2021 was declared the worst year for child sexual abuse online. Here is how to talk to children about staying safe online.
The internet has massively helped us get through the pandemic – especially children and young people. Yet 2021 was also ‘the worst year on record for child sexual abuse online’, according to a new report by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
It’s extremely worrying, and experts are calling for more support around spotting dangers and keeping youngsters safe. Conversations we have at home can also be important, says Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet International (childnet.com) and director of UK Safer Internet Centre, a partner of the IWF.
“Imagine a pandemic without the internet… for their education, their social lives, it has been a lifesaver in many ways,” says Gardner. “So this is not about taking technology away, because it is so critical for young people in their lives and development.”
It’s about looking at what we can all do to help them stay safe…
“There are some key things to make sure children and young people know about,” says Gardner. “Not to share contact information when you are interacting with somebody you don’t know in the real world; remembering that people you are engaging with online, although you might have been talking to them for a long time, are still strangers, even if you’ve told them your life story, some of your secrets – they are still strangers.
“The message we give to children is if you are at all uncomfortable or concerned by someone or something you see online, go and talk to your parent or carer, or a trusted adult.”
Keep communication channels open
Gardner says “one of the most important” things is to “make sure the channels of communication are open, to make sure children feel confident and comfortable to come and talk to you if they have a problem”.
How parents and carers react when children and young people talk to them is crucial, too. Focus on listening and staying calm and on their side. “It’s really important not to overreact, because we need to make sure that channel of communication remains open, so how you react is [very important], to be able to sit down and be there and ready to listen,” says Gardner.
“It can be difficult to start the conversations, and the conversations will need to be different depending on the age of the child,” he adds. To help people with this, UK Safer Internet Centre (saferinternet.org.uk) has developed a wide range of educational resources for schools, parents and carers, including advice on how to approach and handle conversations about online safety – with a lot more created for this year’s Safer Internet Day on February 8 (saferinternetday.org).
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It doesn’t necessarily have to be a face-on or personal confrontation either. “We can depersonalise things to try and get a conversation started. We can talk about something we’ve seen in the media, a news story, or something about a celebrity – so I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about online safety [in general], and we can both learn from this situation,” he explains.
“We also give advice to parents and carers on how there can be other moments where it’s good to start a conversation, when you’re driving with a child, or going for a walk with a child. Where there’s not necessarily that face-to-face pressure, it can be easier to talk about things. There are lots of ways to get creative about it.”
Teach them about saying no
It’s not just about policing the technology itself. Nurturing a healthy awareness of personal boundaries and teaching children it’s always OK to say no and step away when they feel unsafe can feed into it, too.
“Being able to say no is a really, really important aspect to online life. If a young person is feeling pressured to do something, absolutely they should always know they can say no, and if they’re not comfortable they can come and talk to their parent or carer about that,” says Gardner.
“It can be very difficult – the online world can be very immediate and it seems like things need to happen quickly – but it’s important to be able to say no and that’s a fundamental part of the conversation to be had.”
There are also practical strategies we can learn here: “I can close my laptop lid. I can turn the monitor off on my PC. I can turn my phone or tablet over – to remove yourself from the situation, and go and get support.”
Role model healthy boundaries for online life
Children can absorb a lot from the adults around them – so when it comes to having healthy boundaries with our online lives, everyone plays a part. “We have a family agreement on our website, and it’s kind of a deal between child and parent around ‘this is how we’re going to use technology’, and it’s binding for both parent and child,” says Gardner.
“That can be about devices at mealtimes, or what is OK and what is not OK to share. I think that’s an important conversation to have, what is OK to put in the public domain? And that can involve the whole family – if I’m sharing a picture of you, I will ask your permission before I share it. Or it could be what’s appropriate to share – those are really significant things.”