Playing an active role in a child’s online social world

By Dr Emma Bond on

‘Don’t talk to strangers!” is a phrase that most parents will be familiar with from their own childhoods.  What they are probably less familiar with, however, is what advice to give their children about talking to strangers online, especially when ‘strangers’ are actually on their children’s online friends list.

Parenting children who are growing up in a rapidly changing digital world can be challenging and it is hard for parents to keep up to date with what children are doing online and the risks they may face.

Tech knowledge gap between parents and children

Parents want their children to talk to them if they have a problem or if they are worried about something. Parents want to help their children but when it comes to social media, virtual realities or online gaming they often feel that they do not have enough knowledge or experience.

Children are spending more time online, at a younger age than a few years ago and they are able to access the internet in a variety of ways, for example, through tablets and smart phones yet many parents do not know what their children are doing online, who they are talking to and what content they are accessing and sharing.

Understanding the online risks

Thanks to a growing body of research we have a much better understanding of the dangers and risks that children face online and what can be done to help keep them safe. According to latest research commissioned by Internet Matters, the average child has 100 followers on social media and less than half of them are real friends. We know that some of the risks children face online can have very serious consequences.

Whilst adults are mainly concerned about their children talking to strangers online and being groomed and sexually exploited, children are concerned about viewing pornography, especially violent pornography, and other aggressive, violent or gory content.

Furthermore, children are producing and sharing sexual images amongst their peers and are more likely to be exposed to hate messages, pro-eating disorder websites, pro-self-harm websites and cyberbullying than they were 5 years ago. However, many parents are either unaware of these dangers or unsure about how to talk their child(ren) about them.

Educating children on how to stay safe

Many parents assume that it is the responsibility of schools to educate children about using the internet and how to keep themselves safe online. However, whilst schools do indeed have an important role to play in raising children’s awareness of internet related risks, most of the time that children are online is actually at home especially in their bedroom.

Children are far more likely to see something that frightens them, post a sexualised message, receive a message that upsets them or bully another child outside of the school environment. It’s, therefore, vitally important that parents talk to their children about the internet, social media and mobile technologies.

Open, honest e-safety conversations

Talking to children about their behaviour online is an essential part of contemporary parenting. Just as parents teach children how to cross a road safety, they should be teaching their children how to safety navigate the internet. Much of what parents can do is straightforward yet can be very helpful.

Simple steps to keep children safe on social

For example, respecting age limits on social media, understanding how privacy settings work and taking an interest in what games children are using are very effective mechanisms for reducing the risks. Setting and using parental controls on broadband, mobile devices and home entertainment are also valuable ways to safeguard younger children but it is also fundamentally important to give children clear messages about expectations and set sensible rules.

Talking to children about image sharing and not sharing personal information or images without consent is crucial. Recent media reports have highlighted links between social media and negative effects on children’s mental health.

If children are going to be able to develop resilience online they need to understand how to review privacy settings, block unwanted contacts and use reporting tools. Children are frequently online after they have gone to bed yet leaving the tablet and phone to charge outside the bedroom at bedtime or using Do Not Disturb settings can encourage children to consider their boundaries for using social media and accessing the internet and get a good night’s sleep.

Getting the best from their digital world

The internet offers amazing opportunities for children to explore, learn, socialise and communicate in new and exciting ways. It is vitally important that parents are able to celebrate and encourage their children to exploit these opportunities but to do so safely.

Keeping children safe online is a priority for policy makers and educators but if children do encounter a problem or get into trouble it is very important that they feel able to seek help and talk to a parent about what has happened.

Research consistently shows that parental mediation is effective in reducing risks to children online but it needs to be more than a one off chat. Parents need to keep talking to their children whatever age they are, they need to stay interested in what they are doing online and in doing so they can love and care for their children offline and online.

As the internet and social networking continue to form a crucial part of the way young people share their experiences, Dr Emma Bond gives advice on what parents can do to help their children get the best from their digital world.

Additional information

If you’d like to learn more about how you can help your children stay safe online, here are some great resources:

E-safety issues – tips for parents 

E-safety advice by age 

Social networking advice

Setting controls on devices

Image attribution: Lies Vercaemere under Creative Commons License