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.
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. 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.
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 protecting your child online has more on this.
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 even manipulate them.
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 Safer.scot website also has more advice on what to do if intimate images are shared without consent, and so does Citizens Advice Scotland.
Issues with self-esteem and body image
Social media (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.
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.
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.
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 porn can give people 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. There are 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.
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.
In this short video, gaming expert Andy Robertson discusses how parents can help keep children safe while gaming online.
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.
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.
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. The Gambling Education Hub has a useful leaflet with advice for parents and carers about this, which you can download here.
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.