A guide to keeping children safe online

All you need to know about popular apps, the warning signs of problematic internet use, and how to keep children and teenagers safe online.

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The internet is an ever-evolving space, and while children and adults alike get many benefits from this incredible, modern technology, it comes with its dangers and drawbacks when it comes to safety and mental health – especially for children.

With the help of Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford, we’ve compiled information on what the dangers are, how you might know a child is unsafe online, plus tips for keeping children safe online.

Child internet safety: the statistics

  1. 75% of young people say they couldn’t live without the internet [1]
  2. About 50% of children have experienced at least one kind of cyberbullying in their lifetime [2]
  3. One in three young people said they have been a victim of online bullying, with one in five reporting having skipped school due to cyberbullying [3]
  4. 67% of parents of 10 to 18 year olds think the Government should legislate on an appropriate age for the use of smartphones [4]
  5. 92% of parents think social media and the internet are having a negative impact on the mental health of young people [4]
  6. Teens who spend 5 or more hours per day on their devices are 71% more likely to have one risk factor for suicide [5]
  7. 52% of students said social media made them feel less confident about how they look or how interesting their life is [6]
  8. 34% of young adults are afraid they'll miss out on things if they don’t use social media [7]
  9. The more often young teens turn to social media, the more prone they are to developing an eating disorder [8]
  10. One in four teenage girls have edited a photo of themselves to change their face or body because of concerns about their body image [9]

What are the risks for children online? 

While we all want our children to enjoy their experiences online, some platforms carry certain risks that you need to be aware of.


Social media, online gaming and messaging services can make bullying become something that young people can’t avoid, even when they return home from school.

Some of these online spaces attract toxic people, whose comments may be critical of a child or some content they've uploaded online. These comments can be very hurtful or embarrassing, especially if they're publicly available. Cyberbullying might also manifest itself in ‘trolling’, where a person will intentionally antagonise someone else, for example, by disrupting a game they're playing.

Children and parents alike should make use of the blocking and reporting functions available on social media platforms, in order to stop bullies from contacting them.

Fear of missing out (FOMO)

In the digital age, a new device, platform or other exciting tech product is only ever a few weeks away. To a child, having the latest games console, smartphone or app can seem like the most important thing in the world – especially if they think ‘everyone else at school has it’. If they aren’t participating in the latest online or tech craze, this can lead to them feeling like they’re missing out.

The rise of in-game purchases on video games has made this feeling deeper. Many of the leading video games, such as FIFA and Fortnite, come with additional content that gives players the best outfits or skills – which can be earned through many hours of gameplay or bought immediately with real money. Parents should be aware of the ease with which a child could purchase some of these expensive add-ons if their payment details are stored in the game.

Feeling inadequate

Filters, image manipulation tools and the system of 'likes' and 'shares' have made social media a platform that encourages us to constantly compare our lives with others. If you see a friend on social media who seems more popular, or think they’re living a happier life than you, you can quickly feel inadequate or isolated.

This can damage the mental health of anyone, but children are often the most deeply affected. It’s important for us all to acknowledge that social media isn’t real life, and image manipulation tools have created an unrealistic sense of body image. Having time away from these platforms can actually be beneficial to our mental health.

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, on image enhancement online:

“Priory consultants visited a school where the vast majority of young girls they spoke to said they felt compelled to digitally enhance their image before displaying it on social media, which is very worrying.

“Helping young people develop a positive identity, by building confidence, self-esteem and interests, without reference to weight or looks, is imperative. Ensuring they understand that social media presents a distorted reality is crucial."

Inappropriate content

The internet has many dark corners filled with inappropriate content. Social media can be used to send and share this content among thousands of people seemingly instantly. It may even be the case that your child doesn’t actively seek to view anything inappropriate but is sent it from elsewhere.

Parents should consider using parental controls to block inappropriate websites and limit the possibility of a child being exposed to something they shouldn’t be viewing.

Speaking to people they don't know

The vast and open nature of social media, forums and online gaming platforms makes communication with people you don’t know incredibly easy. This instant means of communication is a major benefit to the digital world, but it can also put young people at risk of grooming or online abuse. Just as you were taught when you were younger, asking your child to avoid speaking to strangers can help protect them from harm.

Being aware of apps and platforms

There are numerous apps, platforms and other things children engage with on their smartphone or computer every day. It can be hard to keep up with these ever-changing trends, but it’s important to have a good understanding of what they are, what they do and the privacy and other settings you might be able to use to help keep your child safe.

Spend time exploring the different platforms below:

Messaging and chat

What is it?

Social messaging apps allow us to stay in touch with friends and other family members. While they can help children to maintain their connections and relationships, there are certain things for you to be aware of.


  • WhatsApp
  • Facebook Messenger

What are the risks?

  • Cyberbullying
  • Explicit content can be sent, received or viewed
  • People can be contacted by strangers (depending on the app’s privacy settings)

How can I reduce the risks?

  • Let your child know that if someone seems to know family or friends, or even seems friendly, this could be a trick
  • Make sure they know never to respond to requests for personal information or send photos of personal information

Photo and video sharing

What is it?

Video and photo sharing apps can help a child to explore their creativity, as they can produce, view, watch and share interesting photos and videos, connect with like-minded people and learn about topics they're interested in.


  • TikTok
  • Instagram
  • YouTube

What are the risks?

  • Unrealistic and unregulated photos of food, peers, influencers and exercise can impact body image
  • Explicit content can be sent, received or viewed
  • Cyberbullying and trolling in the comments and messages

How can I reduce the risks?

  • If your child follows influencers, make them aware that many are paid or sponsored to promote products, so their posts should be taken with a pinch of salt
  • Also talk to them about photo editing and how it's used online
  • As these apps often have messaging functions, check privacy settings and let your child know that if they see anything that worries them, they should talk to you

Online gaming and streaming

What is it?

Online gaming has a number of benefits for children and adolescents. It can help to improve their co-ordination, problem-solving skills, memory, attention, concentration and allows kids to be social with their friends. Popular games include the FIFA football series, Fortnite and Minecraft.


  • Xbox Live
  • PlayStation Plus
  • Twitch

What are the risks?

  • In-app purchases can be made unknowingly
  • Explicit content may be viewed in the game
  • Often possible to be contacted or converse with strangers
  • Messaging options can lead to cyberbullying from strangers or friends

How can I reduce the risks?

  • Find out who your child plays with
  • Set rules together about the people they should talk to, what they should and shouldn’t talk about, the language they should use and how they should treat others
  • Also agree on what they should do if someone says something that worries them – let them know they should come and talk to you

Lip sync

What is it?

Lip sync apps are becoming more and more popular amongst adolescents, allowing them to dance to their favourite songs and post the video online. While it can be a good way for children to express themselves creatively, think about the following:

What are the risks?

  • Cyberbullying from friends or strangers
  • Explicit content can be sent, received or seen
  • People can be contacted by strangers (depending on the app’s privacy settings)

How can I reduce the risks?

  • Speak to your child about the dangers of talking with strangers. Check their privacy settings, and let them know they should always talk to you if they see something that worries them
  • Also, make sure they understand the permanence of their digital footprint

Fitness and food tracking

What is it?

There are numerous fitness and food tracking apps available for download. It's important for you to understand them and recognise the risks that can result from using them.

What are the risks?

  • Development of a negative body image and unrealistic fitness or weight loss goals
  • People can be contacted by strangers (depending on the app’s privacy settings)

How can I reduce the risks?

  • Rather than discussing weight, talk about the benefits a healthy lifestyle can have on wellbeing, growth and energy levels
  • Encourage them to help you cook nutritious meals, get involved in team sports, and understand that treats can be enjoyed in moderation

Warning signs that a child isn’t safe online

If you're worried about your child, think about whether you've noticed a combination of the following red flags. If so, it could be that your child’s online activity is harming their mental health.

  • Nervous when they get a notification or go on their phone
  • Uneasy about going to school or outside
  • Secretive about online activity
  • Angry, sad or frustrated following phone use
  • Shuts or turns off screens when you enter a room
  • Socially withdrawing from family and friends
  • Trouble getting to sleep
  • Lost interest in favourite hobbies or activities
  • Obsessive tracking and logging
  • Frequent comparison of size and shape with other people

How can I keep my child safe online?

There are certain things you can do to help keep your child safe and well online. Introduce some of the following so you can protect your child from the associated risks, and enable them to have a positive experience online.

Child mental health and social media

Talk about their school, hobbies, friends and concerns

Spending regular quality time together, whether shopping, in the car, baking or walking in the park, gives you the opportunity to chat to your child about their phone, tablet or laptop in a way that doesn't seem out-of-the-blue or accusatory.

During these conversations, ask your child about what apps they like to use. This can encourage them to open up to you about their life online. If your child is reluctant to chat about this, it can be useful to discuss it with them when they have a friend over, perhaps over the dinner table, as if making small talk.

Develop a network with the parents of your child's friends

If you can, form a group chat with the parents of your child’s friendship group, as this can be a very useful space to alert each other to issues with your children’s online use. It can also be a helpful space to counteract the commonly heard phrase from children - “but everyone else is allowed that app/game”. As a group of parents, you can set boundaries or limits that don't seem unfair, as you're all saying the same thing to your children.

Get parental control apps

There are many apps available that allow parents to monitor their child’s online use; read reviews and find the most suitable one for your child’s phone and your needs. With these tools, you can do things like set timers, block unsuitable content and monitor devices remotely.

Discuss, review and monitor app privacy settings

When you're talking with your child, ask if they know about the privacy settings they have on their apps, and make sure they are set to be as private as possible so they can't contact or be contacted by strangers. Remind them that you love them and want to make sure they're safe, so they understand why you're making this request.

Ask about who they engage with online

Ask your child who they've been hanging out with online. Check if they're talking to strangers or friends, and ask whether anyone has ever said anything to worry them.

Let them know that if they ever see something online or receive a message that they're worried about, they should always turn to you. You love them, want to keep them safe, and will always be there to support them.

Encourage critical thinking

Encourage your child to question what he or she has seen online. If they speak about images they've seen, make them aware of photo editing software, advertisements and sponsored content. A little context on how this whole ecosystem works might stop them from reacting negatively to anything they see.

Emphasise the permanence of their digital footprint

Remind them of the permanence of their digital footprint, and how messages or images could impact them now and in the future. Also, explain to them the impact that unkind digital messages can have on people who receive or send them. Instil on them that they're responsible for their own online behaviour, and make sure they understand the impact their messages can have on others and themselves.

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, on adolescent smartphone use:

"There is ample evidence to demonstrate the negative effects of phone time on older children, particularly on those using them for more than 3 hours a day; these include structural and functional brain imaging changes, increases in emotional distress and higher rates of anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as lack of sleep.

"Phone time stimulates the 'reward centre' of the brain, acting as a digital drug, so young people want more and more of it, but young people should be active, investigating life in the real world and having lots of social interaction to develop healthily, physically and mentally."

Set boundaries

Agree on tech-free times and zones. For example, you may choose to go tech-free before school, at night, in bedrooms and in the dining room. Lead by example and follow the rules yourself.

Also put a ban on talking to strangers and explain why. You want your child to remain safe and well, and even if strangers appear nice and friendly, it's likely that they don't have your child’s best interests in mind.

Make them aware of the benefits of tech-free time. For example, use a sleep calculator to show them how much sleep they should be getting, so they understand that a good bedtime routine, free from their screens, is in their best interests.

Work through problems together

If your child is expressing fears or worries, create a plan of action together. Should they block a person, leave a particular online group or delete an app? If a problem does arise, make sure you offer as much support as possible and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Ask for usernames and passwords

Some parental control apps permit only the parent to change apps’ passwords on their child’s phone. Therefore, if you pay the bill, you can have access to the phone. Consider being honest with your child that while you're paying for their contract, you'll be checking their phone.

Do this regularly from the moment your child gets their phone so that it's the norm from the start. Check it while your child is present and use it as a time to discuss your concerns. Share any real life stories related to your concerns, such as someone finding a message they shared privately with friends had been shared publicly, or someone being asked for an inappropriate picture, as these tend to resonate more with young people.

Remind them that you love and trust them, but want to make sure that they remain safe. Make it clear that you aren't checking up on them, but simply want to check up on any strangers or other people who may try to get in contact with them. Emphasise that it's part of a parent’s job to teach their child to be safe and appropriate online.

Alert your child's school or the police and flag anything concerning

If your child feels threatened, bullied or if any conversations online suggest predatory or grooming behaviour, contact your child’s school and the police to raise a complaint.

Child internet safety statistics

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