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A parent’s guide to keeping children safe online

Children use apps, some of which do pose certain risks. As a parent, it is important to be fully aware of these dangers and understand the best ways for your child to be spending time on smartphones and tablets without it impacting their health and wellbeing. 

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, our consultant child and psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Oxford has looked into the risks that certain types of apps can pose and put together tips for keeping children safe online. She has also looked at the warning signs that could suggest a child has become exposed to risky or dangerous situations online, and given information on how to talk about internet safety with your children so that they have a positive online experience.

Types of apps that parents should be aware of

There are numerous apps available for smartphones and tablets, and more continue to rise in popularity every day. When keeping children safe online, it is important for you to have a good understanding of these apps, their privacy settings and how your child is using them.

We will outline the apps to think about looking into below:

Messaging apps

Your child may use social messaging apps 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:

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Lip sync apps

Lip sync apps are becoming more and more popular amongst adolescents. While it can be a good way for children to express them creatively, think about the following:

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Fitness and food tracking apps

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

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Photo and video sharing apps

Video and photo sharing apps can help a child to explore their creativity, as they can produce, view and share interesting photos and videos, connect with like-minded people and learn about topics that they are interested in. However, think about the following dangers:

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Gaming apps

Online gaming has a number of benefits for children and adolescents. It can help to improve their coordination, problem-solving skills, memory, attention and concentration. It can also be a great way for children to enjoy learning. Yet, there are some risks for you to recognise are as follows:  

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You can view our full illustrated guide to app safety for parents here.

On top of this, spend time exploring the apps that your child currently uses. That way you can get an even better understanding of how these apps work, the content that your child can be exposed to, and the individual privacy settings of each app.

Warning signs that a child isn’t safe online

If you are worried about your child, think about whether you have noticed a combination of the following red flags?

  • Nervous when they get a notification or go on their phone
  • Uneasy about going to school or outside
  • Wants to stay at home as a result of illness symptoms
  • Secretive about online activity
  • Angry, sad or frustrated following phone use
  • Shuts or turns off screens when you enter a room
  • Unexplained stomach pains or headaches
  • Socially withdrawing from family and friends
  • Trouble getting to sleep
  • Not hungry or having trouble eating
  • Lost interest in favourite hobbies or activities
  • Unexpected decline in grades
  • Obsessive tracking and logging
  • Acute awareness of numbers such as calories, fat intake, carbohydrates
  • Obsessive self-scrutiny in mirrors
  • Frequent comparison of size and shape with other people
  • Negative comments about their body

These warning signs could suggest that a child has been exposed to one of the risks associated with internet use, which could include online harassment, cyberbullying or body image issues. If so, it is important that steps are taken to put a stop to the impact that it is currently having on them.

Expert information on keeping your child safe online

There are certain things that you can do to help keep your child safe and well online. Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg has put together the following advice so that you can protect your child from the associated risks, and enable them to have positive experience online.

  • Have regular, quality conversations with your child where you talk about their school, hobbies, friends and concerns

Spending regular quality time together, whether shopping, baking or going on country walks, 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. Car journeys can be a really good time to chat as no one can “escape” and most young people are happier to chat in the car to pass the journey.

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 do not seem unfair, as you are all saying the same thing to your children.

  • Understand the apps your child uses

Spend time educating yourself on the apps that your child uses. Find out their age restrictions, download and test them to get to grips with the content and the people that are accessible on the platforms, as well the privacy settings that should be in place.

  • 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.

  • Discuss, review and monitor app privacy settings

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

  • Ask about who they engage with online

Ask your child who they've been chatting with or 'hanging out with' online. Check if they are talking to strangers, 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 are 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 have seen, make them aware of photo editing software, advertisements and sponsored content.

Also get them to think about the pros and cons of having a smartphone. Giving them a chance to step back and think for themselves can help them to see why you want to know more about their phone activity - for their own health and wellbeing.

  • Emphasise the permanence of their digital footprint

Explain to your child that most parents check on their child’s digital devices, whether or not their friends think they do or not, as parents have to make sure their children are behaving appropriately and are being kept safe. Therefore each time they send a photo or post something, ask them to think to themselves, “would I be happy for my friend’s parent to see this” – if not, they should not post it. 

Ask your child about what they've recently posted online and about any messages they've sent. 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 those who receive or send them. Instil on them that they are responsible for their own online behaviour, and make sure they understand the impact their messages can have on others and themselves.

  • 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 is 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 that they understand that a good bedtime routine free from their screens is in their best interest. 

  • Work through problems together

If you 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?

  • 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 are paying for their contract, you will be checking their phone. 

Do this regularly from the moment your child gets their phone so that it is 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 and it is part of a parent’s job to teach their child to be safe and appropriate online.

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

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

If you would like to speak to a doctor or therapist about your child, please feel free to get in contact with the Priory Group team. At our hospitals and wellbeing centres, we are able to provide therapy, counselling and parental support so that you and your child don’t have to struggle alone.

Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg, Consultant Psychiatrist

"I feel Priory is a safe place to practise; their standards are high and match the quality service I wish to provide. I love the flexibility that being a visiting consultant gives me; I work how much or little as I like, I take holidays as and when I want around my family and I choose when my day starts and finishes".

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