Keeping children safe online during the COVID-19 pandemic
Tips for parents and caregivers
The COVID-19 virus has impacted all aspects of our lives. With schools closed, and lockdowns imposed, many children and young people are spending all their time at home. Much of that time may be online, and often they will spend more time online than usual.
Being able to connect online provides valuable opportunities to learn, play and socialise with friends and peers and access information and support and is therefore extremely important for children and young people. However, spending time online, what some call ‘screen time’, comes with risks:
- Online sexual abuse. They may be approached by strangers or by people they know who have a sexual interest in them. They may be sent sexual content or be asked to share pictures and videos of themselves with sexual content. Adults may build a relationship with them with the intention of sexually abusing them (so called ‘grooming’).
- Cyberbullying. They may receive or be the subject of mean comments, messages and posts. They may be left out of groups online. This can increase stress and feelings of isolation. They may also engage in bullying online themselves.
- Risk-taking online behaviour. Physical distancing and lack of face to face interaction with friends and partners may lead to them taking risks or doing things they might otherwise not do online - for example, through sexting (sending sexually explicit messages) and sharing nude and sexual photos and videos. Their image may then be shared by others without their consent. And they be at risk of extortion, revenge porn, harassment and humiliation. Sending and receiving content can also risk criminal consequences.
- Potentially harmful content. This includes accessing, being sent and sharing harmful content such as: incitement to suicide and self-harm; violent or xenophobic content; and marketing that is not appropriate for children. They may also be exposed to misinformation about COVID-19 that may make them more fearful, anxious and confused about their world.
- Children’s privacy may also be at greater risk. Many of the apps, including those that schools may ask your child to use, may pose privacy risks to users, and may result in their data being compromised, or in personal details and information that may not usually be shared online, becoming easily accessed and exploited.
These risks do not only come from strangers, but also people that they may already know online or offline.
While children and adolescents will no doubt be spending more time online, remember that not all time spent online, in front of a screen, is the same. It will be almost impossible for you to prevent your child going online for longer, when they have few other alternatives to get them out of the house. If we think of children not so much as being obsessed with technology, rather that they are enthusiastic about the opportunities that technology offers, then we are better placed to think about how to manage the time that children spend online.
Below are some TIPS that can help you keep your children safe during their time online.
- Agree as a family on boundaries and expectations: Additional time online does not mean unregulated time online. Discuss and agree on much time your children spend online, for how long they can play games, how long they can spend chatting, and how long they need to spend doing school or homework. Agreements or contracts such as no devices at dinner (for parents or for children!), or no devices after a certain time, can also be introduced.
- Speak to your child about online safety: Now is an important opportunity to engage and communicate with your child about what they are doing online, safe and age appropriate platforms, websites and social media and the steps they take to stay safe online. You can find some useful examples of how to do this here, as well as here. Remember, when speaking to your child about their time online, always be positive and be open. Ask them if they are worried about anything and show that you are available to listen, and about their online friends. It is equally as important to know and understand that many of the same behaviours and factors that keep children safe offline, can help keep children safe online.
- Understanding and encouraging positive social values, respect, empathy, good communication, and conflict resolution, can all help keep children safe online, and these are things that parents do not need technological skills to talk about with their child. Talk to your child about how their online actions and behaviours could affect other people, and how others’ behaviours could affect them. There are some useful resources online that can assist you with these conversations.
- Having said that, become familiar with online safety tools. These include the Safe Search option that most browsers and common search engines have (usually under the ‘Settings’ menu) and parental controls on devices, especially for younger children - useful tools for keeping your children safe on Facebook, as well as ideas for talking to your children about being good citizens online and building their skills. Keeping your child’s data and privacy safe in different web browsers can be found here; and on social media accounts your children may use, such as Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat and others, are available here.
- Know where to seek help and assistance for both you and your child.
Most social media platforms and apps have built-in reporting tools. Visit the FAQ or help section of the apps your child is using to find out more. If you find unwanted sexual content online, or feel your child might be getting into a situation that places them at sexual risk, know where to report it. Depending on where you live, there may be a national hotline for reporting child sexual abuse material, but wherever you live, you can use the Internet Watch Foundation Hotline, available here.
It is also important that you are aware of any signs of your child being upset or distressed from their time online. It is also important that your child is able to contact and access support, for example through a national Childline centre.
- Identify trusted people, either adults or peers, your child can talk to: accept that your child is not always most comfortable speaking to you as a parent, about some of the things they may encounter online. Together with them identify someone that they would be okay talking about what they experience online, who both you and they trust, and agree that this person is who they will go to.
- Understand the privacy risks: While reading the privacy policies of the different video and communication tools your child is using would be ideal, a quick online search can provide the key information. Simply put the name of the application in quotes in the search box and use phrasing like this: “Application name” & privacy risks. Also ensure that your children’s devices have the latest software updates and anti-virus programmes, and that the privacy settings are set to high. Make sure that when your child is using any new application, their location cannot be identified, or used to trace where they might be. Remember that when they step away from the camera for any reason, the video may still be recording. Use a piece of tape or post-it note to cover the cameras when not using it to remind everyone in the family when the camera is on. Most importantly, ensure that the video is turned off at the end of the sessions.
- Respect your children’s privacy online: the sharing of family images and personal stories relating to the lockdown and related challenges, through social media is often a way of remaining connected, finding humour and seeking comfort. However, be careful that when sharing your own stories and photos, you do not share photos that may compromise your child, or affect their own privacy and protection.
- Play with your children – online!: Don’t think of online games as a child-only pastime. This also presents opportunities to play games with your child, just online. This offers a useful opportunity to talk to and engage your child about their world and what is important to them. Online apps, programmes and sites can also provide ideas and opportunities to play offline games, get creative offline, and exercise together through streaming channels and videos indoors, increasing positive bonding time. It is important that you also find some time to do offline activities with children, and encourage them to do things that we often don’t get a chance to in this digital age, like reading books, or playing indoor games.
- Finally, be PROACTIVE in speaking and engaging with your children during this period. There are a lot of opportunities and benefits that the internet and technology can offer during the lockdown and beyond, but these are greatly enhanced when children are equipped with the right emotional tools, and knowledge, to make the most of them. Knowing how to stay safe, regardless of what they are doing online, is important, and that requires an active mediating role by parents and caregivers, regardless of their own technical skills, in order to achieve.
These simple steps can contribute to a healthy and happy relationship around tech use between you and your children long beyond the end of COVID-19.
Some useful resources:
- Better Internet for Kids: https://www.betterinternetforkids.eu/web/portal/practice/awareness/detail?articleId=5822742
- Digital Parenting Coach: https://www.digitalparentingcoach.com/
- Parenting For A Digital Future: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/parenting4digitalfuture/
- Australia e-Safety Commissioner, Global online safety advice for parents and carers – COVID 19
Developed by UNICEF East Asia and Pacific with the support of Patrick Burton and Monica Bulger 2020