Browsing safely online

Supporting children & young people with care experience

To help children and young people with care experience to stay safe while browsing online, we have provided insight and advice on what you can do as a parent or carer to support them.

What’s on the page

What you need to know

Browsing and using the internet is an important activity for all children and young people. It is a space where they can play, learn, develop hobbies, and find their voice. For children and young people with care experience, who may feel socially isolated, this activity can take on additional importance.

However, the risks of browsing and using the Internet for children and young people with care experience may be amplified depending on their care placement, personal history, and relationship(s) with their birth family member(s) and any trauma experiences.

See the benefits, risks, and challenges associated with this type of online activity to support them.

Keeping children and young people safe online involves three main areas:

Manage 

Using broadband filters, parental controls and privacy settings on devices and apps and 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 provide 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 and education, including:

Supplementing education and learning

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.

Outlet for downtime

It can offer children an opportunity to enjoy downtime by engaging with a range of content and information.

Maintaining relationships

Crucially it can help them stay connected with their network of friends and contacts at any time.

Connecting with support groups and organisations

Access to special interest groups, such as those for food/diet, self-harm, suicide or other mental health issues, can be helpful and informative. However, search engine algorithms can also return negative content promoting misinformation and can ultimately be harmful. Age-appropriate discussions around the subject are essential to help them establish a critical view of this content.

Challenging stereotypes and negative narratives

For children and young people with care experience browsing the internet may also allow them to challenge stigmatising narratives regarding care identity, in turn helping develop critical perspectives in relation to differing childhoods. As above, age-appropriate discussions around such topic areas are essential in this domain.

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 and young people’s development and should be supported. Risk-taking increases as children and young people get older. Protection from risk through total isolation may not prepare children and young people for adult life and is ultimately damaging. Facilitating risk-taking situations supportive context can help children and young people with digital resilience and take ownership over decision making in safer environments. 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 with care-experience may be more at risk or exhibit the following behaviours:

Differing social experiences and risk taking perspectives

Children and young people with care experience may have different social experiences and risk-taking perspectives to their peers, making this a very important consideration for this group when browsing online.

Excessive screen time

Extended browsing or other online activity may displace other offline activities that are important for a child’s development like sleep cycles.

Inappropriate content

Stumbling across age-inappropriate content can have a big impact on children and young people’s wellbeing. In cases where children and young people with care experience have previously experienced browsing the Internet without mediation, they may have already been exposed to inappropriate content and see this as acceptable or “normal”. 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

Children and young people with care experience may have experienced Internet use in previously mediated environment(s). This may mean that you are not able to take part in critical conversations regarding how information is presented online. This may be especially true for those with variable educational engagement. These factors may lead to an overreliance 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.

Findings from our research found that children and young people with care experience are particularly susceptible to cyber scams.

There is a significant association between children and young people with care experience experiencing cyber scams and being a victim of cyber aggression. This, suggests that if they report a cyber scam risk, a parent/carer may wish to talk about other possible experiences that co-exist. For example, evidence indicates that if they report online aggression, support should include addressing cyber scams with them.

Privacy and data concerns

Speed and ease are of use are important to children and 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 and identity theft. This is especially important to note if children are using shared computers.

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

It is important to be aware that:
Children and young people in your care may experience all forms of online 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 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

The Challenges

Managing access to apps and platforms

To help manage access to apps and platforms on children’s devices it’s important to set up parental controls from the start and have ongoing conversations about how children use these apps to keep them safe. Parental control should be reviewed periodically to make sure they still work for the child. Using a family agreement to give children and young people clear expectations of when, where, and how devices and apps should be used is also beneficial.

Risk of the dark web

According to statistics, the dark web makes up about 6% of the content online. It is part of the World Wide Web that is only accessible through special software. The most commonly used software is called TOR (The Onion Router). Unless you carry out unlawful acts, it is not illegal to use the dark web or Tor.

However, children can access sites with indecent images, sites selling drugs, and or weapons – this is also the case for the ‘open web’. Due to the anonymity of the dark web, it is harder for law enforcement to investigate cases of abuse. 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?

Parents and carers should try to provide safe internet access and browsing capability for young people with care experience. Whilst access may be considered a right, children and young people also have the right to be protected ruling out unmediated. 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 willingness to get familiar with settings and controls across platforms and devices. Keeping up-to-date with the ever-changing range of online services and digital devices through sites like Internet Matters is a very important element of safeguarding all children and young people, especially those with care experience.

The presence of risk does not imply actual harm, but teamwork (bringing on board everyone involved in supporting the child or young person) and a positive, proactive approach to online activity will create a good digital atmosphere around the child and young person. This in turn may reduce the likelihood of them experiencing online harms and enable the support network to assist the child or young person should they experience online harm.

We have provided insight and advice on what you as a parent, carer or other member of the team around a child or young person with care experience 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 the different apps and platforms (e.g. search engines, streaming services, or games) 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 to potential 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.
  • It’s also important to review search engine settings to block out any inappropriate content. Some platforms also use algorithms to show content based on what a user has liked or watched. For example, if someone looks for information on self-harm in a positive fashion, sooner or later there will be more negative self-harm content pushed their way and/or across a range of platforms.
  • 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 Local Authority or care provider’s guidance. 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 or young person 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. 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.

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

Family agreements can be very helpful to help manage expectations of where, when, and how devices should be used in and out of the home. 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.

Turn on safe search

Google Safe Search, restricted mode on YouTube, 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

  • Review and set up parental and privacy settings on the platforms and devices they use. Take a look at our how-to guides to learn how to set controls and privacy settings on a range of apps, platforms, and devices.
  • Check if your mobile device contracts can have age-restricted content enabled.
  • Check if your internet service provider (ISP) parental controls are enabled.
  • Consider using dedicated parental control devices that plug into the back of your router. There is a range of premium products that can offer enhanced levels of management for children’s devices and provide a separate Wi-Fi service for them to use. Take a look at our Monitoring apps guide for more advice.

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 has the opportunity to engage in non-digital activities.

Create device free-zones in the home

Create device free-zones/times in the home, such as places where meals are eaten, and 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 children and young people with care experience feel safe in discussing their issues is vital to reduce the risk of harm.

  • 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 avoid 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 with care experience may be less inclined to trust others and may be more likely to expect that you will react badly to what they are saying so showing them that you can listen and respond calmly and supportively will be beneficial to build that trust.

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

Children and young people with care experience 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 child or young person is able to discuss them directly.

Make use of use resources such as Think U Know activity packs.

Be non-judgemental, separate people from problems.

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

What’s the harm?

Children and young people in your care may experience all forms of online risk – content, contact, and conduct when browsing. This can include sexual, violent or harmful content such as hate speech. For children and young people with care experience, this may have different connotations. Firstly, if the 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. Secondly, they may see inappropriate content as ‘normal’ or acceptable. Finally, some content may re-traumatise those with extremely adverse life experiences.

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
  • 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 children and young people come into contact with and set filters on individual social media apps to block out inappropriate content. Also, set up safe search mode on search engines
  • If they do not feel comfortable talking to you, there are organisations like Childline where they can talk to trained counsellors about what they may be feeling. Encourage them to discuss with their trusted peer group/mentor, resources in school such as school counsellors or to contact organisations that can support them such as Childline, The Mix, Give Us A Shout
  • In rare cases where children and young people with care experience have found content particularly traumatising, ensure to link with the named social worker as soon as possible

Remember while controls and filters can limit access to inappropriate websites they do not block 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. Therefore maintaining an open, honest, and non-judgmental dialogue with children and young people with care experience in relation to the digital experiences is vital.

Where to go for support and advice

  • 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 that 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?

Managing privacy and passwords
Password sharing is common amongst children and young people to enable friends to access sites or apps on their behalf (e.g. when away on holiday with no Wi-Fi). If those shared passwords are used elsewhere, then others can access these accounts without the child or young person’s approval and may post inappropriate comments or content which appears to originate from the child or young person themselves.

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 child or 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?’.

Based on browsing and posting information, adults who may present as a safeguarding risk may seek to trace and or get in contact with the child or young person. This can include groomers who may use this information to befriend the child or young person and support the grooming process.

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 for jobs.

Data capture
Like other children and young people, those with care experience may lack the understanding of how online platform providers use their information for commercial reasons or to gain insight on their use of the platform behaviour. Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) carried out an investigation into websites and apps aimed at children and found that half the site and apps shared personal information with third parties and only 31% had effective controls to limit the collection of personal information from children.

Coping strategies

  • Ensure children and young people with care experience 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. Take a look at our Privacy and Identity Theft Advice Hub to learn more.
  • The Children’s Commissioner has published ‘Simplified social media terms’ that are easier for children and 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. Use this activity sheet to help children and young people better manage their passwords. This particularly vital if they used a shared computer in the home.
  • Stimulate critical thinking to help young people be more selective about what they choose to read and trust online. This can help them make healthier choices about the type of content they consume.
  • For older children, encourage them to 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

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 Jazz Jennings, and Mike Fox and Zoella who discuss, amongst other topics, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depression.

For children and young people with care experience, there are also a number of websites or social media groups, profiles that suggest that children and young people with care experience have been “stolen from their birth families”.

While the ability to hear others talk openly on such topics, particularly those that may resonate strongly in relation to care experience, can be extremely empowering for children and young people with care experience who may have previously experienced rejection or isolation. Some content can also be very confusing for some vulnerable viewers who may imitate behaviours or take on ideas that are not 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.

Additionally content by other children, young people, and care leavers with harmful or misleading/misinformation about the experiences of care can present identity challenges for children and young people with care experience who may be unable to take a critical perspective on different people’s care experiences.

Coping strategies

Browsing the internet allows children and 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.

For children and young people with care experience, it may be worth making good use of positive images and those who have care experience (Lemn Sissay, Jeannetter Winterson for example). Other strategies may include supporting the child or young person to contact advocacy organisations such as Become, to ensure critical perspectives and different people’s care experiences can be presented and discussed.

Have frequent conversations about developing their own sense of self. You can view our Online Identity guide and The Pressure to Be Perfect Toolkit for teens, for more information on this topic. We have 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

Here are some more resources to support children and young people. Visit the Inclusive Digital Safety resource centre for more expert resources.

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

.

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 guidance to support parents & professionals working with children and young people experiencing vulnerabilities.

Let us know what you think of the hub. Take a short survey

Was this useful?
Tell us why
Scroll Up