This guest blog was written by Kat Tremlett, a practitioner on the Professionals Online Safety Helpline. The helpline is free and confidential and supports any professionals working with children and young people in the UK with any online issues relating to children or professionals themselves, including online reputation, cyberbullying, social media mis-use, sexting and many more. The helpline is operated by SWGfL, coordinators of the UK Safer Internet Centre. The Centre coordinates Safer Internet Day in the UK.
We’ve only just welcomed 2017 into our homes and already we’re seeing stories about the internet popping up that would make any parent wish they could make it go away forever.
So far this year we’ve heard the Children’s Commissioner for England tell us that young people are being left to fend for themselves online, while one parent’s recent Facebook post went viral when he discovered that his eight year-old daughter had received sexual messages from an unknown male through Musical.ly.
Thankfully in this instance the parent found out in time and did the right thing by reporting it to the police and alerting other parents.
Also in the news recently was the hard hitting film by Leicestershire Police, Kayleigh’s Love Story (caution: some viewers may find this distressing), which serves as a stark warning about the risks of children chatting to people online who they don’t know. The film was made with support from Kayleigh’s family, and is part of a multi-agency campaign to tackle child sexual exploitation in the Leicestershire area, CEASE (Commitment to Eradicate Abuse and Sexual Exploitation).
Watching the film is hard and will make you worry about how quickly and easily a stranger could start a relationship with a child.
But before you rush off and tell them not to chat to anyone they don’t know online, it’s worth bearing in mind that more than 25% of new adult relationships in the UK (27% in our office) begin on dating apps or websites.
Of course, it’s important that young people take care when chatting online, but equally the message needs to reflect society’s trends. Young people grow up in a world of games and apps, with the most successful - Snapchat, Instagram, Movie Star Planet, Dub Smash to name just a few - including a private message function. It’s unrealistic to expect young people not to be inquisitive and want to chat to strangers in the same way that their parents’ generation does.
For a parent, Kayleigh’s Love Story stirs the guttural emotions that tell them to hold their child close and never let them out of sight. But it also prompts a number of important questions: What can I do? Who do I ask for help? How can I talk to my child about this? How do I know if there’s a problem?
Keeping young people safe while they’re chatting online
You can find lots of useful advice on the UKSIC website, but here are our top tips:
Have a conversation
Time moves on but talking about behaviour is still the best way to address any worries you may have. Talk with them about your concerns and ask them to show you what they do online to reassure you.
Look for signs and opportunities to intervene
Kayleigh’s Love Story highlights the persistent and continual fashion in which she was being contacted. If a child seems to be glued to their phone and you’re worried the new message notification is interrupting every aspect of their daily life have a chat with them about it.
Use these opportunities to have discussions with young people about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships to help highlight potential risks.
Trust your gut
If you have concerns, act now. There is a time and place for subtlety and reasoning, but when it comes to young people’s safety, this is not it.
Focus on the behaviour not the technology
Older generations often shy away from talking about online behaviour for fear of exposing their lack of knowledge about the different platforms. The key thing is the life experience adults have, which is far more valuable than any technological solution.
Focusing on behaviour allows you, as an adult, to draw from your experience to provide the support a young person may need.
As South West Grid for Learning’s (SWGfL) Online Safety Director, Ken Corish, wrote in this blog:
“Our children are not born experts in online life. They may have an affinity for technology but they are still children with all of the inexperience and naivety that brings. It is our job to support those things, no matter in which aspect of their life they occur.”
Do some research
There are no expectations on adults to know the ins and outs of every game, app or website in order to protect young people. But by learning the basics about an app, you at least give yourself a better understanding of the potential risks.
Most apps with a private messaging feature usually include privacy settings you can adjust to prevent strangers from messaging you. But your average eight year old who just wants to have fun may not think about that.
Cast your mind back to the dark ages – if your eight year-old child went into Blockbuster with you and chose to rent a 12a film, but you didn’t notice it was a 12, you wouldn’t have been angry at the DVD/VHS player (depending on your vintage) for playing it. You may even have still let them watch it, with you present and ready to cover their eyes and ears if a particularly scary scene came on.
Social media is much the same, young people need supervision and parents need to be aware of what their child is doing.
The majority of apps on the market are intended for children aged 13 and over. US legislation “COPPA” makes it illegal for apps hosted in America (which is most of them) to store data or advertise to minors under 13. However it is not illegal for someone under 13 to create an account, but the company can be prosecuted if they knowingly allow one to exist.
It’s fair to say that more robust age verification controls is something the industry needs to improve, after all anyone could enter any date of birth and create an account, but parents also have a role to play.
All this being said, one of the most important and empowering things any parent or member of the children’s workforce can do, is to build an open and transparent relationship with a child, one where they feel they can talk openly to you.
If your child willingly wants to tell you if someone online is being weird or they feel uncomfortable with something, that’s the biggest part of your job done.
Advice if you discover a young person is being groomed.