Dangers on the internet are on the rise. Digital wellbeing expert Georgie Powell explains the risks parents need to know aware of and what they can do about them to help keep their children safe.
My work focuses on helping families build positive digital habits, on screen time management and on reclaiming control over their everyday interactions with tech. Finding digital balance is key to good mental health, relationships and child development.
I’m also a mom. So, as well as trying to find healthy tech balance at home, I also fear the threats of online harms firsthand. Over the past few months of social distancing and lockdowns there has been an increase in cyber criminals online, in the dissemination and demand for inappropriate content, including imagery of child abuse. File-sharing abuse is also on the rise, as is the online grooming of children for sexual or criminal purposes. Whilst these online risks may at times seem distant, or too gruesome to think about, the reality is, none of us are immune, and we have a responsibility as parents to keep our families safe.
It’s not just a feeling. The statistics are clear. In the U.K., between March and April 2020, the BBC found that reports of obscene material online doubled to more than 4 million in a month. Also in the U.K., where 300,000 people are considered a threat to children and nearly 8.8 million attempts were made in April to access child sexual abuse websites which had been previously blocked by the Internet Watch Foundation.
According to a recent submission by 5RightsFoundation to the U.K. government’s enquiry into online harms during COVID, the U.K. is not alone:
- The US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) received 4.2 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation in April, an increase of nearly 3 million from the same month in 2019
- InHope, a network of 46 national “cyber tiplines”, states that reports of child sexual exploitation are up 30% globally during the pandemic
As children spend more of their time stuck at home online, they are a captive audience for predators seeking to groom children for sexual or criminal purposes. Cut off from the safety net of school, where concerns can be more easily shared with teachers and friends, it may be harder for a child to come forward with any worries about interactions with bad actors online, which are often debilitating to confidence and sense of self-worth. This brief investigation provides some insight into what it might feel like for a child to be groomed.
Grooming and bullying is on the rise. Australia’s eSafety Commissioner reported a 50% increase in incidents of cyberbullying during the first three weeks of lockdown. And an analysis of digital toxicity by AI start-up L1ght reported a 70% increase in hateful and abusive language among children and teens in March 2020.
Meanwhile, technology companies and law enforcement bodies are struggling to keep up. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reported that the amount of child sexual abuse material that was flag and then actually removed from the internet fell by 89% over a four-week period during early lockdown – not because it wasn’t harmful content, but due to understaffing.
So, what can you do to help protect your child from dangers online?
1. Have a conversation with your child about the real risks of being online, including grooming, viewing harmful content and the theft of personal data.
Many young people may feel immune to these risks, but the reality is, we are all vulnerable online.
2. Look out for signs that your child may be being exploited online.
The Children’s Society recommends looking out for some of the following signs which may indicate that your child needs help:
- Talking about older/new friends they’ve met online
- Talking about gifts/money they’ve received online
- Becoming withdrawn and secretive
- Having a new phone or more than one phone
- Receiving a large number of calls or messages
- Worried about being away from their phone
3. Understand the apps and games your child is using.
Remember many games often have messaging functions or chat rooms, where your children can be contacted by strangers. Work with them to set appropriate privacy settings. Encourage them to keep location settings turned off.
4. Use parental controls like Qustodio to monitor your children’s online activity.
Use insights on what they are watching or playing to encourage conversation as a family and to build healthy habits.
5. Keep your family safe from scams by keeping on top of your privacy settings and using varied and strong passwords.
Be wary of unsolicited emails and update your devices security software. And trust your instincts. If something just doesn’t feel right online, even if it “looks okay”, it probably isn’t.
For further resources related to online safety:
- See the U.K. Government Online Safety summary for staying safe online during COVID
- The US Department of Justice Keeping Children Safe Online site
- Anonymously and confidentially report Child sexual abuse content to the Internet Watch Foundation
- Find out more by Thinkuknow by National Crime Agency-CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection)
- Learn what to do help protect your child against bullying, and what to do if they become a victim
Remember, if you’re worried that a child or young person is at immediate risk of harm, you should call the police.
While the statistics are daunting, we should use them to keep us informed, not to live in fear. Fortunately, we as parents do have many resources, from native and independent parental control features to privacy controls to speaking up and having conversations with our kids. Used together, they go a long way to keeping our children safe online today.