There is also the worry of online bullying, being exposed to things they perhaps shouldn’t see and how that can impact your child’s mental health.
Social media and the Internet aren’t going away. If your child isn’t online yet, the chances are they will be soon. So it’s important to know how to talk to your child about what’s OK online and what’s not, and how to handle any problems that arise.
Have the confidence to understand social media, chat rooms and how websites work, and be involved. The more clued up you are, the better. The online world is a new responsibility for parents. Just as you teach your child the wrongs and rights of daily life in the real world, you need to do exactly the same in regards to the online world. Set the rules and act as an example, as you do for all aspects of your child’s life. If you are tapping away on your smartphone at mealtimes, your child will do the same.
Banning devices and the Internet is not the answer
We have many calls to YoungMinds related to social media and internet involvement. Parents often say they have tried taking phones or laptops away, disconnecting the WiFi or putting a ban on social media accounts. This is really a short-term tactic and can often make things worse – children will always find a way to get online and do so secretly. It’s better to be involved; agree set screen times and establish rules around its use. Simply banning access because of an issue or misuse isn’t going to fix a problem.
Supervise from a young age
Many very young children – even two and three year olds – already use tablets and phones to watch programmes or play games, educational or otherwise. From the word go, start setting boundaries and a culture around screens. Ensure your child is supervised, set a timescale that they can have access or make it an occasional treat. Allowing them to freely use devices as they wish means your child will grow up with this attitude towards the online world.
Educate your child about privacy
As adults, we (usually!) know not to give out our name, address and personal information to people we don’t know online. But children won’t be aware of the risks in this unless they’re educated about it from the start. Young children are completely innocent and trusting about the online world, as they are in the real world. Just as you would with life skills, such as crossing the road and cycling safety, talk to your child about personal privacy. Teach them about the Internet and online safety, and how they can protect themselves, such as not sharing images or talking to strangers.
Make sure it’s age appropriate
Age ratings on films and age restrictions on what children can buy in shops are there for a reason. Be aware of PEGI game ratings – 18 is usually 18 for a good reason. Age rules apply to social media accounts too. Facebook and Instagram, for example, require users to be at least 13 years old to create an account. Make sure you have a conversation with your children about the whys and wherefores of age restrictions. If they want to buy a particular game, make it a normal thing to tell you why they want it, what it does, and get them to show you how it works.
Help your child set up social media accounts
Once your child has a smartphone, it’s very hard to restrict what they look at and how they interact with people. It’s essential that you talk to your child about how to behave on social media. Don’t be afraid of getting involved. Help your child set up their social media accounts, ensuring privacy settings are correct. Download apps with your child and talk about how they work together and any safety issues around them.
Explain that they can always come to you if they are concerned about anything, or they see something they don’t feel is right. Talk to your child about their online reputation and how content (their digital footprint) could remain for years.
Talk about ‘sexting’ and online bullying
Sexting is when someone shares sexual images or videos of themselves or others, or sends sexually explicit messages. Although it may feel awkward, it's important to talk to your child about the risks of sexting and why they shouldn’t share that type of content. This is not only to protect their privacy and safety, but also the legal implications around it.
Regarding online bullying, don’t wait until a situation has occurred before talking about it. Make sure your child is aware that it isn’t OK for someone to say nasty things online, just as it isn’t in the real world. Agree with your child that they will talk to an adult if they receive online messages or images that aren’t nice or upset them.
If your child does come to you about online bullying, firstly tell them you’re proud of them for coming to you because it is a serious subject.
Find a way to help them through it. Don’t simply ban your child from using devices.
- If it’s a person from your child’s school, go to the school directly. This is classed as school bullying and can be dealt with appropriately, away from the online world.
- If it’s from a person you don’t know, you can block people and accounts online. Look into doing this with your child. There are also options to report inappropriate behaviour on social media accounts and chat rooms.
Online sources, support and advice
There are lots of online websites that offer help and advice about the online world, both for yourself and your child. Thinkuknow, Friendly Wifi and Parent Zone are examples of where you can find useful information and resources. The key is to be educated yourself so you can educate your child.
Talk openly (if age appropriate) about subjects such as cyberbullying, sexting and copyright infringement. This will help your child understand the consequences of online actions.
Keep communication open and don’t shy away from the subject. It’s your responsibility to protect your child and help them know the advantages and disadvantages, as well as the rights and wrongs of what’s at their fingertips.
YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.
YoungMinds Parents helpline
0808 802 5544
YoungMinds is a recent grant recipient from the Bupa UK Foundation. The Foundation funds practical projects that will make a direct impact on people's health and wellbeing. Launched in 2015, to date it has awarded over £1 million in grants to 36 projects across the UK, supporting work to improve people’s mental health and to support carers.