Updated: Aug 8
In 2023, one in three internet users is a child under the age of 18. It’s almost inevitable that our children, whether it’s now or in the future, will build online lives. From social media sites to forums to online gaming, young people are using all corners of the internet to learn, share and socialise.
Yet, along with all this opportunity for connection comes new dangers for children. In an online world where interaction with people they don’t know is so normalised, the usual warnings of ‘stranger danger’ are seriously outdated. And, as young people increasingly share their inner lives with the world, the old rules about closely guarding personal information have also been left behind.
So, how can we approach online safety in a fresh, realistic way? In this post, we’ll look at some of the modern dangers of the internet along with how parents and carers can help young people navigate them and stay safe.
What Are Some of the Dangers?
For parents and carers, one of the biggest anxieties about the online world is not knowing who’s truly behind a username. This anonymity opens up potential for sexual grooming, inappropriate interactions and exploitation.
According to the NSPCC, grooming is ‘a form of abuse that involves manipulating someone until they’re isolated, dependent, and more vulnerable to exploitation’.
Online groomers use a range of tactics to get close to their victims. They often infiltrate online spaces that are popular with young people before identifying vulnerable individuals. To build a rapport and false sense of trust, they may learn about their victim’s special interests, shower them with compliments and even offer them gifts.
Grooming can be so difficult to spot because, often, young people will not recognise themselves as a victim. Instead of feeling fear or discomfort, victims could initially feel emotions such as admiration or loyalty towards a groomer.
Online Challenges & Harmful Trends
Fuelled by the rise of TikTok, the last few years have seen an alarming new kind of internet risk: dangerous online challenges.
An online challenge generally involves an individual recording themselves completing something difficult or daring and then sharing the video on social media. Some of these challenges - many of them completely harmless - have gone viral.
Yet, some are dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that multiple young people have died attempting them. Shockingly, the viral ‘Blackout Challenge’ has been linked to the deaths of at least 15 children aged 12 or younger in the past 18 months.
Elsewhere, children are being exposed to harmful content that encourages disordered eating, self-harm and suicide. Several child deaths in the UK have been attributed to consuming such content, including that of Molly Russell who took her own life in 2017 after viewing relentless ‘dark, graphic and harmful material’ online.
Sharing of Intimate Images
A lot of young people today are comfortable with sharing their inner lives online. From daily activities to eating habits to personal thoughts and feelings, the things being shared are what other generations used to write in their private diaries.
Whilst this sharing can be a great way for young people to form friendships and connections, it can also cause potential harm. The prevalence of smartphones has seen a rise in ‘sexting’, where intimate messages and photos are exchanged between teens.
Whilst these exchanges are often consensual, there is the danger that a young person is pressured to make the images or that the photos will be sent on to others without consent. If this is the case, photos can end up on illicit websites and put the sender at risk of abuse or exploitation.
And, even if a young person voluntarily took the photos, distributing them is still a criminal offence under section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. So, even if the people involved are under 18 themselves, they can still find themselves in trouble with the police.
What Can Parents and Carers Look Out For?
In the fight against grooming, one thing to look out for is children moving to new platforms or apps. Offenders will often encourage children to move from a public forum - such as a social media site or a game - to private chat apps. Not only are these less likely to be moderated, but they could also be encrypted spaces, meaning that any messages are hidden from anyone who isn’t a participant in a conversation.
Whilst such apps can have benefits for data security, concerns have been raised about how they could stop police from gathering crucial evidence of child sexual exploitation.
Although encrypted chat apps are popular - with even WhatsApp being end-to-end encrypted - it could be helpful to use parental controls to know what apps your child is installing. This way, you can talk about how and why they might be installing new chat apps.
Something else to keep an eye on are children’s sudden behavioural changes. This could include becoming more secretive with technology - for example never leaving their phone unattended - or generally becoming more withdrawn or isolated from family or friends.
Whilst there can be plenty of other explanations for sudden shifts in behaviour, it’s important to consider that a change or source of anxiety in their online world could be playing a part.
How Parents and Carers Can Help
If, as a parent or carer, you have fears about a child’s safety, it’s understandable that an instinctive reaction is to remove the potential threat. The problem is, blocking sites, taking away technology or checking our children’s phones can create an antagonistic relationship where communication breaks down.
After all, many young people see their phones as a lifeline and their online presence as a core component of their identity. The threat of devices being removed or sites being blocked could be enough to deter young people from reporting any problems they encounter online.
Equally, taking away devices or banning certain apps could lead to teens becoming isolated from friends and peers, actually making them more vulnerable to exploitation in the future. This is because socially isolated young people who spend a lot of time alone are often specifically targeted by groomers.
So, if banning and blocking aren’t effective, what steps can parents and carers take to help their children stay safe online?
One of the best ways to encourage online safety is to empower young people to make healthy choices and feel comfortable to ask for help when they get out of their depth.
The key to helping young people develop this internal compass for navigating the perils of online life is open and consistent conversations without blame. After all, it’s almost inevitable that young people will encounter potentially damaging content or interactions online at some point in their young lives.
Therefore, if something negative does happen online and you find out about it, it’s essential that you don’t shame or blame - even if you don’t agree with your child’s actions. By building a safe space within your relationship for discussing mistakes and dangers, children are much more likely to come to you again when they encounter problems or need advice.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the online world can be an immensely positive space for young people; they can connect with other like-minded individuals their own age, express themselves in new ways, and develop their own interests. With open communication and gentle guidance, young people can feel supported to make the most of everything the internet has to offer.
Where to Find More Information
The online world - and how we talk to our children about it - can be difficult to navigate. Here are some helpful resources for finding out more and sharing with the young people in your life:
Upstream is an online resource that helps adults in Scotland to identify, prevent and report child sexual abuse. It also gives tips on how to talk to children about online safety and what to do if something is worrying them.
The NSPCC’s Pantosaurus resources are designed to teach younger children aged 3 - 8 about their bodies and consent to keep them safe from sexual abuse.
NSPCC also has lots of great resources for both parents and children on how to stay safe online.
Finally, the UK Safer Internet Centre is packed with information for parents and children, including detailed guides to different technology and assistance for reporting harmful content online.