Digitalisation means children now have the world at their fingertips. And with nearly three-quarters of pre-teens in the UK now owning a smartphone they have untold opportunities to learn, explore and communicate online. But with the freedom of the digital world there are also serious risks.
Carolyn Bunting, CEO of Internet Matters, shares advice for parents around the issues of online grooming and sexting.
We know that online grooming consistently remains a top concern for parents. Our latest research has found that nearly seven out of ten parents have worries over this issue. Groomers often use social networks in order to attempt to gain a child’s trust – often posing as someone the same age as the child and, once they feel they have the child’s trust, they then encourage children to send sexual photographs or videos of themselves.
At Internet Matters, we encourage parents to have conversations as early as possible as part of a preventative measure to stop children falling victim to online dangers and risks.
Technology will change, the devices children use will advance and groomers will find new platforms to target children. However, if you have created an open channel from a young age, your child will feel more comfortable talking to you as soon as they face something online that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Here are some easy steps for starting a conversation with your child about the risks of online grooming.
Be approachable: Let them know you are there to help them if they get into trouble online and if they are concerned about something they can come to you.
Talk to them about their online friendships: Find out what sites they go to, where they met their online friends, how they communicate and what information they share. Make sure they know that having thousands of online ‘friends’ isn’t always safe.
For older children: Teenagers may be very protective of their online network and feel you are interfering with their private lives so start a conversation by stating that “you read something the other day” or “you heard about a case in the news” and allow them to think critically about it. Explain how easy it is to pretend to be someone else online, and why an adult may wish to approach them.
With younger children: Talk about grooming as you would “stranger danger” – a stranger is anyone you don’t know, whether in real life or online. Tell them they shouldn’t talk privately or give personal information to anyone they don’t know. Discuss with them what ‘personal information’ is.
If you have concerns that your child is being groomed, here are the key signs to look out for:
- Your child wanting to spend more and more time on the internet.
- Being secretive about who they are talking to online and what sites they visit.
- Switching screens when you come near the computer.
- Possessing items – electronic devices or phones – you haven’t given them.
- Using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know.
- Becoming emotionally volatile.
Credit: Marco Verch
While contact with strangers on the internet poses a serious danger to our children, peer-to-peer relationships can also cause them harm. With increased access to social media networks, more children are sharing inappropriate images of themselves on the internet.
Trust can be exploited, and inappropriate images can end up being shared on multiple group chats on social networks, affecting your child’s reputation and mental health.
It’s important to be able to talk to your child about the consequences of sexting and what to do if it does happen.
Explain what can happen to an image: Remind your child that once an image has been sent, there’s no way of getting it back or knowing where it will end up. Ask them to think before they send a picture of themselves: ‘Would I want my family, teachers or future employers to see it?’
Be prepared: Talk to your child about having some responses ready if they are asked to send explicit images. ChildLine has created a free app which has witty images to send in reply plus advice on how to stay safe.
Tackle peer pressure: Show you understand how they may feel pushed into sending something even though they know it isn’t the right thing to do. Help them to understand that the results of giving in to pressure could be much worse than standing up to it.
Reassure them if it does happen… then it is important to stay calm and work together to resolve the situation. If they can’t talk to you, direct them to organisations like ChildLine who can offer one-to-one support.
Internet Matters is a UK-based, not-for-profit organisation that has a simple purpose – to help keep children safe in the digital world. They offer advice and information on tackling e-safety issues, are backed by the UK’s most prominent internet industry players and are supported by leading child online safety experts. For more information, go to www.internetmatters.org