Moving to secondary school

Children moving to secondary school may change the way they use their online space. This could be a great way for them to learn new skills, but it might also leave them open to more risk. This guide is designed to keep parents/carers and their children informed so they can stay safe online.

Students using computer in the classroom

Inside the guide

Children moving to secondary school face a world of opportunities. From making friends to facing new challenges, they are able to take advantage of their independence. With the added layer of smartphones and social media, it’s a time when children are beginning to make deeper social connections for the first time.

To help you give them the support they need to develop good online habits, we’ve created a comprehensive guide to explain the challenges they face and how you can address them together.

What are kids doing online?

Social interactions online are central to the digital experience of children moving to secondary school.

Not only are they learning to communicate with each other online, but they’re also making important decisions on how to present themselves to the world.

With this in mind, having the right smartphone, being on popular apps and using the right language to interact with friends is often very important to help children ‘fit in’.

Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulus shares advice on the online challenges kids experience at this stage of their development
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Watch the video featuring BSL sign language

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Looking at real experiences

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

A parent’s experience

Adele Jennings of shares her experience from a parent perspective

A teen’s experience

Amber Jennings of shares her experience of starting secondary school

A teacher’s experience

Head teacher Matthew Burton shares what children experience as they start school

What are the digital risks and challenges?

Ofcom research (2022) found that 37% of 12-15-year-olds experienced seeing worrying or nasty things online. This is higher compared to the 32% of 8-11s who said the same as well as higher compared to previous years.

62% of 8-17-year-olds said they are more careful about what they share online because of people being mean to each other based on who they are. (UK SIC research for Safer Internet Day 2020).

Therefore, as children become more active online, the possibility and probability they are exposed to online issues increases. As such, it’s important to understand what they could face to help deal with them.

From managing screen time to dealing with peer pressure, we’ve offered tips and advice below on key issues they might face so you can best support them.

Screen time: finding the balance

It’s likely children moving to secondary school will spend a lot more time on their devices. Ofcom stats show that 12-15-year olds spend an average 20 hours online over the course of a week. However, the majority of them believe they have a good balance between screen time and doing other things.

Whether it’s using their device to manage homework, continue Snapchat streaks with friends or play games like Fortnite or Roblox, their smartphone is a multifunctional tool to stay connected.

‘Everything in moderation’ applies to the screen time debate when it comes to ‘how much is too much screen time’.  As well as working together to set boundaries on how much time they should spend online, it is equally important to review what they are actually doing to make sure it’s having a positive effect on their wellbeing.

What parents tell us

See parents views on screen time based on figures from our latest research into the issues.

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Managing screen time

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

All parents of 8-11-year-olds say they use some sort of mediation strategy when their children go online according to Ofcom (2020). This reduces slightly to 73% of parents of 12-15-year-olds.

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Screen time concerns

Parents often feel they are fighting for their child’s attention and worry children are not getting sufficient exercise.

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Positive aspects of screen time

Parents identified four main reasons why screen time could be good for children:

  • it provides downtime from other activities
  • it’s a source of family entertainment
  • it allows children to tap into their creativity
  • it helps maintain relationships

Similarly, Ofcom research found that parents saw value in their children being online for a number of reasons:

  • Helped with homework and schoolwork (85% of parents of 12-15-year-olds)
  • Enabled them to learn a new skill (65%)
  • Enabled them to develop creative skills (60%)
  • Helped them find useful information about any problems or issues they might have (57%)
  • Helped to build and/or maintain relationships (54%)

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Smartphone ownership

97% of children aged 12-15 own their own smartphone compared to 60% of 8-11s. Additionally, 62% of children aged 7-16 have access to their mobile devices at all times. (Ofcom 2022)

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

A child looking at her laptop screen

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FAQ: What is the impact on children?

Research tells us that the amount of time spent on screens can affect children’s brains, behaviour and sleep.

Screens can have a drug-like effect on children’s brains, which can make them more anxious.

Spending late nights bingeing movies or socialising with friends can negatively affect their sleep cycles, making it harder for them to sleep.

The blue light from phones and tablets is also proven to disrupt sleep as it interferes with the body’s natural sleep and wake cycle.

Research has found that even when a phone is turned off in the same room, it can serve as a distraction. Furthermore, one experiment showed that a mobile phone that is turned off but present can significantly impact working memory and the ability to solve problems.

Distractions caused by the constant ping of push notifications or the auto-play button on platforms might encourage children to form unhealthy online habits.

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

Schools follow the Education for a Connected World framework that looks at health, wellbeing and lifestyle. It addresses things like sleep and the pressure that social media can put on its users. This serves as a guide for lessons’ learning outcomes for different ages and stages.

As part of the curriculum, schools must talk to children about how to manage their screen time. They may offer strategies to help with screen time such as switching off push notifications when they are doing homework or using built-in features. For example, Android and Apple have tools to help prioritise screen time management and inform pupils about how much time they spend online and the impact this can have.

Practical tips to support children

Take a look at our simple tips to put balance and purpose behind screen time to help 11-14-year-olds benefit from their screen use.
Conversations to have

Impact on well being

Discuss how an unbalanced use of screens can affect the brain, sleep cycles and behaviour. Explore how they feel after using screens for extended periods to help build self-awareness.

Exposure to online risks

Talk about the increased exposure to online risks such as inappropriate content and cyberbullying dependent on what activities they are doing. Make sure they understand how to get help when they need it.

Encourage skill-building

Promote a range of apps and platforms or games that help them learn various skills such as coding, art or engineering. See our guide to help.

Platforms built to keep them watching

One of the conclusions from the Disrupted Childhood Report found that children “require more intentional use of digital technologies and more time out.” It’s important to inform them that most platforms are purposely built to keep them watching or playing. Help them recognise what this looks like to empower them to take control of their device rather than the other way round.

Gen up on platforms children use

Get up to speed on how your child’s online activities affect their overall wellbeing by learning more about the platforms and apps they use. Be open and honest about these risks so they can come and talk to you if they need help. It’s important not to overreact. Remember that dialogue is important; you want them to come back to you next time as well.

Things you can do

Set boundaries to help them build good online habits

Children seek out rules to follow so its best these come from you and not their peers. Set up a family agreement that you all sign up to, to manage expectations of what they should and shouldn’t be doing online.

Stay engaged in what they do online

Take an interest in their digital world to better guide them as they become more socially active online and start to draw from friends, passions, and online sources to build their identity.

This is a tricky line to walk and it may be that there is an aunt or uncle, an older sibling, or a family friend who they would be more likely to talk about some of this with – they might not want you following them on TikTok or Instagram but perhaps someone from the wider network would be more readily accepted.

Learn how they communicate with others online 

Are they using emojis, live streaming, or getting involved in Snapchat streaks?

Model the behaviour that you’d like them to adopt 

If you are spending a lot of time on your devices they may mimic your behaviour or challenge you about it. Think about having tech-free times and tech-free places within the house.

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.

Encourage them to self-regulate their screen time

As they become more independent online explain the reason why it’s important to turn phones off at night or have device-free zones to help build a balance of activities on and offline.

Online peer pressure

Peer pressure to fit in at school is something that we’ve all experienced growing up but in the digital age, there is the added pressure for children to be on the right social media networks to manage digital relationships.

From chasing likes on social posts to taking part in risky online behaviour, at this age children are starting to learn about what is acceptable behaviour to follow to be accepted.

Influence from others can be positive and negative but it’s important to help your child recognise when to follow the crowd and when it’s okay to say no and make their own choices.

What parents tell us 

Here are insights from parents and children we spoke to as part of our research into the pressures they feel when moving from primary to secondary school.

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Having a smartphone

Research is showing that by the age of 12 around 75% have their own smartphone.

Children felt having a phone was a must when starting in year 7. As well as all their peers having one, children were concerned about ensuring they are able to stay in touch with their friends from primary school.

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Experiencing bullying

The top concern amongst parents with a child in year 6 is whether their children will be bullied at their new school.

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Pressure to download apps

Parents would like more support about the age-appropriate apps that children should be downloading as this increases as start secondary school.

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Making new friends

Parents are concerned about their child not making new friends at their secondary school however children are more concerned about maintaining old friendships with friends from primary school.

Top Tip light-bulb

Peer pressure to get kids the latest smartphones as they start school – see mum’s experience

Read parent story

Share Childline guide to peer pressure with your child to support them

FAQ: What is the impact on children?

Change in behaviour

As they may be interacting with older children (or even adults), there is the potential that they’ll be encouraged to share inappropriate content (i.e. violent content, indecent images, pornographic content) or post nasty comments to be initiated into a group.

It’s behind a screen

Children are more likely to take part in risky behaviour with little regard for consequences, especially if the action is behind a screen where they cannot see the real impact of their behaviour. This is where making a joke on a friend’s post, sharing a picture that excludes certain friends can be seen differently by others and can cause issues around cyberbullying.

Influence of digital friends

It’s important to note that friends they meet online can influence them just as much as those they know in real life. Joining an online forum that may be promoting extreme ideas or taking part in online crazes to gain an audience or impress others can put them at risk. Indeed, research shows that they can be influenced by those who they have never even met, celebrity vloggers and YouTubers play a significant role in the lives of young people today.

As the BBC3 programme online Pain Challenges – Face the Consequences showed, children can easily be carried away in mimicking behaviour from peers they admire or follow online which can lead to tragic consequences.

New BBC three series showcasing the potential consequences of posting dangerous videos online

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

Many schools promote an inclusive school culture and take the time to celebrate diversity to help form positive social norms. Often programmes using peer-to-peer programmes like Childnet’s digital leaders or Diana Awards’ Anti-bullying pro Ambassadors to get peers to make the changes they would like to see in their school so it’s created by children for children.

It’s also important for schools to create a culture where pupils feel that they can come and speak about anything that is happening to them online. They need to be empowered to also deal with things themselves – as per the DCMS internet safety strategy (all users should be empowered to manage online risks and stay safe). The online harms white paper published in April 2019 is clear that all users should be empowered to understand and manage risks so that they can stay safe online and there are a number of initiatives to support schools in this space.

The Education for a Connect World framework that schools follow also guides children on how they should be interacting with each other online to instruct children on how to make smarter choices.

Practical tips to support children

Watch parents explain peer pressure to their children to get insight.
Conversations to have

Apply rules to challenge negative peer pressure

Children seek out boundaries from peers and adults to understand what acceptable behaviour is. It’s important not to be afraid to ‘Parent’ and set clear boundaries for behaviour on and offline, taking the time to clearly explain why it’s beneficial for them (even if they don’t agree).

Use news stories to relate 

Talk about something you’ve seen in the news or something they can relate to, to start a conversation about the potential risks of giving in to peer pressure. This is a useful approach as it depersonalises the conversation and is less likely to lead to confrontation.

Share your own experience of peer pressure

Talk about your own experience to show that it’s nothing new, it’s just experienced differently.

Explain what signs they could look out

Help them recognise when they feel pressured into doing something (i.e. fear of being humiliated, losing a friendship, being isolated, FOMO).

Help them build the confidence

Help them feel confident about saying no if they are asked to do something that puts them or others at risk or that they feel uncomfortable with.

Make sure they know who to talk to

If they can’t talk to you, make sure they are aware of organisations they can speak to for guidance, i.e. Childline or a trusted adult (sibling, aunt, uncle, family friend).

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.

Never excuse bad behaviour by peer pressure

Some behaviours can be influenced by peer pressure but should not be an excuse to act out.

Things you can do

Managing their digital footprint

Help them understand the importance of creating a good digital footprint that may influence job prospects in the future and the schools they’d like to attend

Search for their name

Encourage your child to do a search of their name to see what is public to get things removed if they are incorrect or damaging

Challenge myths

Dispel online myths that may cause your child to feel pressured to do something they’re not ready for:

Tell them that it’s okay to unfriend someone online if they feel threatened as the person will not receive a notification that they have been removed

Although a lot of people are talking about sending nudes, not everyone is doing it

If they do receive hundreds of friend request in the first week of starting year 7 it’s important to be selective about who to add and why

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


With more children socialising and sharing their day to day lives on social networks, there is in an increased risk that they’ll be exposed to different forms of cyberbullying.

Research carried out by the UK Safer Internet Centre for Safer Internet Day in February 2020 found that 61% of 8-17-year-olds censor themselves online and are careful about what they share because they’ve seen people be mean to others based on who they are. Ofcom found that 51% of 12-15-year-olds had encountered hateful content online in the past 12 months – this was a 7% increase on the previous year. Of secondary school aged children research shows that up until year 7 the proportion of children who report seeing something upsetting online is below 30% but after year 8 it increases year on year.

Whether it’s done out of peer pressure, to retaliate or simply out of boredom it goes beyond the school gate and can be experienced 24/7.

Navigating the differences between actual cyberbullying, the digital drama between friends, and banter can be difficult as children start to form these bonds online. Children often interpret situations online differently. A shared photo excluding a child that was not invited to the event may make a child feel left out but it wouldn’t be fair to identify the child who shared it as a bully.

Getting to grips with ‘netiquette‘ of what is acceptable to post and having coping strategies are essential to help children make smart choices online.

What parents tell us 

From our research, we found that among transition year parents, the key top of mind concern is whether their child will be bullied in secondary school. This is also when parents are providing their child with a mobile phone to prepare them for starting secondary school.

However, as school policy varies, parents’ welcome clear and concise guidelines for parents to refer to e.g. maintain visibility around online activities when children want independence.

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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.

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

FAQ: What is the impact on children?

Mental health and wellbeing

Getting accepted by friends is very important to children at this stage so feeling rejected by their peers can have a big impact on their self-esteem and affect their emotional growth. In extreme cases, it has led to self-harm and suicide.

Consequences in the real world

It’s easier to say something in an online situation than it is face to face. This barrier of the screen and the rise of anonymous apps can stop children from seeing the true consequences of their actions online and those who see this behaviour may be more inclined to ignore it.  Bad behaviour online can lead to expulsion from school or confrontations with parents and their peers in the real world.

Education and learning

Whether they’re the involved in the bullying or the target of it, it can be a distraction from their learning and lead to self-exclude or expulsion from school.

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. The government internet safety strategy states where bullying outside of school is reported to teachers, it should be investigated and acted on.

Practical tips to support children

Cyberbullying advice from Dr Linda Papadopoulos
Conversations to have

Discuss the difference between banter and bullying

Help them to recognise when insults between friends can escalate and steps to take if this happens.

Help them understand the impact of exclusion

Whether it’s perceived or on purpose to hurt someone who’s been left out of a friendship group.

Identifying what is cyberbullying

Stress the importance of using the word using ‘Cyberbullying’ carefully to avoid labelling the wrong people as bullies. A commonly accepted definition of cyberbullying is that it is a deliberate and repeated action.

Discuss the influence of school culture

Talk how ‘what’s popular’ and ‘social-rules’ can influence how friends relate to each other.

Getting help 

Encourage them to speak out if they are having difficulties and not keep things bottled in.

Explain the complex nature of making friends

It’s important to talk about the fact that friendships change and break down over time. Although they may be friends with some people now, people change and can naturally grow apart so it’s not a reflection on them if someone no longer wants to be friends with them.

The legal implication of cyberbullying

Drive home that certain types of cyberbullying are illegal

Steps to deal with it

If they are experiencing cyberbullying stay calm and work together with your child (and the school where appropriate) to find the best way to deal with it so they feel in control of the situation.

Things you can do

Share 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.

How to report reporting incidents

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

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.

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 create 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 our guide to active apps here.

Unplug together

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


Exploring sexuality has always been a part of a child’s development. Before the age of the internet children might have gone behind the bike sheds but now children are choosing to do it virtually.

Although recent stats show that recorded sexting offences are rising (average of 17 sexting offences per day) it seems more young people may be talking about it than actually sending nudes to each other. The Suffolk Cybersurvey 2016 showed that overtime sexting has remained low ranging from 4% – 5% between 2013 and 2017.

Children take part in sexting for a range of reason. Some do it to express their sexual feelings, others as a joke with friends or out of peer pressure to fit in. Shows like naked attraction where contestants are encouraged to choose partners by choosing which naked body they prefer and the fact that two-thirds of adults sext can be confusing for children. Although young people are aware of the legal consequences of sexting some say they’re ‘prepared to take the risk ’.

What parents tell us 

Sexting and young people: the parent’s view – a piece of research from the NSPCC to explore parents knowledge of sexting revealed the following insights:

Sexting harm

73% of parents believe that sexting is always harmful.

Possible incidents

39% of parents are concerned that their child may become involved in sexting in the future.

Talking about sexting

42% of parents have spoken to their child about sexting at least once, but 19% do not intend to ever have a conversation about it.

Resource document

Visit our cyberbullying advice hub to learn more about how to protect your child and deal with it should it happen.

Visit advice hub

FAQ: What is the impact on children?

Damage to online reputation

Once images are online they could easily fall into the wrong hands having a direct impact on their online reputation and attracting unwanted attention.

Emotional wellbeing and bullying

Children may feel publicly humiliated and feel anxious that loved ones may see the image and judge them. It can trigger bullying to start among school friends and lead to self-harm or suicide in extreme cases.


They could be blackmailed into giving money or sharing more images in order to avoid the image being shared more widely.

Legal consequences

It is illegal to take, make possess or share indecent images of anyone under the age of 18. If the police are made aware of what is often referred to as sexting, where young people are sharing images between each other, then this could in some cases be recorded as a crime with potentially serious consequences. This short summary from the UKCCIS provides more information about sexting and how schools should respond to it.

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

PHSE and Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) lessons help children explore and discuss subjects such as relationships, respect, consent, risk-taking, exchange of sexual messages and images between peers and bullying. The government has recently announced their intention to make much of this compulsory from 2020.

Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance for schools is clear that schools should ensure that their child protection policy includes sexting and the school’s approach to it. Sexting guidance helps schools to determine how they should deal with incidents and when external agencies should be involved. In cases where the image as shared as a joke or without intended malice then the school may deal with it themselves however if there was intended malice and it was shared without consent then the police or social care may be involved.

Practical tips to support children

Teen Expert Josh Shipp helps parents understand what to do if a child sends a nude or sext
Conversations to have

Talk about the risks of sexting

Discuss the lack of control they have over the image when it is sent and what to do if it does happen to resolve the situation.

Encourage them to be critical of people intentions

Explaining to them that not everyone they meet in real and online has the right intention and the importance of evaluating why someone would be asking them to send pictures of themselves and the long-term impact if things went wrong.

Influence TV shows and social media

Discuss how seeing images of Instagram and reality TV stars in ‘sexy poses’ can encourage them to do the same and also mainstream TV shows such as Naked Attraction.

Body confidence 

Talk about how they feel about their body image and body confidence and the role of peer pressure can play.

Explain the complex nature of making friends

It’s important to talk about the fact that friendships change and break down over time. Although they may be friends with some people now,  people change and can naturally grow apart so it’s not a reflection on them if someone no longer wants to be friends with them.

Use news stories to talk about it

Use real-life examples that they can relate to, to explain the risks.

Healthy relationships

If appropriate, discuss what a healthy loving sexual relationship should look like so they are aware of what to look out for if they are pressured into sexting.

Open and honest discussions

Make sure they know that they can come to you to share their concerns and get support without judgement.

Relationship changes

Explain that even if they are sending images to people they trust, relationships can change and cause issues.

Things you can do

Create a family agreement

Put a family agreement into place to help them understand what is appropriate to post.

How to report reporting incidents

Review their privacy settings on social media so they only share with people they know.

How to respond to requests for nudes

Help them think about potential responses if they are asked to share a nude, the Zipit app from Childline can help.

Trusted sources for help

If they can’t talk to you, direct them to trusted support like Childline to talk to trained counselors.

More back to school guides 

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