Children and young people spend a lot of time online – it can be a great way for them to socialise, explore and have fun. But children do also face risks like cyberbullying or seeing content that's inappropriate.
That’s why we’ve teamed up with O2 to give you everything you need to know about keeping children safe online.
Whether you're unsure about what happens online or are up to speed with new technology, it's important that you talk to your child about staying safe.
It may feel daunting, but you don't need to be an expert on the internet. Understanding what children do online and the risks they face will help you keep your child safe online.
Got a question?
Whether you want to set up parental controls, adjust privacy settings or get advice on social networks, experts from the O2 & NSPCC are here to help.
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), game 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.
What social networks are children using?
From Facebook and Instagram to Snapchat and Tumblr, Net Aware is a simple guide for parents to the most popular social networks, apps and games
Be Share Aware
It's good to share – but sometimes sharing online can be dangerous. Be Share Aware and keep children safe online.
The risks and dangers of being online
Children and young people may see illegal or unsuitable 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 this content by mistake, 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 know 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.
Children in the UK have the 2nd highest number of social networking contacts in Europe:
- 26% of children had between 100 and 300 'friends'
- 16% had more than 300 'friends'
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.
Report online abuse to CEOP
CEOP helps keep children safe from online grooming and sexual exploitation. If someone's acted inappropriately to a child or young person you know, report it to CEOP.
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 lots of details before they can play and then illegally rent or sell this 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 on 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.
Talking to your child about staying safe online
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 and on both hardware and 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 in the long run, 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.
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.
Ask your child to show you their favourite things to do online, and show an interest in what they do - just like you would offline. This will give you a much better idea of what they're getting up to. And it gives you a way to support and encourage them while learning what they know.
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.
It's useful to agree on some ground rules together. These will depend on your child's age and what you feel is right for them, but you might want to consider:
- the amount of time they can spend online
- when they can go online
- the websites they can visit or activities they can take part in
- sharing images and videos
- how to treat people online and not post anything they wouldn't say face-to-face.
If your child plays online games:
- check the age rating before they play
- make sure you know who they're playing with
- talk to them about what information is OK to share with other players
- negotiate the amount of time they spend playing online games.
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. 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.
You can set up parental controls to stop your child from seeing unsuitable 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, game consoles and other devices that connect to the internet 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, make sure you agree what behaviour is acceptable online first.
Find out more about parental controls and how to set them up.
Check the privacy settings on any online accounts your child has, like Facebook or games, and remind them to keep their personal information private.
And talk to your child about 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.
Playing games online: how to avoid risks and stay safe
Staying safe on mobiles, smartphones and tablets
Children can use mobiles or tablets anywhere – from their bedrooms to when they're out and about - so it can be tricky to keep track of what they're doing online. You may want to think about:
Smartphones and tablets have a GPS (Global Positioning System) facility that shows their location. Some websites and apps like Facebook or Yik Yak, can use this to publish the user's location. So when a young person posts a message or photo on a social network, their location may also be added. Location settings can also be used to find others close by - for example on dating or social networking apps.
Talk to your child about why they might want to use location settings and what the risks might be. You can also help them switch them off if necessary.
Taking and sending pictures
Cameras on smartphones and tablets let children take and send photos instantly. Sometimes this means they don't take a moment to think before they share images.
Sometimes children and young people use their smartphones and tablets for sexting – taking and sending explicit pictures of themselves. But as soon as they send the image to another person, they lose control over where and how that image is shared. Teach your child to be Share Aware and help keep them safe online.
Using the device too much
You might worry that your child uses mobile devices too much. Although they can be good for children's social lives, they can also stop them from talking to people face to face. There are also concerns about how they affect concentration, sleep patterns and eyesight for very young children.
The important thing is to get the balance of activities right. Agree the times that your child can go online, and avoid just before bedtime. Don't forget to think about your own online behaviour to help set a good example!
Setting up parental controls
Just like on a computer, you can use parental controls to restrict what your child can access when they're using a mobile or tablet to go online. Some providers offer different levels of control, that you can change based on your child's age. Vodafone, O2, three and EE all provide free parental control services.
Talk to your child about the sort of things you think are suitable for them to see. And explain to younger children that you've put controls on their devices to help to keep them safe.
Public WiFi hotspots let users connect to the internet via a wireless network. You can find WiFi hotspots in places like coffee shops, libraries, and airports. But they're not always secure and they can allow children to search the internet free from controls.
Children could view adult content such as pornography and violence either by mistake or on purpose when using public WiFi. But family-friendly public WiFi schemes are becoming more common and some providers have signed up to providing family-friendly WiFi. Look out for the symbol when you're out and about.
Parent protection apps
Installing parent protection apps on your child's smartphone or tablet can help you keep track of what they're getting up to. Features vary from app to app, but they include things like:
- alerting you if your child tries to access a blocked site
- keeping a record of text messages they send and receive.
You can also set times when the device can and can't be used – for example, you could block your child's smartphone or tablet during school hours and overnight.
Try to strike the right balance between keeping an eye on your child and giving them the independence and freedom to explore. Simply sheltering them from the online world might not help them in the long run. They need a chance to learn how to behave online, and find out what's out there.
Using apps to stay anonymous or keep secrets
Anonymity apps and websites help users to keep their information secret, or share information anonymously. New apps and websites like this are being created all the time.
Some websites and apps are designed specifically to let users act anonymously or keep secrets. Although they can be used simply for privacy or to protect personal information, there are some risks involved.
They can also be used to hide content that a child may be worried about – so it's useful for you to know that they exist. For younger children it's a good idea to keep an eye on their phone for any new apps and to agree what they can and can't download.
What are the risks?
Although young people may use anonymity websites and apps for harmless reasons – to flirt with one another, or express themselves without fear of embarrassment – they can also pose risks, including:
Users can post anonymously using these apps. And children may feel particularly scared if they don't know who is bullying them.
- Inappropriate content
Because they're anonymous, it's very difficult to hold users to account. So it can be easier for children to access content that may be upsetting or unsuitable for their age – such as content that promotes self-harm.
- Inappropriate behaviour
Children may be drawn into saying and doing things they would never do offline, because the behaviour of other users and the anonymity makes it seem OK. For example, things can get out of hand when children are using the site in groups and giving each other dares.
What are privacy apps?
Mobile devices can store lots of personal information, and it's understandable that your child might want to keep this information private – just like you would.
There are apps available that hide content stored on mobiles, including photos and messages. These apps can be disguised as other things on the phone, so they're really hard to spot. They're known as secret apps, decoy apps, vault apps or safe apps.
What are protected messaging apps?
Protected messaging apps are designed so that users can send messages that will only be seen by the intended recipient. Messages can be encrypted, password protected, or might even self-destruct after they have been read.
For older children, remember that you could see this as a modern day equivalent of a child locking their diary – it's important to respect their privacy. For younger children, apps like these present a possible risk and it's worth thinking about why they would want to hide their messages or photos.
Download our NetAware app
NetAware is our simple guide for parents to the most popular social networks, apps and games that children use.
You can easily find age ratings, parent and child reviews and how likely it is that a child could find inappropriate content.
Download the app today, so you'll always have help keeping children safe online wherever you go.
Keeping children safe online
Free online safety workshops
Along with O2, we're holding free workshops to help parents learn how to keep children safe online.
Talk about staying safe online
Our talking tips will help you start the conversation with your child about staying safe online.
Every call is a chance to stop abuse. Support the NSPCC helpline and help us stop children suffering in silence.
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Tips and advice from Internet Matters on how to use parental controls to keep your child safe online.
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).
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.
Ofcom (2013) Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report (PDF). London: Ofcom.