Talking to your child about online safety

Advice on how to start the conversation and get support if you're worried.

Online life and offline life is just life

For many of us, we see our online lives and offline lives as different, but children are growing up with technology and the internet and for them there isn’t a difference; online life and offline life is just life.

Technology can move at an extraordinarily fast pace and it can be difficult to know how to start talking to your child about what they’re doing online, who they might be speaking to or discussing the potential risks and issues.

Starting the conversation

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Talking regularly with your child is the greatest tool to help keep them safe online. Talking regularly and making it part of daily conversation, like you would about their day at school, will help your child feel relaxed. It also means when they do have any worries, they’re more likely to come and speak to you.

But it can also be easy to become overwhelmed with the different technology, the language that children use, the huge number of games and apps which are available and the potential risks.

A big factor to consider when we’re talking to children is age or cognitive ability, which also impacts on the language we use and what we can talk about. As children get older, their needs and behaviour will change, particularly as children are moving through their teenage years and are more prone to risk-taking, mood swings or whether they will even talk to you about something that they may be embarrassed or ashamed about.

For example if you suspect grooming or exploitation, you may not wish to talk about this directly with a younger child, but instead report directly to CEOP. But you can also use resources such as PANTS to help with the conversation.

With an older teenager you may be more comfortable talking about these issues. There are some tips in our Positive Parenting guide and our page on talking about difficult topics which you may find useful.

Tips for your conversation

Reassure them that you’re interested in their life. Recognise that they’ll be using the internet for many different things. You could ask about:

  • What are their favourite things to do online?
  • If their favourite activity is YouTube, what do they enjoy watching? Is it gaming or hobby related?
  • What games do they like to play and why? Is it because they enjoy that game or is it because that’s where all their friends are?
  • What apps do they use and why do they use them? If you haven’t heard of the app, ask them to show you how it works.

It’s a conversation, be curious and show genuine interest.

Ask them about who they’re talking to. If it’s people they don’t know offline, try not to be angry with them. Instead ask questions about how they met and what sort of things they talk about. Remind them that not everyone online is who they say they are and that they should never arrange to meet someone offline.

Remind them never to share private or personal information. Use examples, such as “You shouldn’t give your number to a stranger on the street. Is somebody online you don’t know any different?” Give examples of other personal information such as names, locations, school.

If you’re stuck, not sure what to do, or if you’re worried about your child, you can also contact our trained helpline counsellors on 0808 800 5000.

Childline also has lots of information about online and mobile safety that will help you and your child.

What are the risks for children online?

There are potential risks for children online. Consider these things when you talk with your child about what they're doing online:

When they’re playing a game, using an app, watching YouTube channels, what sort of content is there? Have they seen any inappropriate content and if so, what did they do? How did it make them feel?

Most games and social media apps have various communications features, from text chat to voice chat, messaging and private messaging, video and image sharing, livestreaming and more. Ask about the friends they play with. What is the difference between online and offline friends? Do they talk to people they don’t know online? If so, why and what are they sharing?

There can be lots of different reasons why children talk to people they don’t know online, such as same interests, talking gaming tactics and even for support and advice.

When they play those games or use those apps, what is their behaviour? Do they feel anxious? Do they sometimes get angry, e.g. playing fast-paced games and constantly losing?

Tackling difficult conversations

Some conversations are going to be more difficult than others, but it's so important to have these open and honest conversations, so you can help your child with any worries or issues they might be facing online.

For example, if you’re worried they have been viewing online pornography, if they have been sharing nudes, if they have seen upsetting, inappropriate or explicit content, or perhaps being bullied. These more difficult conversations will heighten feelings of fear, anxiety, worry, shame and embarrassment.

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  • As with any conversation, it is important that we try to stay calm, balanced and non-judgemental.
  • If it's something that has made you angry, fearful or concerned, don’t tackle it straight away if possible. Those feelings will affect the way we talk. Take a little time and, if possible, talk to someone else about it. Your child’s school can be a great source of information, particularly the class teacher and the Designated Safeguarding Lead and you can always contact us for advice.
  • Don’t be too forceful otherwise there is the risk that they will close down.
  • Consider a subtle approach instead of a head-on approach. For example, you could ask if the subject is discussed at school and what they learn about it, or it could be something that has been on the TV or you heard about it on the radio.
  • Keep listening, try not to interrupt even if there is a period of silence. They may be thinking how they word something.
  • Provide context. Allow them to understand why some things are wrong, age inappropriate or even illegal. In order to critically think and assess, they need information.
  • Remind them of your family values; some parents may think that something is okay for their children, but explain why you don’t think it is appropriate for your children.
  • Children often talk of being punished. For example, if they open up to you and say that they have seen explicit content by accident, they are fearful of their devices being removed from them. This is seen as a punishment and consequence for something that was out of their control. This is a judgement call that needs to be carefully handled.

 

How could my child feel talking about online safety?

For children, online life is life. It can help to think about how your child could feel sharing what they’re doing online before you talk to them. There could be a range of different emotions, such as:

  • Discomfort or embarrassment about something they have said online.
  • Shame or fear if they're worried about something they have seen or done.
  • Annoyance or confusion if they don’t understand something.
  • Happiness because they have received validation for what they’ve posted – such as likes or follows.
  • Try to remain calm and balanced. It can be very easy to show shock, even anger about something you may have heard.
  • Be positive but also open about anything you’re worried about. You could say “I think this site’s really good,” or “I’m a little worried about things I’ve heard about this app.”
  • Ask if they’re worried about anything and let them know they can come to you or another adult they trust.
  • Listen for the reasons why your child wants to use apps or sites you don’t think are suitable, so you can talk about these together.
  • Ask your child what they think’s okay for children of different ages, so they feel involved in the decision making.

Next steps to take

Having a conversation with your child can give you a good insight into their online activities so that you can consider:

  • Are further options, such as parental controls, are required?
  • Are the games and apps they’re using appropriate to their age? Have a conversation and agree some rules with your child about what games and apps they’re allowed to use. While there are risks with most online platforms, we'd recommend only letting your child use apps that have privacy settings and a 'report and block' feature.
  • Do they know about the safety and privacy features of the apps they're using? Such as:
    • Privacy settings. Are their accounts public or private?
    • Do they know how to block and report? Are those features available?
    • Can you turn features off, such as chat and in-app purchases?
    • Do they know what personal and private information is, and what is and is not appropriate to share online?
    • What are their profiles on their games and apps? What does the profile say about them? What does the image or avatar say about them?

Being a good digital role model

Children get lots of messages about online safety in school and at home, but this can be confusing for them if the adults around them appear to not be following the advice they’re giving. Your children look to you for guidance, so it’s not just about what advice you give to them, but also what you do yourself. Avoid the example, ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

Make sure you aren't sharing passwords or writing them down where others can find them. Talk with your child to remind them that passwords are private and shouldn't be shared.

It can be good for all of us to have a break, so set an example and use device settings to turn off notifications sometimes.

There has been a huge rise in fake and false information shared online, talk to them about what you have seen (if it’s appropriate to do so) and why you have questioned it. This helps them to develop critical thinking skills.

We tell children to be careful about the pictures they share online, such as in their school uniforms, but at the start of every school year, many parents do this. It can be confusing for your child, but also an opportunity to discuss how you are doing this safely, e.g. privacy settings.

Modelling good behaviour includes asking their permission first and not over-sharing. You could show them the image you want to share, assure them you are only sharing with family and that you have privacy settings in place. If they say they don’t want that image shared we should respect their feelings on the matter.

Other people children can talk to

But no matter how hard we try, there may be things that children won’t open up to, so it’s important that we give them other options. That could be:

  • another adult family member, e.g. aunt, older cousin etc.
  • a teacher or member of the pastoral team in school
  • Childline on 0800 1111 or visiting the Childline website.