curious. Promises of special offers or prizes can also draw young people in.
How much illegal or inappropriate content is online?
It's difficult to estimate how much content is unsuitable for children on the internet but recent figures suggest that there's a lot out there:
Some websites and games use age restrictions and checks to make sure that children don't see unsuitable content.
Children must be at least 13 to register on most social networking websites. But there's not a lot standing in the way of children joining at a younger age.
Age limits are there to keep children safe so you shouldn't feel pressurised into letting younger children join these websites.
Children and young people may chat or become 'friends' with people on social networks or online games, even if they don't know them or have never met them in person.
The percentage of online friends that children didn't know outside of being online was:
This makes children vulnerable to bullying, grooming and sharing personal information.
Making online friends
Here's a video from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre that explains what an online 'friend' is and how children are using social networks to talk to each other.
Privacy controls can limit who can see your child's details, like their name, age and where they live. But when your child connects to someone as a 'friend', that person will have access to your child's personal information.
Some 'free' games might ask your child to fill out an extensive profile and they use this illegally to rent or sell their data on to others.
Switch off or adjust settings using GPS or location tracking
Lots of apps and social networking sites use software to locate where the user is. Children and young people can also reveal their location by tagging photos, such as in Instagram, or checking in on Facebook or Foursquare.
This means that people can find out where your child lives, socialises, works or studies.
Many online games are free but offer the chance to buy items such as extra lives or new levels. So children may run up big bills without realising.
Gambling sites have strict measures to make sure that their users are adults, but young people aged 18 and over could be enticed by offers and prizes on gambling websites and build up large debts.
Tips to help keep children safe on the internet and social networks
The internet does pose certain risks and dangers to children - but it offers lots of opportunities too. There are things you can do to keep your child safe.
Talking to your child is one of the best ways to keep them safe. You can also use parental controls on social networks, online games and browsers or software that can filter or monitor what your child can see.
Preventing your children from using the internet or mobile phones won't keep them safe online, so it's important to have conversations that help your child understand how to stay safe and what to do if they ever feel scared or uncomfortable.
10 tips to help keep your child safe online
Children and young people spend an average of 12 hours a week online and it becomes part of their routine early on in life. That's why it's important to start talking to your child about keeping safe online at an early age.
It's easier to have conversations about online safety little and often, rather than trying to cover everything at once.
As your children get older, and technology changes, make sure you keep talking about what they're doing online and how to stay safe.
To help you understand what they are doing online, start by asking your child:
- Which websites do you enjoy spending time on?
- What are the best things to do on these websites?
- Which websites would you recommend for a friend?
- What is your favourite game?
- Who do you play games with?
Your child may know more than you about being online, but you can use that to help you understand what they are doing and what controls to put in place.
Children often enjoy showing their parents what they know and have achieved, and it gives you a way to support and encourage them while learning what they know.
You could ask your child to:
- Give tips on how they would tell friends or other children to stay safe online
You can follow up with questions like: "Where did you learn these?" or: "What would you do if they were worried about anything?"
- Help you set up a profile on one of their favourite websites
This will give you the opportunity to ask lots of questions like: "What does that mean?" or: "Why did you choose that option?"
You can also check if there are any safety features and if your child knows how to use them.
- Tell you about a friend or family member that they are 'friends' with through social networking
If they are 'friends' with a family member or someone that you both know, ask your child how they are.
Use it as a way to ask further questions about how your child communicates online.
- Play a game with you online
This will help you understand how the game works, if it's appropriate for their age and how they can communicate with other players.
Children don't think of people they've met online through social networking and online games as strangers, they're just online friends.
So it's important to keep track of who your child's talking to. Ask them questions like:
- who do they know that has the most online friends?
- how can they know so many people?
- how do they choose who to become friends with online?
Explain to your child that it's easy for people to lie about themselves online, like their age, for example, because you have never met them.
Agree your child will 'friend' a trusted adult on their social networks or online games.
You could also become 'friends' with your child so you can see their profile and posts but your child may not want to 'friend' you, especially as they get older. Agree that your child can 'friend' a trusted adult like an aunt or uncle so they can let you know if they see anything worrying on your child's profile.
Decide on some rules for your child being online, and take the time to explain them to your child. These will depend on your child's age and what you feel is appropriate, but we recommend you give guidance on:
- the amount of time they can spend online
- the time of day they can go online
- the websites they can visit or activities they can take part in
- sharing images and videos
- how to behave respectfully online and to not post anything they wouldn't say face-to-face.
If your child plays online games:
- check the age rating of all games before they play
- make sure you know who they're playing with and how much information they're sharing with other players
- negotiate the amount of time your child spends playing online games so that they don't get addicted to them.
You know your child best, so check that the websites, social networks and games they're using are suitable for them.
Check that your browser's homepage (the page that you see when you open an internet window) is set to a website that you're happy for your child to see.
Online games, movies and some websites will also have an age rating or minimum age to sign up. Tell your child to speak to you first before registering on a website or social networking sites like Facebook.
Age limits are there to keep children safe. So you shouldn't feel pressured into letting your child sign up or use websites that you feel they are too young for.
Use parental and privacy controls
Parental controls can help you control what your child can see online, and privacy controls make sure that their personal information stays private.
No tool is 100% effective and so it's still really important to talk to your child about staying safe.
You can set up parental controls to prevent your child from seeing inappropriate or harmful content online:
- Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Sky or BT, provide controls to help you filter or restrict content.
- Laptops, phones, tablets, games consoles and other devices that connect to the internet will have settings to activate parental controls.
- Software packages are available, some for free, that can help you filter, restrict or monitor what your child can see online.
Remember that if your child goes online away from home, the same controls might not be in place at other people's houses or on public Wi-Fi.
Agree with your child how they will use public Wi-Fi or let other parents know what your child is or isn't allowed to do online.
As your child gets older you can change the level of control that you use.
If your child asks you to remove the controls completely, and you are happy to do so, agree with them in advance what behaviour is acceptable online.
Check the privacy settings on any online accounts your child has, like Facebook or games, and remind them to keep their personal information private.
Follow the links below to find out more about security settings for different websites.
Explain to your child what to do if they see content or are contacted by someone that worries or upsets them. Make sure they know how to use tools to report abuse. You can find out more about the reporting tools for different websites by following the links below:
Download our online safety checklists
Guides to online safety for different ages, plus information on specific topics such as online grooming.
Sexting: advice for parents
Flaw in the Law
Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) (2013) Annual Review 2012-2013 & Centre Plan 2013-2014 (PDF). London: CEOP.
Internet Watch Foundation (2012) Annual and Charity Report 2012 (PDF). Cambridge: Internet Watch Foundation.
Bond, E. (2012) Virtually Anorexic – Where's the harm? A research study on the risks of pro-anorexia websites (PDF). Ipswich: University Campus Suffolk.
Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) (2013) Threat Assessment of Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse 2013 (PDF). London: National Crime Agency (NCA).
Ofcom (2013) Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report (PDF). London: Ofcom.