Discovering digital at Primary

Find support children digital development as they start school.

Inside the guide

From reception to the end of primary school children’s digital journey changes a lot. From using shared devices to watch their favourite shows to talking to family and friends online on their own smartphone or tablet.

This increase in online interactions exposes them to more varied risks as well as opportunities. To help them build the right online habits from the start and find ways to make the most of the opportunities the internet brings, we’ve created a guide to highlight some of the challenges they may face and ways to support them.

Setting the scene: what are kids doing?

At the beginning of their digital journey, the online world is a place of endless possibilities where ‘you can do anything’. Before they’ve even learned to read, most can navigate through devices to play games and watch cartoons.

Recent research has shown that from the earliest age, children are using voice-activated search to navigate to content. Indeed, according to Ofcom, the use of smart speakers has doubled over the last year. 11% of 3-4-year-olds use a smart speaker at home and this rises to a quarter of 8-11-year-olds.

Although they may be full of curiosity their understanding of what ‘online’ means and how, why, and who puts content there is limited. They’re not yet equipped to evaluate whether something is good or bad for them so guidance from parents and carers is key.

Childwise research found that 44% of 5-10 year old boys and 32% of girls owned their own mobile phone with over half of this age group having internet access in their bedroom. Similarly, Ofcom found that over 50% of 10 year olds owned a mobile phone and the same owned a tablet device.

YouTube is a popular destination and an alternative to the TV as almost ¾ of 8-11 year olds use the platform to watch funny videos, jokes, pranks, and challenges. Time online continues to increase year on year for young children as Ofcom reports that 5 -7s spend 8.5 hours watching YouTube, whilst 8-11s spend 10 hours per week with almost an additional 8 hours on social media or messaging apps.

When it comes to online safety schools often play a large part in teaching children how to engage with the online world by using tech in the classroom in order to present children with new opportunities for learning and creativity.

Our ambassador Dr Linda Papadopoulos shares advice to support primary school children online

Looking at real experiences

See what others have experienced to get a true picture of the online challenges children face.

A parent’s experience
Adele Jennings of Ourfamilylife.co.uk shares her experience managing her child’s digital world
A child’s experience
Jacob Jennings of Ourfamilylife.co.uk shares his of learning about online safety at school
A teacher’s experience
Jenny Burret shares what kids learn about the online world at primary school

What are the digital risks and challenges?

As well as offering children the opportunity to ‘do anything’, the internet can expose children to things that they may not be ready for such as violent content, extreme ideas, and adult content either by accident or through an intentional search.

As they start to communicate with others through gaming or social networks there’s the temptation to overshare information that could lead to incidences of cyberbullying or put them at risk of being approached by those that may wish them harm.

Also, we know from research that the time they spend online increases year on year so there is the added need for them to learn how to regulate and balance the amount of time they spend online and offline.

From our own research parents say that between the ages of 6 – 10 they feel children are naive and their curiosity can unintentionally put them in harm’s way. Parents are worried about their children finding inappropriate sexual or violent content online, particularly at a young age.

Inappropriate content

Like looking up rude words in the dictionary back in the day, children remain curious creatures looking to push boundaries and be in the know about things they have heard about on the playground. However, whereas the dictionary would provide text results, an online search will offer images and video. You may be an expert at setting up filters to limit what your child can be exposed to but this is not the case everywhere that they go – other parents may not be filtering for a variety of reasons and if they are you can’t be sure that the levels are the same as those you have set.

Whether it’s inappropriate pop-up ads, videos showcasing Peppa pig or other cartoon characters in seemly adult contexts or forums promoting self-harm and extreme ideas, children can stumble across content by accident or intentionally that can make them feel upset and confused.

The ease with which children may be exposed to this content all depends on what they are doing online. When children take part in the following activities online, the possibility and probability that they will see content that is not inappropriate increases:

  • Joining social networks before reaching the minimum age
  • Playing games and using apps which are not age-appropriate
  • Watching live streams which may show inappropriate content or taking part in them and unconsciously being exploited

An NSPCC survey found that 78% of young people admitted to joining social media sites before reaching the minimum age and half of the children surveyed had seen sexual, violent or other adult material on social media.

Using apps and platforms that are not age-appropriate can expose children to things that they may not be ready for. Whatever age your child is, it’s important to prepare them for what they might see and if it does happen, staying calm and using it as an opportunity to help them understand difficult topics is important. Be glad that they came and spoke to you about it – overreacting is likely to mean that they won’t tell you next time!

Resource document

See our Inappropriate content advice hub to learn more about the issue and find practical ways to protect your child.

Visit advice hub

Use our parental controls guides to set controls on children’s devices

FAQ: What is the impact on children?

Seeing inappropriate content at a young age can leave children feeling confused and unable to process what they have seen or experienced.

At times children may feel unable to share it with trusted adults as they feel ashamed or that they have done something wrong. According to research from LGfL – Hopes, and streams, one out of 5 children said that they had never told anyone the worst thing that had happened to them. Research from Roblox in October 2019 found that 91% of parents said their children would be likely to ask them for help if they were bullied online. Sadly only 26% of those children said that they would actually tell their parents although 53% said that they would report a problem to the platform. This is a stark reminder of the importance of not overreacting if your children do come and speak to you about something that has happened.

The emotional impact of such material can cause a sense of anxiety and stress in some cases. A UK study found that children reported a range of negative emotions after watching pornography. When they were first exposed to it, they felt shocked, upset, and confused but became desensitised to it over time.

FAQ: What do schools do to help support children on this issue?

Using filtering and monitored internet access, schools create a safe space for children to explore the opportunities the internet brings. They are also taught the basics of online safety such as the importance of keeping things private, where to go for support if something goes wrong and how to recognize good and bad behaviour online.  Also, a recent announcement about relationships and health education being made statutory for all maintained schools means that there will be a greater focus on this area.

What parents tell us 

Ofcom research published in February 2020 identified the following key points:

On screen time: 34% of parents of 8-11-year-olds said that they found it hard to control their child’s screen time. Anecdotal evidence suggests that as a result of COVID-19 lockdown children have been spending more time online often with the approval of their parents – but a better balance will be needed once they are back at school.

On benefits and risks: Around half of parents of 5-11-year-olds think that the benefits of being online outweigh the risks. Roughly ¾ of parents think that they know enough to be able to help keep their children safe online.

On harmful content: Just over ¼ of parents of 3+4-year-olds rising to almost half of the parents of 8-11-year-olds were concerned about their children seeing content that encourages them to harm themselves.

On being bullied: 43% of parents of 8-11-year-olds said that they were worried about their child being bullied when playing online games.

On managing data and information: 49% of parents were very/fairly concerned about companies collecting information about what their children are doing online.

On managing their online reputation: 40% of parents of 5-15-year-olds were very/fairly concerned about their children damaging their reputation either now or in the future.

Mark Bentley of London Grid for Learning gives advice on what schools are doing  to support children online

Practical tips to support children

Learn how to set safety features on devices you share with your child to give them safer online experience
Conversations to have

Use storybooks to start conversations

Start talking about online safety as soon as they get online – using stories to introduce the topic can make it easier to spark a conversation. Ask them what they know about technology – it can be amazing just how much they do know and what they have picked up from watching others!

Talk about what is appropriate at different ages

Discuss what type of content is appropriate for children of different ages to see online and why. Explain that anyone can upload content to the internet and not all of it is suitable for children.

Agree together what is appropriate for them

Involve them so they feel part of the decision-making process.

Encourage critical thinking

Help them think about why they like doing certain activities online to start to build their critical thinking.

Create a safe place for them to talk

Help them feel at ease to talk to you or a trusted adult if they run into issues online.

Talk about what is fake and what is real

Show them that not everything they see online is true and to check other sources if something appears ‘too good to be true’-CBBC have videos and articles you can share with your child. Also check out this quiz from BBC Bitesize too.

Stand your ground on rules

Be prepared to push back if children ask to use apps that their friends are using that may not be suitable.

Talk about positive ways to use tech

Show that you understand the important role technology and the Internet play in their lives. Many of us have recognised the importance of technology recently during the lockdown and hopefully, this has led to more discussions taking place.

Things you can do

Explore sites and apps together

Review sites together to make sure they use age-appropriate platforms and review these as they get older to broaden their media diet.

Set controls to block inappropriate content 

Use parental controls to block access to adult sites such as pornographic and those promoting self-harm or violence. Review these as they get older to ensure they give you the protection your child needs.

Set digital boundaries

Put a family agreement in place to identify set boundaries highlighting the values and behaviour you would like them to showcase online. It is important for parents to agree to abide by some of these boundaries in particular around when devices can be used – e.g. not at mealtimes.

Share video to explain age limits

BBC Own it is a dedicated resource for children to learn about the online world and navigate it safely, share this video with them to help them understand importance of age limits.

Sharing too much information

Increasingly platforms are incorporating different ways to share and connect with friends, whether live streaming on TikTok, chatting on Roblox or talking to family on Facetime. As children become more active online, the social element of the online world becomes a staple in their digital diet.

According to the latest Childwise report (2020) around half of 11-year-olds are using social networking sites although the minimum age for most social platforms is 13. Roblox, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp are among the most popular platforms used by this age group.

With the growth of the Vloggers or YouTubers, young children are also starting to aspire to be more like those they see online, sharing their world with the wider world to get likes views, and comments. Increasingly, more and more are becoming accustomed to sharing content that may put them at risk in the future, such as comments, jokes, pictures that may be funny to them and their friends but that they could regret in the future.

Ofcom found that although high-profile YouTube stars remain popular, children are now increasingly drawn to influencers who are often local to their area, or who have a particular shared interest. Children are more likely to try and model themselves on these influencers as they are “like them”.

Although phrases like ‘think before you post‘ and ‘be share aware‘ are staples that children learn to help them manage what they share online, the temptation of posting interesting shareable moments to get the most likes may encourage them to take risks that could lead to harm.

What parents and children tell us 

Research published by PEW in July 2020 found that 4 in 10 parents said that they were at least somewhat concerned about data being collected about their child by voice-activated assistants.

According to research carried out by the UK Safer Internet Centre for Safer Internet Day 2019, 42% of children said that their parent(s) shared something about them online without their permission. 16% of young people said that this made them feel angry and a further 25% siad it made them feel anxious or not in control. The same research found that over 80% of children would tell their parents not to share something about them that they didn’t want online and would also ask them to take down something that had already been posted.

Ofcom research (2020) found that ⅓ of parents of 5-15 year olds check the browser/device history after their children have been online. However, only around 36% of parents of 5-15 year olds are using content level filtering on their home networks and 44% are not aware that this is an option.

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Tips from parents on how to prevent kids from oversharing online

Read parent story

Help your children share safely with tips from our experts

FAQ: What is the impact on children?

Inappropriate contact from strangers

Sharing too much information with the wrong people can leave children open to inappropriate contact from strangers who seek to groom them. This is an issue that many parents are very concerned about particularly for younger children who may not have the necessary skills to know who to trust online.

Cyberbullying 

The anonymity of the screen makes it very easy for children to post things they would never say in real life. As children get more social online, they may post things that could lead to cyberbullying from peers. They could be influenced by others online and encouraged to bully others as a result. In both cases, this can adversely affect their well-being. It is also easy for content shared online to be misinterpreted without the benefit of facial expressions, body language and context.

Digital footprint

Most of what they post and share with others builds up their digital footprint which can be very valuable later on in life when applying for schools or jobs. Therefore sharing something that seems funny now could reflect badly on them in the future. This can be a difficult concept for children of this age to grasp – some schools will actively look at social media to find out more about the children that they are working with and if this information is in the public domain then of course they are able to do this.

FAQ: What do schools do to help support children on this issue?

Issues around who to trust, what to share and when and how to protect personal data forms part of the Education for a connected world framework which schools are encouraged to use when considering what children should be taught about online safety. The profile of online safety has been raised significantly within all schools now with government guidance and school inspectors all highlighting the importance of good quality online safety education for all pupils that is thought as part of the curriculum to give children a good grasp of how to share safely and seek support if they run into any issues.

Practical tips to support children

Common Sense Media video to educate children about the hazards of oversharing online
Conversations to have

Sharing personal information

Have a chat about personal information and what they understand this to be and why it’s important – what is it okay to share and what should they be more careful about?

Consider who they may be talking to

Try and stay away from blunt messages such as don’t talk to strangers online or don’t give out any personal information online.

Many children will be talking to strangers through the online games that they are playing – there is a risk associated with this – but the probability of them coming to harm as a result is not as significant as parents might think. That said – communicating with strangers online opens up the possibility for things to go wrong and it is important that children are aware of warning signs and that they know what to do.

Essentially if they feel uncomfortable about the way someone is behaving or communicating then they should tell someone (and report it to the site/game/platform as appropriate). It is important that when a child does come and share this information that parents don’t overreact. The important thing is that they have told you!

Assessing people intentions online

Make them aware that some people are not who they say they are online and why they may seek to connect with them online.

Sharing images

Talk about when it’s safe and not safe to share images focusing on how much personal information images can give away.

The lifespan of content shared

Discuss the fact that anything you put online has the potential to be there for a long time and be seen by more than just the people it was shared with.

Pressure to post

Talk about the pressure to posts things just to get likes and comments and how to challenge this.

Repeat online safely message

Use the broken record method to drive home the message of being ‘Share aware’ at all times when online.

Related the issue with stories in the media

Use stories in the press to discuss the potential dangers of oversharing online.

Things you can do

Share an online code of conduct

Share the Stop, Speak, support online code of conduct with them to be aware of how to help someone who is being cyberbullied.

Review age-appropriate apps

Get an understanding of what platforms they use to share and with who to assess the potential risks – NetAware is a great tool that gives advice on the top 50 apps that children use. Common Sense Media, a US site, also offers reviews of apps and platforms by age.

Social media made for kids

Take a look at our list of social media platforms made for kids to help them connect with friends in a safer online platform

Netiquette 

Teach them the parallels of etiquette in the real world versus the online world so they see the impact that what they share can have in real life.

Set digital boundaries

Work together on a family agreement to create digital boundaries so they are more aware of your values on what is safe to share online

Screen time

The time children spend online nearly doubles from 7 hours per week between the ages of 3 – 7 to 13 hours when they are 8. Although over 80 percent of parents of children aged 3 – 7 and 78% who have children aged 8 -11 agree with the statement that: “I think my child has a good balance between screen time and doing other things”, research from South West Grid for Learning  found a clear link between the amount of time children spend online and their exposure to upset, risk and issues related to wellbeing.

Given the recent lockdown situation it is understandable that many people have been spending more time online. Ofcom found that 70% of parents of children aged between 8 and 11 said that they thought that their child had a good balance between screen time and doing other things. This has reduced from 76% in 2018.

Only 57% of parents of 12-15 year olds thought that their child had a good balance between screen time and doing other things, with 31% of 12-15 year olds stating that they found it hard to control their screen time.

Looking at these figures it can be tempting simply to focus on limiting the amount of time that children spend online to minimise the risks but what is more important is what children are doing while they are online and the quality of the interaction and activity that is taking place.

Not all screen time is created equal. Games such as Roblox can be a great way for children to express their creativity and connect with friends but equally the social element of the game can pose a risk for children if age-appropriate controls are not put in place to protect them.

Assessing children’s online activities to minimise risks and maximise the opportunities they bring is key at this stage.

What parents tell us 

See parents views towards screen time based on our latest research into the issue.

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Managing screen time

88% of parents take measures to limit their child’s use of devices, however parents old older children are less likely to do so as 21% of them say they don’t take any measure

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Screen time concerns

Parents often feel they are fighting for their child’s attention and are worried that children are not getting enough exercise.

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Positive aspects of screen time

There are four reasons parents felt screen time would be good for kids; provides downtime from other activities, a source of family entertainment, allows children to tap into their creativity and helps maintain relationships

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Smartphone ownership

Only one in five parents with children in year 6 say that their children don’t currently have a mobile phone and they don’t plan to get one before they start Secondary school

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Visit our Screen time hub to manage help children get the best out of it.

Visit hub

Download our full guide to help your child get the best from their screen time.

FAQ: What is the impact on children?

From research, we know that screen time can affect children’s behaviour, well-being, and sleep cycles.

  • Constant use of a device and features like auto-play on platforms can be habit forming and encourage children to spend longer on screens
  • The blue light from phones can trick the brain into thinking it’s still daylight making it difficult to sleep
  • Screens can have a drug-like effect on the children’s brains which can make them more anxious
  • It can make children more forgetful as they rely on things like Google, GPS and calendar alerts to look up information

Despite this, there is also evidence that exposure to tech has proven to improve children’s learning and development. Studies have shown that interactive ‘learn-to-read’ apps and e-books can build early literacy by providing practice with letters, phonics and word recognition.

When used in the right way with parents and by making use of apps that promote children to move and create,  the online world can be a great tool to help children explore their passions and bring to life concepts and information to make it easier to understand.

FAQ: What do schools do to help support children on this issue?

As well as other topics, children learn about how to manage and self-regulate their screen time as part of the curriculum. More and more schools are also making use of tech in the classroom by giving children access to virtual learning environments to introduce children to the online world. Creating such a space to explore can encourage children to develop good online habits that they can build on as they grow.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has meant that education has migrated to online platforms for most children and schools have been working hard to help pupils to get a good balance between screen time and other activities.

Increasingly schools are recognising the importance of a positive dialogue with children and young people. If they are aware that the devices and platforms that they use have been designed in such a way to keep them using the service for as long as possible then they are more likely to engage in a way to try and address the challenges that this can pose. Schools should also be providing pupils with strategies to help them to manage their screen time more effectively but ideally, this should be done in partnership with parents.

Practical tips to support children

The challenge is helping children to be able to focus on what they are meant to be doing online – we find it hard as adults not to be distracted by the ping and push notifications yet we probably don’t have the massive social interaction going on that our children have – so giving them some tools to be able to manage it is important.

Video from Commons Sense Media gives 5 Easy Screen Time Tips for Young Kids
Conversations to have

Impact on wellbeing

Get them to think about how what they do online can affect their well-being, i.e. sleep, feelings, learning.

Agree screen time rules

Talk about how much time they spend online and establish what is the right amount for them.

Making the most of time offline

Talk about ways to combine what they love online, offline, i.e. using apps that encourage you to move and play outdoors.

Build critical thinking

Help them to build critical thinking in order to understand that some features on platforms are designed to keep you watching or playing for as long as possible.

Things you can do

Model the behaviour that you’d like them to adopt 

Set a good example with your own device use, as children tend to copy what parents do. A rule about no devices at the dinner table is a good one to establish and for parents to abide by too.

Manage auto-play

Switch off auto-play on platforms to remove the temptation to binge on – Vist our resource page on screen time to see how to manage this on different platforms.

Consider using monitoring apps

If you plan to use screen time monitoring apps on devices to enable you to set digital limits on the amount of time they spend online on certain apps, it’s important to do this with dialogue and understanding from your child to make sure they understand why you are doing it and why this is beneficial for them and not snooping.  It is important to be balanced about this and consider what it is you are trying to protect them from – the considerations about probability versus possibility are important. There are lots of things that could go wrong online – but the chances of them happening to most children are lower.

Use tech tools

Use tech tools and parental controls to help them to manage the time they spend online and the apps they use. There are also apps like the Forest app that creates intricate forest the longer you don’t use devices which could introduce a game element to managing screen time.

Combine active play

For younger children find ways to combine touchscreen use with creative and active play – See Childnet’s Young children and screen time guide for parents for more advice.

Unplug together

Get the whole family to unplug and create ‘screen-free’ zones at home.

Cyberbullying

Unlike in previous years when peer pressure might have been being encouraged to try a cigarette in an obscure part of the school field, these days peer pressure online may be taking part in a prank and posting it on social media for all to see, sending a nude to a prospective boyfriend to show you’re really interested or taking part in cyberbullying.

Fitting in has always been a big part of what teenagers struggle with. The digital world has made this process much more complex as the rules are changing all the time. Also, virtual friends can also have as much influence on young people as those they know in real life. Chasing likes and new followers to be popular or simply fit into the status quo has created ‘virtual peer pressure’.

Despite what we think, young people want boundaries and seek out rules on how to behave in the right way to be liked. Positive peer pressure and engagement from parents can help teens establish good online habits and make smarter choices online. It’s all about starting early and talking often about the potential dangers of following advice that may lead them to compromise on their values, break the law or put their health at risk for the sake of ‘fitting in’.

What parents tell us 

Nicola talks candidly about finding out her daughter was bullying others online and how they dealt with this as a family.
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Visit our cyberbullying advice hub to learn more about how to protect your child and deal with it should it happen.

Visit advice hub

Use our age specific interactive guide to help talk to your child about cyberbullying.

FAQ: What is the impact on children?

Unlike traditional forms of bullying, cyberbullying can happen 24/7 and messages sent can spread beyond a child’s friendship group which can intensify the bullying and cause more harm.

The digital friendships report found that 51% of 8-12-year-olds have felt sad in the last week because of something online. Similarly, 53% of 8-12 year olds said that they had seen people posting mean or threatening things online in the last year.

Mental health and Wellbeing

Cyberbullying can affect a child’s confidence, self-esteem and cause them to isolate themselves to protect themselves from the bullying. In extreme cases, it has led to suicide. 54% of young people who are bullied as a result of their appearance said that the bullying started by the age of 10.

Problems at school

Whether children are victims or perpetrators of the bullying, this can affect their ability to learn and stay in school if they fear those doing the bullying.

Legal issues

Although bullying and cyberbullying are not specific criminal offences in UK law, children can face legal repercussions if the bullying is considered to be racist or homophobic. Harassment, malicious communications, stalking, threatening violence and incitement are all crimes and there are a range of laws that criminalise activity that may be related to cyberbullying, including discrimination, harassment and threats. It is important to remember that the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10.

FAQ: What do schools do to help support children on this issue?

All schools have a policy that guides their response to incidents, they may have mentors who can help or carry out ‘Anti-bullying programmers’ to raise awareness. Even if it happens outside of the school they have a duty to investigate and take action if needed. Parents should feel that they can approach the school for help and support if they feel that their child is being bullied.

Government guidance around cyberbullying clearly states that school leaders, teachers, school staff, parents and pupils all have rights and responsibilities in relation to cyberbullying and should work together to create an environment in which pupils can learn and develop and staff can have fulfilling careers free from harassment and bullying. It also states that every school should have clear and understood policies in place that include the acceptable use of technologies by pupils and staff that address cyberbullying.

There is also guidance from government aimed at parents and carers on cyberbullying which provides a lot of useful advice.

Practical tips to support children

Conversations to have

Power of words 

Discuss the impact that words can have online – share the BBC own it short videos where children share stories about cyberbullying and online friends.

Being kind online

Highlight the need to be ‘kind online’ and support those who may be being picked on, online.

Managing friendships

Talk about how to deal with disagreements with friends both on and offline in a safe way.

Importance of being ‘share aware’

Make sure they understand that anything they share or put out about themselves (even between friends) can be seen by everyone online – nothing is really private once it is shared online.

Explain why people do it

Talk about reasons why people may bully others and how it makes people feel

Power for good

Discuss the power they have to do the right thing when it comes to supporting other online and share the ‘Stop, Speak, Support’ online code.

Talking to trusted person 

Encourage them to speak out if they experience cyberbullying or know someone who is in order to get the right level of support.

Things you can do

Review apps and platforms they use

Use our guides to set privacy settings on the apps, platforms, and devices they use, to create a safer space for them to explore.

How to report reporting incidents

Teach them how to report or block people on the apps they use.

Be aware of what the school policy

Find out what support your child’s school will give you just in case you need it. Schools are told to ensure that their child protection policy includes:

  • procedures to minimise the risk of peer-on-peer abuse;
  • how allegations of peer-on-peer abuse will be recorded, investigated and dealt with;
  • clear processes as to how victims, perpetrators and any other child affected by peer on peer abuse will be supported

Watch video together

BBC Own it peer pressure video – share this video with your child to make this issue more relatable and easy to understand.

More back to school guides

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More to explore

Here are some other useful parent stories and children experiences of cyberbullying to give you more insights on the issue:

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