Understanding online risks

For a child or young person who has grown up in the digital age, what happens in the online world is as real as what happens offline. Technology moves quickly and it can be difficult for parents to keep up and to know what safeguards might help minimise the risks children could encounter online.

This section details some of the monitoring and safety options available to help you set and change online boundaries in line with your child’s development and your concerns. In the first instance, be sure to talk to your child about what they do online; what they share, who they talk to, how they know their online friends and what to do to keep themselves safe.

Whilst we talk about the different tools you can use as preventative measures, it’s important that you encourage your child to tell you if they feel uncomfortable by the things they see online. Your child needs to know that they can always come to you to discuss these things – it is vital to keep open the channels of communication and to make your child understand that you will never be angry when they come to you.

Mobile phones

Mobile phones can be a key tool used by offenders in grooming a child and many parents who begin to have concerns about their child’s behaviour will wonder where to set the boundaries when it comes to mobile phones.

Our parent support workers suggest that at a low level of risk or for early intervention, parents could consider taking a child’s mobile from them at night when they go to bed. To maintain the child’s privacy and trust, parents can leave the phone with the child but keep the battery and sim card or lock the phone in a box that the child keeps, while the parent keeps the key.

At a higher level of risk, consider shutting off the internet at a certain time each night via your service provider or restricting your child’s mobile from being able to send photos in messages.

Learn more about smartphones at Safer Internet.

Social media

Social media apps are part of every day communication for those of us who have grown up in the digital age, especially children and young people. Although they are a great tool to stay connected, they also have huge potential of being misused and used by offenders to groom and exploit children.

Social media includes platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Snapchat is a popular app that sends a temporary image file to the receiver to view for a few seconds before the file expires. However, the ability to screenshot the image is still present and the image can be kept by the offender. Although exploitation can take place on any platform, Snapchat in particular has been used by criminal gangs to sell drugs and for distribution due to the temporary feature.

Social networks will generally have a minimum age requirement and most social networking tools now give your child a lot of control over what they share and who they share it with. Through a site’s ‘privacy settings’ you are usually able to control:

  • Who can search for you
  • Who sees what you share (Note: It is a good idea to restrict accounts for young people to friends only.)
  • Who can post information about you

It is important that you stay up-to-date with the privacy settings for any social media that your child uses and to help them stay in control of their profile.

If possible, keep a list of your child’s usernames and passwords for all of their social media accounts as this information could be passed on to the police during an investigation or if a child goes missing.

Other online risks

Live streaming is when users film and broadcast videos in real time. You can livestream on a number of different platforms, including Facebook and Snapchat. Children who livestream can feel under pressure to do so due to these sites rewarding users who post a lot. This can mean children can end up copying the behaviour of others to gain new followers or viewers of their channel.

Criminal gangs and offenders can also use technology to track and monitor children and young people who they are criminally exploiting or to target other children. This tracking enables them to see exactly where a child is and what they are doing so they can control their movements. They regularly use the app ‘Find my iPhone’ to do so. Parents can change the Location Settings within settings on the child’s phone to block apps like Find my iPhone from functioning.

Internet service providers & parental controls

Filtering and moderation packages are a good way to prevent your child from coming across the majority of inappropriate and harmful content available.

Parental controls generally allow you to:

  • Filter content to restrict access to particular sites, such as pornographic websites
  • Set time limits that restrict the amount of time your child can be online or to set periods of time where your child can access certain sites
  • Monitor online activity so that you are informed of certain sites that your child is attempting to gain access to
  • Receive a report where you are provided with information about what sites your child has used

Read about the parental control packages available from the major providers:

Sexting

Sexting, or the sending of a sexually explicit image, can be a feature of sexual exploitation. The reality is that many children are sharing images of themselves and in some cases these are the result of grooming and facilitation by adult offenders.

Once a child shares an image of themselves, they might be blackmailed by the offender and could feel ashamed, cornered and worried about what would happen if their images were shared. If a child does share an image of themselves, it’s important to emphasise to them that whatever happens things will be ok. Retrieving or removing the image might not be possible, but there are ways to report indecent images.

For more information on how to deal with sexting, check out this resource from Safer Internet.

Reporting online abuse

The Internet Watch Foundation
The UK Hotline and takedown service for reporting criminal online content, including child sexual abuse content hosted anywhere in the world.

The IWF has partnered with YOTI to make it easier for children to report a nude image of themselves which has been shared online.

Child Exploitation Online Protection (CEOP)
Part of the National Crime Agency, you can report online grooming behaviour to CEOP. Fill in a report if someone is acting inappropriately towards you, or a child or young person that you know, such as a sexual chat or being asked to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable or someone insistent on meeting up.

You can also request that a social media platform take down the content directly if it violates their terms of service. See how to report child sexual exploitation to:

For more platform-specific advice, including game consoles, check out Childnet.

Recommended sites for more information

Net Aware are a great source of information for online safety for children. Here, you can find information about lots of different apps that children are currently using.

INEQE has a range of videos to explain the different risks children face online. INEQE also host an app to help parents gain a greater understanding of the digital space.

The Breck Foundation campaigns for internet safety for children and young people and supports parents to empower and educate their children about online safety.

Your local police
Parents can also make reports to their local police forces. In an emergency or if a crime is ongoing, always dial 999.