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Talking to your kids helps keep them safe whether they’re online or offline. Even if your kid seems more tech-savvy than you, that doesn’t mean they’re not at risk. Knowing more about the potential dangers they face can help you protect them in the online world, by talking to them, setting boundaries and taking practical steps to keep them safe.

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Being messaged by strangers

Living in a digital world is fantastic for keeping in touch with friends and family, but it comes with risks too. Strangers online can have very bad intentions when getting in touch with children and young people. It could be to scam them, steal their identity, or even groom them.

Social media and messaging apps are one way for your child to be contacted, but they can also be contacted via online games. Make sure they know who they’re talking to online and that they know only to talk to people they know in the real world.

As they get older and meet new friends online, make sure they know not to give away too much information about themselves and keep their location services on social media and gaming apps switched off. (If you’re not sure how to change location settings, the Internet Matters website explains how to do this on different platforms and apps.)

Help them to understand the difference between friendships developed in person, like at school or through a club, and ‘friendships’ made through online communities, like gaming communities or social media. And talk to them about not letting themselves be pressured into doing anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

This page from CEOP Education on catfishing has some advice to help your kids spot the warning signs of a fake profile online.

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Inappropriate or explicit content

There are lots of things we don’t want our children to see, from movies and TV shows that are unsuitable, to images showing upsetting and disturbing things, or it could be forums or articles about unsuitable topics.

Children are naturally curious about things, so try to make sure they come to you with questions about things they don’t understand. Even an innocent internet search could lead to them seeing unsuitable content. There are things you can do at home to limit what they can see and do online too. Our page on setting parental controls has more on this.

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Sharing intimate images online (sexting)

There are different reasons why young people might share intimate images online. It may be because they feel confident about their bodies, or because they trust the person they’re sending it to. It may also be because of peer pressure or bullying. Either way, once an image has been sent, it’s out of the sender’s control. It could be copied, sent to others, or even used to embarrass, shame or manipulate them. Even images that are set to disappear after a certain amount of time can be saved as screenshots.

That’s why it’s important to talk to your child and make sure they understand the dangers of sending naked or semi naked pictures of themselves. You could suggest they download Childline’s ZipIt app, which helps them shut down requests for nude photos or videos.

For more support, the NSPCC and Internet Matters websites have information on how to tackle the subject of image-sharing with your children. The website also has more advice on what to do if intimate images are shared without consent, and so does Citizens Advice Scotland.

Our page on talking to your teen about sex has more advice and information around sharing nude images or video, and how you can tell the difference between normal and unhealthy sexual behaviour online.

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Sexually coerced extortion (sextortion)

Sextortion is a type of online blackmail where someone tries to use intimate, naked or sexual photos or videos of someone, real or fake, to make them do things they don’t want to do, like send them money. This may be a real image taken by the person themselves and shared online, or an image taken without their knowledge. Offenders may have used AI to alter some images that have been shared online or the images may not even exist. But the threat of having them revealed can be really frightening.

To reduce the likelihood of this happening, there are some key things we should all bear in mind when we go online, so make sure your whole family knows what to do.

  • Remember that people online may not be who they say they are.
  • Be careful how much information you share about yourself and your family online (you can read more about 'sharenting' here).
  • Only switch your web cam on when you want to – otherwise keep it switched off, and preferably covered. If you do have it on, be careful about what you say and do.
  • If you feel at all uncomfortable interacting with someone online, end the conversation and block the person if necessary.
  • Keep your privacy settings updated – the National Cyber Security Centre has information on how to use social media safely here.
  • Make sure your child or teen knows that they can always talk to you or another trusted adult like a teacher if they’re worried about this or anything else online.
  • If you’re worried you or anyone else in your family might be being targeted, report it to the police and your online service provider.

If your child or anyone else in your family becomes a victim of sextortion, it can be very distressing. But there is lots of support out there for the whole family.

It's important to know that they are not to blame. The criminals running these schemes are the ones at fault for tricking or deceiving them.

Police Scotland have this advice:

  • Don’t pay. Paying the demands won’t necessarily solve the problem – they may ask for more money or post the images online anyway.
  • Don’t talk any further to the offenders – although it’s a good idea to screenshot their messages as evidence and to write down any details which you have about them. 
  • Deactivate any social media accounts which have been involved, but don’t delete them. This will make sure that important information and data is saved in case it is needed for evidence. 
  • Report the incident to your local police force by calling 101.
  • Under 18s can report sextortion, or any other form of online child sexual abuse, to their local police force by calling 101, or to the NCA’s CEOP Safety Centre.

There are also practical steps you can take:

  • It’s a good idea to change all your family’s passwords and set up two-step verification where it’s offered.
  • Children and young people can report nude images and videos of themselves which have been shared online and get them removed through the Report Remove tool on the Childline website. They can also use Take It Down, which is a tool from the National Center for Missing and Exploited children. This can be used to remove images and videos, or to stop images from being shared online. 
  • Adults can contact the Revenge Porn Helpline.

Our page on what to do if things go wrong has more advice on support, and reporting and removal of images and videos. The National Crime Agency and Police Scotland have more information and advice on dealing with sextortion.

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Issues with social media, self-esteem and body image

Apps like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram can be a great way for kids to connect with each other, discover new interests, and relax and enjoy themselves. But being overly exposed to unrealistic images of ‘beauty’ can sometimes make children and young people feel bad about themselves and their own lives. Our page on helping your child to have a good body image has lots of tips for encouraging your child to feel good about themselves, which will help reduce the impact of this exposure.

Most social media sites have a minimum age requirement of at least 13+. If your child is old enough to use social media, it’s a good idea to have a chat with them about who they follow or connect with, and to remind them that images they see are often edited or fake. 

Before your child signs up to any social media channels, you could have a look at these top tips from CEOP Education together to help them prepare. You can also show them how to block inappropriate content and people they don’t want to interact with. The Internet Matters website shows you how to do this.

Our section on body image and social media for teens has lots of tips on how to help young people develop a good body image, build self-esteem and to use social media in a positive way.

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Online grooming and child sexual abuse and exploitation

Child sexual abuse and exploitation is a scary thing to even think about. Unfortunately, new technologies make it easier for people with a sexual interest in children to contact a child directly and groom them online. Sometimes, people will even pretend to be someone much younger than they really are, even a child.

That’s why it's so very important to look out for your child when they’re online. If you notice behaviour changes – for example, if they become more secretive about their online activity or suddenly start avoiding their devices – you might want to ask them if anything is wrong or worrying them.

Our section on child sexual abuse and exploitation has advice on what you can do to protect your child.

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Online pornography

Young people are naturally curious about sex, and this can lead them to online porn. They could have questions they don’t want to ask anyone else. Or they might stumble across pornographic content by accident. But online pornography can give people unhelpful and unrealistic ideas about sex, consent, relationships and body image.

We know that talking about sexual content online with your child can be difficult, but being open and honest with them about sex and relationships is important for their development. Our page on talking to your child about sex has more advice on this. There are also lots of resources to support you and give you confidence to speak to your children about sexual content online, including the Children 1st and NSPCC websites.

Our section on sex and relationships for teens has more advice and information around online porn, and how you can tell the difference between normal and unhealthy sexual behaviour online.

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Online gaming

Online gaming is a fun way for kids to spend their time while playing with their friends on the internet. Some games teach them new things, and some are just lots of fun. But there can be risks here too.  These risks can be anything from bullying and scams, like being tricked into giving away their personal details, to in-game spending and meeting dangerous people.

To help your child stay safe, talk to them regularly about the games they’re playing and who they are talking to. After all, if they were going out to see friends, you would ask them who they’re seeing – so make sure you know who they’re meeting online too. When it comes to games, you could even join in and play them together. It’s also important to check that they are appropriate for your child’s age. The Family Gaming Database helps you learn more about games and find games that suit your family's requirements.

You can also find out more about online gaming at the NSPCC website and the UK Safer Internet Centre.

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In this short video, gaming expert Andy Robertson discusses how parents can help keep children safe while gaming online.

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In-game spending

Many games contain in-app purchases cleverly targeted at young people. These could be to buy new characters or accessories or unlock new levels. Children may not even realise they’re spending real money.

You can adjust settings on the app store you use (e.g. Apple Store, Google Play) so that you need to sign in to buy an app or get upgrades. We’d also advise against having your card details saved and ensure that in-app purchases are switched off where possible. 

If you’d like to know more, this article from Internet Matters shows you how to control settings on gaming consoles.

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Online bullying

It’s important to talk to your children about online bullying, so they know they can come to you if anything upsets them, and they know how to behave online with their friends. You can find help and advice for supporting your child if they are experiencing online bullying at the respectme website. respectme also have a useful information sheet on online bullying that you can download here.

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Technology assisted harmful sexual behaviour

Technology assisted harmful sexual behaviour is any unwanted sexual comments or actions that happen online. It can include: 

  • editing photos to make them sexual 
  • bullying someone online because they’re different to others of the same gender 
  • posting photos of parts of other children’s bodies to embarrass them 
  • making 'jokes' about someone’s sexual orientation.

This can be very hard for young people to deal with, especially when it’s other young people who are doing or saying these things. They may not even realise that what they’re seeing is not okay until it’s been happening for a while or until it happens to them or someone they know. 

The Childnet website has advice on how you can talk to your child about this issue. Our page on what to do if your child has a negative experience online has more information about how you can report inappropriate online content and behaviour, and how you can get support If you’re worried about your child, you can get further help from the NSPCC or Parentline

Our section on sex and relationships for teens has more advice and information around sharing nude images or video, and how you can tell the difference between normal and unhealthy sexual behaviour online.

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Online gambling

Gambling is often sold as harmless fun. But it can easily become a problem – not just for adults, but for children and young people too. The legal age for online gambling in the UK is 18, but this doesn’t necessarily stop under 18s getting onto gambling sites. 

Talking to your children about gambling can stop it from becoming a problem. Talk about the problems it can cause, and let them know that gambling is never a good or easy way to earn money. Our page on talking to your child about gambling has more tips and advice.

The Gambling Education Hub has a useful leaflet with advice for parents and carers about this, which you can download here.

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Privacy and data theft

Just like adults, children are at risk of having their online identity stolen and misused. It’s important that they don’t give away too many personal details online. Let your child know that they shouldn’t tell people their full name, address, phone number, date of birth, school or the town where they live, when they’re online. You can also talk about the importance of having a strong password, changing passwords regularly and not sharing passwords with anyone – even their best friend. You’ll find more practical tips for protecting your child’s identity online on the Internet Matters website.

The CyberScotland Online Safety hub has lots of useful information on safer browsing, spotting and avoiding scams and reporting cybercrime. You can also sign up for CyberScotland’s email bulletin to stay up to date with the latest safety advice.

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Harmful challenges

Every so often, you may hear about dangerous online challenges that are encouraging children to hurt themselves or other people. And you may feel you should warn your child and other parents about it. But in fact it’s best not to name it or to describe the details of the online challenge to other people – because spreading the word about it can just draw more attention to it.

Instead, talk regularly to your child about how to say no to things which sound fun or exciting but they don’t feel comfortable doing. Our page on peer pressure has tips for helping your children with this. It’s also good to remind them that if anything makes them feel uneasy or if there’s anything they’re not sure about they can always talk to you, or to another trusted adult like a teacher.

If your child does take part in one of these challenges, try to stay calm and talk about it together. Our >page on talking to children about online safety has more tips on how to do this.

If you or your child sees something harmful online, the best thing to do is to report it – our page on what to do if things go wrong explains how. The Internet Matters website has more advice on setting up controls across the networks, devices, apps and sites your child uses to help filter out harmful content.

This page from the UK Safer Internet Centre has further guidance on dealing with harmful online challenges.

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