The internet is an amazing resource which enables children and young people to connect, communicate and be creative in a number of different ways, on a range of devices.
However, there are risks online, which will vary depending on a child’s age, online activities and vulnerabilities.
It can help to ask your social worker if the young person has a history of any online harm or risk (eg bullying, self-harm, grooming or sexual abuse). It is worth being aware that low self-esteem and other emotional, social and behavioural issues can make children more vulnerable to online risks.
We have grouped potential online risks into these 4 categories:
Conduct: Children may be at risk because of their own behaviour, for example, by sharing too much information
Children need to be aware of the impact that their online activity can have on both themselves and other people, and the digital footprint that they create on the internet. Young people may share too much and take risks such as chatting to strangers or sharing sexual images. It’s easy to feel anonymous online and it’s important that children are aware of who is able to view, and potentially share, the information that they may have posted. When using the internet, it’s important to keep personal information safe and not share it with strangers. Discuss the importance of reporting inappropriate conversations, messages, images and behaviours and how this can be done.
Content: Age-inappropriate or unreliable content can be available to children
Online content can be viewed via a range of devices, including laptops, smartphones, tablets and games consoles. Some online content is not suitable for children and may be hurtful or harmful. For example, content that is pornographic, violent, extremist or promotes suicide or anorexia. It’s important for children to consider the reliability of online material and be aware that information might not be true or may be written with a bias. Children may need your help as they begin to assess content in this way. There can be legal consequences for using or downloading copyrighted content, without seeking the author’s permission.
Contact: Children can be contacted by bullies or people who groom or seek to abuse them
It is important for children to realise that new friends made online may not be who they say they are and that once a friend is added to an online account, you may be sharing your personal information with them. Regularly reviewing friends lists and removing unwanted contacts is a useful step. Privacy settings online may also allow you to customise the information that each friend is able to access. If you have concerns that your child is, or has been, the subject of inappropriate sexual contact or approached by another person, it’s vital that you report it to the police via the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (www.ceop.police.uk). If your child is the victim of cyberbullying, this can also be reported online and offline. Reinforce the importance of telling a trusted adult straight away if someone is bullying them or making them feel uncomfortable, or if one of their friends is being bullied online.
Commercialism: Young people can be unaware of hidden costs and advertising
Young people’s privacy and enjoyment online can sometimes be affected by advertising and marketing schemes. Young people can also be unaware of hidden costs in games and apps. Encourage your children to keep their personal information private, learn how to block both pop ups and spam emails, turn off in-app purchasing on devices where possible, and use a family email address when filling in online forms.
It can be difficult to find a balance between giving young people freedom and privacy online, while also developing boundaries and keeping an eye on them.
It can help to decide on a set of family rules that all family members will abide by. These can cover acceptable behaviour, what information is okay to share, when technology can be used, and what to do if anything goes wrong.
It’s important to explain the reasons why these rules are in place and make it clear that the same rules apply to all family members. Parents play an important role in modelling good behaviour, so if you have a rule about no devices at the dinner table, make sure you stick to it as well!
Why not use our family agreement as a starting point when designing your family’s internet rules?
The internet – and social networks in particular – can facilitate contact with a child’s birth family. Some young people may find the internet and social networks a great way of staying in touch with family members and this can be really beneficial. However, there will be situations when contact with family members is not beneficial. Despite this, many fostered or adopted children will have a natural curiosity about their birth family, particularly in their teenage years. They may turn to the internet to explore any unanswered questions, or they may be contacted directly by their birth family.
It is worth considering how to prepare and manage online contact with birth family members and it’s important to start thinking about this with children of all ages.
Managing your family’s online presence
- Familiarise yourself with the privacy settings and reporting features available on the sites and services you and your children use.
- Be careful what you share. On the child’s online profiles, make sure they do not share their school, location or date of birth. Consider what name the child uses – it may be worth using a nickname if they have an unusual first name for example. It’s a good idea to use a profile picture that does not easily identify them. Make sure friends and family know what is appropriate and inappropriate to share.
- Be in touch with the child’s school and youth groups and find out their policies for sharing names and photos.
- Google your family member’s names and check what you can find.
- Remind children not to accept friend requests from people they don’t know.
Preparing for unmanaged contact
- Good communication is essential. Children need to feel able to ask questions about their birth family, and know they can talk openly about their feelings. It can help to ask the child if they have any questions, as they may not feel able to bring it up themselves. It is important to be honest and sensitive about what happened with their birth family; even if you would prefer to protect them from this truth, it is better that they hear it from you.
- It is a good idea to talk to the child about what they would do if a birth sibling, parent or other family member contacted them online. Make sure they know that they can turn to you, and show them how to block unwanted contact on social networks (although bear in mind it is possible for a person who has been blocked to set up another social networking profile and make contact).
- It can help to talk to them about why unmanaged contact through social networks is not the best way to go about this, and why they should never arrange to meet up in person without telling you. If appropriate, you can explain the formal routes they can take if they want to make contact with their birth family.
- If you find out that a child is in touch with their birth family online, respond in a calm way and do not blame the child, even though you may be feeling very shocked. It will be incredibly difficult for the young person too, and by responding calmly, they’ll know they can trust you. You can contact your fostering or adoption service to get advice and support.
- Don’t overreact if a child tells you about something that has worried them online, or if you discover something inappropriate on their device. You might feel shocked and angry but by dealing with it calmly the child will know they can turn to you again.
- Save all available evidence, for example by taking screen grabs.
- Know where to report the incident, for example to the school, service provider (eg Facebook), or the police.
- Speak to your social worker or adoption service.
If you need more support, you can contact our Professionals Online Safety Helpline.
If you have concerns that a child is, or has been, the subject of inappropriate sexual contact or approach by another person, it’s vital that you report it to the police via the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (www.ceop.police.uk).
See our Need help? section for more places to go for help.