We’ve only just welcomed 2017 into our homes and already we’re seeing stories about the internet popping up that can be very concerning for parents.

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 may make you worry about how quickly and easily a stranger could start a relationship with a child. 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?

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. Amidst all this it’s worth bearing in mind that around 25% of new adult relationships in the UK begin on dating apps or websites.  

It’s unrealistic to expect young people not to be inquisitive and want to chat online, just as their parents’ generation does. But it’s important that they understand how to do it safely.

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

Talk with them about your concerns, so that they can reassure you. Ask them what they would do if someone they didn’t know started speaking to them.

Young people should only chat online with people they know in person. No matter how long they’ve been talking to a friend they met online, they are still strangers that they shouldn’t share personal information with or arrange to meet in person.

Time moves on but talking about behaviour is still the best way to address any worries you may have. Our conversation starters can help with this.

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 are too easily distracted by their new messaging app then 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. Speak to your child, get support from your child’s school and if you think a child is at risk, contact the police. The National Crime Agency’s CEOP command have lots of advice about online grooming at thinkuknow.co.uk.

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 just as important when keeping children safe online.

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. There are lots of safety and privacy features available that young people may not be aware of, you can find out more in our guide to popular social media sites.

Take an active interest

Social media is much the same as watching a film, parents should be aware of what their children are doing or watching.

It can help to be aware that some apps are only meant to be used by children aged 13 and over (like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat). Despite ongoing work to improve age verification, there are currently no robust measures to verify if someone is 13 or over, so parents play a really important role here.

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 or something online has made them feel uncomfortable, that’s the biggest part of your job done.

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