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How to support children’s digital development

Inside the guide

Keeping up with digitally savvy teens as they progress through secondary school can be a challenge. Whether they’re Snapchat streaking with friends before school, creating a Snapchat story about their day or staying up late to play Fortnite, it’s important to be aware of how these online activities can affect their well-being.

To offer support, we’ve pulled together a guide to give advice on the key issues they may face and how you can encourage them to make smarter choices online.

Setting the scene: what are kids doing?

Teens spend a significant amount of time online – nearly half of teens are online for over 3 hours a day online according to the 2017 Suffolk Cybersurvey. Most of this time is spent chatting with friends, watching music or prank videos online or playing multi-player games. As they do more online the potential risk that they’ll experience online issues also increases.

Given the pull of smartphones and social media, teens are more connected than ever. Beyond the school gates, there is an expectation to continue conversations and stay connected with friends. There is also the added pressure to present the best version of yourself to simply fit in or gain popularity.

Any mistakes online can also have consequences in real life so, for some teens, it can be time-consuming to keep up with rules around who they should follow and how to interact to maintain their friendships.

FOMO (fear of missing out) and endless images of perfect selfies can also have a negative impact on young people’s well-being and self-esteem. With a range of things to juggle; school work, extra-curricular activities, and the added layer of the online world, staying on top of everything can be tough.

For teens, this is actually a crucial time when parental guidance is most important to help them build their resilience and make smarter choices online. However, some research has found that teenagers are much more likely to encounter potentially risky situations online at 15 than they are at 14, yet this is the age where there is less parental engagement, possibly because parents think that their children are old enough to manage any challenges themselves.

Head teacher Matthew Burton of Educating Yorkshire shares how he supports teens online in his school

Looking at real experiences

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

Advice from Dr Linda

Dr Linda Papadopoulos shares advice to help children navigate their digital world at this age

A teen’s experience

Amber Jennings of Ourfamilylife.co.uk shares her experience of starting secondary school

A parent’s experience

Adele Jennings of Ourfamilylife.co.uk shares challenges from a parent perspective

What are the digital risks and challenges?

With an increase in interactions and time spent online research shows that there is a relationship between this and their emotional wellbeing. Heavy online users are more likely to feel depressed and can find it harder to concentrate than those who spend less time online.

FOMO (Fear of missing out) and endless images of perfect selfies can also have a negative impact on young people’s wellbeing and self-esteem. Peer pressure to maintain online relationships and stay connected can be difficult to juggle alongside school work and extra-curricular activities.

Sexting

The digital world has changed the way that young people engage in romantic relationships. Teens are now having digital-only relationships and sharing intimate images of themselves with others as a form of sexual expression, as a joke or through peer pressure and coercion. What would have been a moment behind the bike shed’ is now being amplified by the online world.

Although there is a lot of talk among teens of sending ‘nudes’ or ‘dick-picks’ research shows that despite an increase in reporting there’s been little shift in the number of young people doing it.

Of teens that send nudes as a way to explore their sexuality in a relationship, there is a sense that ‘it’s worth the risks’. However, in the Young people, sexting – attitudes and behaviours – report, 70% of teens said that pressure was one of the reasons why people sent nudes. The spread of scantily clad bodies on Instagram and shows like ‘Naked attraction’ may have changed the perception of what is acceptable to share online.

When sexting does go wrong, there seems to be a gender divide in terms of its impact. Although boys are more likely than girls to volunteer images, girls often experience victim- shaming as blame is put onto the person who took the image rather than those who spread the image.

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

See our sexting advice hub to learn more about the issue and how you can support your child through it.

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.

Blackmail

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.

8 things you and your teen need to know about sexting

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.

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

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

Focus on ‘what if’ situations

Explore how they would deal with such a situation and whether it would be something that they’d consider doing

  • Do you know people that have done it – did anything happen – did it go wrong?
  • Do they do it to flirt or for fun?
  • Would you ever send nudes?

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

Use news stories to talk about it

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

Relationship changes

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

Not everyone is doing it

Make the point that not ‘everyone is doing it’ if they are ever pressured

Open and honest discussions

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

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

Things you can do

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

If they are sent an unsolicited nude prepare them with responses of what they might reply to ward off and advise them never to forward it on – 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 councillors

Video to share with your teen: Stop Sextortion – a video created by US organisation Thorn aimed at children to raise awareness of the issue

Cyberbullying

With the rise of social media and the increase in online interactions, bullying is no longer confined to the school gates. Cyberbullying is often a continuation of bullying that has happened at school or outside of school.

As friendships break down on the playground, children may take to social media to express their frustration with each other. In some cases, misunderstandings on social media can also spark issues in real life.

Research shows that cyberbullying is most likely to peak at the age of 14 when children are trying to manage their friendships online and something goes wrong. As their online interaction increase so does their risk of being exposed to cyberbullying. According to the Marie Collins Foundation and University of Suffolk research report,  83% of head teachers said that incidences of online peer abuse had increased or increased significantly over the last 3 years.

The anonymity of the screen can make it easier to take part in cyberbullying as some may not understand the impact their words can have on others. Also, it can be more nuanced. For example leaving someone out of a WhatsApp group, cutting them out of a group picture or not inviting them to a party, are other ways that children experience bullying online. Some also may confuse bullying and banter which can cause issues in large friendship groups when a joke goes too far.

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.

Top Tip light-bulb

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?

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. The anonymity of the screen and the popularity of anonymous apps can stop children from seeing the real consequences of their actions online and those who see this behaviour may be more inclined to ignore it. There is a concern that society is becoming de-sensitised to unpleasant comments and content online. Their 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 involved in the bullying or the target of it, it can be a distraction from their learning and lead children 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

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 going through issues 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

Review apps and platforms they use

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

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

Screen time

Smartphones are central to teen’s daily routine, if not integral to it. Whether it’s sending something on Snapchat to keep a streak going as soon as they wake up, getting up to speed on news on Twitter or live streaming thoughts about their day on social media, it can be hard to keep teens away from screens.

The latest Ofcom report suggests that parents find it harder to manage their children’s screen time as they get older, however; they agree that it is important that children and young people have the right balance of time on and offline.

It also important to note that not all screen time is created equal – some screen time is passive, for example watching TV and others are interactive like playing games and browsing. Although there is a link between the time children spend online and their exposure to online issues, it’s key to understand how they are using the online world to assess their level of risk and offer the right level of support.

For teens, it’s more about equipping them with the tools to self-regulate their own screen time and be critical about how it is impacting their well-being.

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 sufficient exercise.

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Positive aspects of screen time

There 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.

Top Tip light-bulb

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?

Using screens can impact our behaviour, brain and sleep cycles. Studies have shown that the blue light from phones can trick our brain into thinking it’s still daylight making it difficult to sleep.

Using devices for long periods of time and features like auto-play on some platforms can be habit forming and encourage children to spend longer in front of screens. Over-reliance on Google, Alexa and GPS maps to look up information can also make children more forgetful.

Despite these issues, some studies have shown that it can actually improve young people’s well being. A Unicef study of 120,000 15-year-olds showed that teenagers who were the lightest users of tech showed that increasing the time spent using technology was linked to improved wellbeing, maybe due to the importance of keeping up with friends.

In contrast, among the heaviest users of technology, any increase in time was linked to lower levels of wellbeing. This highlights the importance of considering the context of what children are doing online and how this can impact their well-being overall wellbeing.

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

To support children on this issue schools can follow a framework called Education for a Connected World which looks at eight different aspects of online safety, one of which is health, wellbeing, and lifestyle. This addresses things like the importance of sleep and the pressure that social media can put onto its users. The framework provides a guide to show the skills and competencies that children and young people should have with regards to online safety at different ages and stages.

As part of this schools can talk to children about how to manage their screen time and give children strategies to help such as switching off push notifications when they are doing homework. They could also provide some practical advice such as highlighting the new technologies that Android and Apple have in-built into their devices which keeps screen time management front of mind so are more aware of how much time they spend online and the impact.

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 showing teens speaking openly about their smartphone use

Conversations to have

Using time on priority tasks

Discuss how they prioritise their digital world with commitments offline (school work, relationships, extracurricular activities)

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

Platforms built to keep them watching

As one of the conclusions from the Disrupted Childhood Report which looks at how tech design impacts children’s wellbeing concludes that “Children are overwhelmed and require more intentional use of digital technologies, and more time out”. It’s important to make them aware that most of the platforms are purposely built to keep them watching/ playing to empower them to be in control of their device rather the other way round

Gen up on platforms children use

Get up to speed on how your child’s online activities can affect their overall well-being by learning more about the platforms and apps they use. Use our expert advice to get a balanced view to support your child. Be open and honest about these risks so they can come and talk to you if they get into trouble online – and don’t overreact – remember that the dialogue is important and you want them to come back to you the next time as well.

Balance view of screen time

Use our expert advice to get a balanced view to support your child. Be open and honest about these risks so they can come and talk to you if they get into trouble online – and don’t overreact – remember that the dialogue is important and you want them to come back to you the next time as well.

Things you can do

Encourage downtime from devices

With so many ways to connect to the internet, it is important to help teens to have downtime away from the device.

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.

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

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 v possibility are important.

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

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 

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

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 among 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.

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?

Normalising anti-social behaviour

Being part of a group that encourages anti-social behaviour can negatively impact children’s perception of what is also acceptable offline.

Impact on well being

If a child feels pressured to send a nude to show their commitment in a relationship or break up relationships with other friends to be accepted into a group this can create anxiety and stress.

Danger to physical health

Taking part in online challenges that encourage teens to eat laundry pods or spray deodorant a few inches from their skin to see how long they can take the pain are seen as light-hearted and things that young people can laugh at, but increasingly they are putting children at risk of physical harm.

Influence of forums promoting extreme views

According to the Suffolk Cybersurvey 2017 more young people are seeing the online content promoting hatred, racism, and sites encouraging anorexia. As children crowdsource their identities online, there is a risk that they can be led into adopting values which can affect their behaviour and sense of self.

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. Some schools are using peer-to-peer support programmes like Childnet’s digital leaders or Diana Awards’ Anti-bullying pro Ambassadors in order to get pupils 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).

New guidance for schools on relationships education and health education provides information on what pupils should be taught. It also specifically states schools should be aware that for many young people the distinction between the online world and other aspects of life is less marked than for some adults. Young people often operate very freely in the online world and by secondary school age, some are likely to be living a substantial proportion of their life online.  Clearly, schools need to be addressing this and the guidance helps schools to know what to cover.

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

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

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

More to explore

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