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
- 75% of young people say they couldn’t’ live without the internet 
- About 50% of children have experienced at least one kind of cyberbullying in their lifetime 
- 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. 
- 67% of parents of 10-18 year olds think the Government should legislate on an appropriate age for the use of smartphones 
- 92% of parents think social media and the internet are having a negative impact on the mental health of young people 
- Teens who spend five or more hours per day on their devices are 71% more likely to have one risk factor for suicide 
- 52% of students said social media made them feel less confident about how they look or how interesting their life is 
- 34% of young adults are afraid they will miss out on things if they don’t use social media 
- The more often young teens turn to social media, the more prone they are to developing an eating disorder 
- 1 in 4 teenage girls have edited a photo of themselves to change their face or body because of concerns about their body image 
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.
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:
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. 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 that you can do to help keep your child safe and well online. Introduce some of the following so that you can protect your child from the associated risks, and enable them to have a positive experience online.
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.
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 three 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.
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.
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 are 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 cannot contact or be contacted by strangers. Remind them that you love them and want to make sure they are kept safe so they understand why you are making this request.
Ask about who they engage with online
Ask your child who they've been 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. A little context can help as to how this whole eco-system 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 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.
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 they understand that a good bedtime routine, free from their screens is in their best interest.
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 arrive, 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 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 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.
Priory’s Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg explains the common causes of depression, signs your teenager may be suffering and how to help.