Staying safe while browsing online

Advice for parents and carers

Browsing and using the internet is an important activity for children and young people in care many of whom may feel socially isolated. It can help them with learning, enjoying downtime, developing hobbies, forming their identity, and finding their voice. The risk to their safety is significant given their care status, their family and social history and their trauma experiences.

What’s on the page

What you need to know

How is browsing online different for children and young people in care? Keeping children safe online is an increasingly complex but vitally important task for all those involved with the child but can be simplified to three core concepts:

  • Manage – Using broadband filters, parental controls and privacy settings on devices and apps and a, a family agreement to set digital boundaries and manage online activity
  • Mentor – Developing relationships where you can discuss, support, encourage and stimulate the use of the internet for safe browsing
  • Model – Children and young people learning through copying behaviour of others so providing good examples with your own digital activity and online behaviour, sharing good and bad results to generate discussion

The Benefits

Browsing online brings a range of benefits which can support children and young people’s wellbeing, including:

  • Helping children and young people have access to information, sites, forums, groups that will help them in learning, both educationally and allow them to develop socially
  • It can provide entertainment
  • Crucially it can help them stay connected with their network of friends and contacts at any time
  • Devices are increasingly used to support learning and schoolwork. Having access to connected technologies can give them the opportunity to increase achievement and attainment of improved grades
  • Access to special interest groups, such as those for food/diet, self-harm, suicide or other mental health issues, can be helpful and informative but can also have negative effects on wellbeing. Age-appropriate discussions around the subject are essential to help them establish a balanced view of this content
Resource document

See Hopes & Stream survey from LGfL – 40,000 pupils share what really goes on behind closed screens

The Risks

What behaviours/risks should parents and carers watch out for when it comes to browsing online?

Taking risks is a natural aspect of children’s development and should be supported. Risk-taking increases as children get older. Protection from risk through total isolation may not prepare children and young people for adult life. So, allowing risk-taking situations with oversight and supervision can help children build resilience and take ownership of decision making in a safer environment. Applying this concept to their internet activity and social media use is important to help them make safer choices online.

Any child or young person from any background can be at risk of online harm, but some are more susceptible to it than others. Children and young people in care may be more at risk or exhibit the following behaviours:

Poor social skills
Children and young people in care may have poor social skills. According to a report from the DfE, children and young people in care are three times more likely to have social, emotional and mental health needs compared to their peers. The anonymity and separation when browsing online can make it easier for them to take risks and say or do things they might not do in the real world (or offline).

Inappropriate content
Stumbling across age-inappropriate content can have a big impact on children and young people’s wellbeing. According to Online Safeguarding for Young People in Care, carers reported that 21% of children had experienced an incident of seeing inappropriate content online

Fake news and misinformation
Over-reliance on the information from websites and apps, without the necessary balance and objectivity, can lead to ‘fake news’ distorting attitudes, expectations, and behaviours.

Cyber scams
Following web links promising a ‘juicy story’ (clickbait) or a ‘too good to be true’ offer without thinking these through can lead to malware (malicious software) and viruses being downloaded onto the device, and in some cases compromising the whole home network.

Privacy and data concerns
Speed and ease are of use are important to young people and this leads to shortcuts in aspects like password use. Often a pin code will be a date of birth when that date of birth is also posted on forums and social media sites or can be deduced from the posts they can contain. Password re-use across multiple sites combined with a lack of understanding of the risks can lead to account compromise, identity.

For more information on this topic, visit our Privacy and Identity Theft hub.

The areas of risk explained document

  • Content – Being exposed to inappropriate or harmful content which may include bullying and abuse, or harmful topics (e.g. pornography, self-harm, etc)
  • Contact – Meeting strangers and being involved in high-risk relationships online
  • Conduct – Where a child behaves in a way that contributes to risky content or contact or is the recipient of harmful conduct online

It is important to be aware that:

Children and young people in your care may experience all forms of risk – content, contact, and conduct when browsing. If their previous internet history and experiences have been unmanaged or unregulated, they may have already been exposed to these risks and may be unaware that they are at risk of harm.

The Challenges

Managing access to apps and platforms

  • Although apps can be blocked from being downloaded on devices, some apps can also be accessed from browsers. Children and young people can use sites such as YouTube, Twitch.tv or Discord to view video and live streams of gameplay as an alternative ‘fix’ if access to the game is removed as a sanction. So, it’s important to set up the right parental controls on home broadband or Wi-Fi connections to filter content that should not be accessed by a child
  • Access to the dark web is easier using dedicated browsers such as TOR (The Onion Router) which enhances anonymity but allows access to greater amounts of inappropriate content. Although the likelihood of children using TOR is low, it’s a good idea to make yourself aware of what children might see

 What things should you consider?

Carers are expected to provide safe internet access and browsing capability for young people in care. Whilst access may be considered a right, unlimited access is not. Managing your child or young person’s expectation from the outset, together with the rest of the team around the child, is essential.

Equipping yourself to safeguard those in your care requires a mix of your skills including your communication and relationship skills and the capability to work at a technical level. Keeping up to date with the current digital landscape through your own training and research will make your safeguarding more effective.

The presence of risk does not imply actual harm, but teamwork (bringing on board everyone involved with the young person) and a positive, proactive approach to a child’s online activity will foster a good digital atmosphere around the young person and will reduce the likelihood of them experiencing online harms.

We have provided insight and advice on what you as a parent, carer, social worker or other members of the team around a young person can do to minimise risk, mitigate harms and develop an environment of digital safeguarding for children and young people in your care.

Know the facts:

  • Be aware of functions on apps that could expose children to potential contact risks – Apps or platforms with sharing function or chat by voice or text function can expose children and young people experiencing vulnerabilities at potential risk of contact risks such as cyberbullying, online grooming and exploitation. These functions could be used by groomers and abusers to isolate children and break up their trusted relationships. So, it’s important to be aware of what platforms children are using to encourage them to use these responsibly and give them the right advice to stay safe and make smart choices online
  • Know the age ratings for the social media platforms and apps that your child or young person is using. This is important as some apps may contain inappropriate content that may have a negative impact on a child’s wellbeing.
    Find out about their online activity and history, from previous carers or birth family
  • Understand and comply with your Fostering Service internet and social media guidelines or Code of Practice. Let your child or young person know you have rules to follow too
  • Make sure to get the agreement of all the team involved with the child to follow and use the same online safety rules and record this in placement and care plans, family agreements, etc

Practical steps to protect them

It is important to remember that the internet is a powerful and incredibly useful tool for children and young people, despite the dangers that might be worrying you. Opening the conversation on some of the potential areas of risk is important, in order to make sure you are both on the same page, but it is important to strike a balance between making them aware of the dangers without scaring them off using the internet to explore who they are.

Things you can do

Here are more practical things that you can do to help them manage what they see online and find content that will benefit their wellbeing and help them thrive in their digital world.

Turn on safe search

Google Safe Search and YouTube Kids app for mobile devices and tablets, are designed to restrict access to inappropriate sites but are based on community participation and algorithms for filtering content so may be less than 100% successful.

Make use of built-in parental controls

Use existing free parental controls and privacy settings on the apps and platforms they use to manage their safety and set clear boundaries to help them explore in a safer environment. For more information, take a look at our Parental Controls guides.

Create a family agreement to manage expectations of screen use in and out of the home

Family contracts or agreements can be helpful if everyone’s role, expectations and sanctions for non-compliance are clear and consistently adhered to. They can be particularly beneficial where all the care groups around the child or young person agree with them and support them. Have the agreement of all involved with the child or young person through the placement and care plans, safe caring policies and family agreements, etc.

Involve their school

Connecting with the school and understanding their policies and procedures will enable discussion and use of similar approaches.

Encourage a balance between on and offline activities

Ensure that online activity is only a part of a balanced lifestyle and that your child or young person can engage in non-digital activities.

Create device free-zones in the home

Encourage them to take time away from their devices by switching off devices together and making it fun using apps like the Forest App. Taking the time to do a digital detox can also be a good way for them to assess their screen use.

Conversations to have

Helping children and young people build their digital resilience and critical thinking skills around digital safety and appropriate behaviours online is a continuous process and should be part of everyday life and discussions. It is more effective to have many smaller ‘bite-size’ conversations rather than just one long talk. Talking ‘early and often’ will normalise discussion of online activity in daily life and make approaching difficult subjects easier.

Developing an open honest non-judgemental relationship where care experienced young people feel safe in discussing their issues is a cornerstone of harm prevention.

  • Encourage them to discuss their browsing activity, good and bad, with you regularly. Take a look at our Conversation Starter guide for more advice
  • Tools such as ‘Your Digital 5 a Day’ from the Children’s Commissioner can help stimulate regular and ongoing interaction
  • As part of a family agreement, encourage them to consider their health when online, to take regular breaks such as the 20/20/20 rule, set their own time limits, switch off before bedtime and no overnight use. Tools like Apple Screen Time and Google Digital Wellbeing can help them assess what apps they use and set some digital boundaries for themselves on what is best for their wellbeing

Things to remember

Children and young people in care may lack trust in caregivers and develop an external support network, such as with school friends or an elder sibling. Carers developing a relationship with this external network often find out about issues before the young person can discuss them directly.

Be available whenever they want to speak about issues they are experiencing on and offline.

Carers understanding of childhood brain development can be helpful in assessing risk for young people. Books such as ‘Why are they so weird’ and videos such as Insight Into the Teenage Brain and The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain can explain this.

Be non-judgemental.

Ask open questions and listen in full to what they are saying without assuming anything or overreacting.

Focus on how they use technology rather than how long they use it for.

Dealing with Issues

Here are some steps you can do (you will want to adapt it to fit with your knowledge of your child or young person):

What are the main issues?

Inappropriate content

As children and young people spend longer online and become more active and independent, they will inevitably see something that may upset or confuse them. This can include sexual, violent or harmful content such as hate speech.

Coping strategies

  • Talk to your child about the possibility of stumbling across inappropriate content – encourage them to check with you first before they watch a video, they are not sure about
  • Make sure they know how to report content on the platforms they use
  • If they stumble across something, stay calm and discuss what they have seen and how it has made them feel to assess what emotional support they may need
  • According to a report from Guardian Saints, 21% of children and young people in care had incidents of coming across inappropriate sites – so, remind them not to share any inappropriate content as it can be harmful to others they share it with
  • Make sure you have set up parental controls on your home broadband and all devices your kids encounter and set filters on individual social media apps to block out inappropriate content. Also, set up safe search mode on search engines

Where to go for support and advice

It’s important to note that while controls and filters can be applied to limit access to inappropriate websites they can’t block out everything. A click on an ad promising free things or a scroll on social media can expose children and young people to adult content or hate speech.

  • If your child or young person cannot talk to you, there are organisations like Childline where they can talk to trained counsellors about what they may be feeling
  • Our Online hate and trolling guide – Find out more about how to tackle hate online and online trolls with our useful advice guide, what online hate is and to how to support your child
  • Our Parental Controls hub
  • Thinkuknow – Thinkuknow is the education programme from NCA-CEOP, a UK organisation which protects children both online and offline.

Privacy concerns

Children and young people have a right to privacy but may not understand the value of their data or the risks involved with giving out too much information.

What’s the harm?

  • Like other children, those in care may lack the understanding of how online platform providers use their information for commercial reasons or insight on behaviour
  • Managing passwords
  • Password sharing is common amongst young people to enable friends to access sites or apps on their behalf e.g. when away on holiday with no Wi-Fi. An example is the need to keep ‘Snapchat streaks’ (continuous daily interaction between two people) running for as long as possible. If those shared passwords are used elsewhere, then others can access these accounts without child’s approval and may post inappropriate comments or content
  • Impact of increased online activity on digital footprint
  • Greater amounts of browsing and posting will leave a detailed trail of activity that can be followed to build up key data and information about the young person. This can be used commercially by sites or could be used inappropriately by adults to locate and groom a child. Examples can be found by watching NetSmartz – ‘Real Life Stories’ and Action Fraud’s – ‘How private is your personal information?’ This can also be used by birth families to trace or locate a young person when the care plan states such contact is not acceptable
  • Over time, this activity and data trail becomes more detailed. Internet companies, advertisers and potential employers may use it for their own purposes e.g. to deliver unsolicited ads or assess us as candidates
Coping strategies

  • Ensure children and young people have some understanding of how sites can use the information they provide so they can be more mindful of providing too much information on certain platforms
  • The Children’s Commissioner has published ‘Simplified social media terms’ that are easier for young people to understand and can be used as part of everyday discussion
  • Discuss the importance of resetting a password after sharing it with someone
  • Stimulate critical thinking to help your child or young person avoid inappropriate behaviour online. Let them know about fact-checking websites and trustworthy sources so they can decide for themselves if something is fake or not. See our Fake news and misinformation guide for more support
  • Use different email addresses for general online activity, social media accounts etc and important high-risk accounts such as school or college, health sites, banking and shopping accounts

Where to go for support and advice

Impact of influencers online

What is the harm?
It’s now the norm for children and young people to have favourite YouTubers that they regularly watch and aspire to be like. Some popular YouTubers talk about sensitive issues include transgender teen Jazz Jennings, and Mike Fox and Zoella who discuss, amongst other topics, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depression.

While the ability to hear others talk openly on such topics can be extremely empowering for children and young people in care who may have previously experienced rejection or isolation such messages can also be very confusing for some vulnerable viewers who may imitate behaviours or take on ideas that are not true or helpful for them on an individual level. This can make it complicated to get to the source of their issues and guide them to appropriate help.

Coping strategies

The internet and social media allow young people to find groups with similar interests and tastes and join communities they may not have access to offline, allowing them to grow and develop with the support of those with similar ideals.

Have frequent conversations about developing their own sense of self. You can view our Online Identity guide for more information on this topic. We’ve also created a guide on how to encourage young people to develop a positive body image of themselves despite things that they may see online.

Where to go for support and advice

Here are a few things that you can do with children and young people to help them get the best out of their interactions online and build good online habits.

Recommended resources

Inclusive digital safety resources

 

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Young minds – 0808 802 5544 (open 9.30 am – 4 pm)

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Report Harmful Content – Helping everyone to report harmful content online

Ditch the Label – Report harmful online content for removal

Childline – 0800 1111 (open 24 hours)

Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90 (open 24 hours)

Making the internet safer and more inclusive

Together with SWGfL we've created this hub to provide online safety advice and gudience to support parents & professionals working with children and young people experiencing vulnerabilities

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