A leading charity has urged parents to do more to keep their children safe online as new figures reveal how often young people are exposed to violence, hatred, sexual content, bullying and other inappropriate content when using the internet.
Amanda Azeez, associate head of child safety online at the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), said parents should have regular, open conversations with their children about their online lives, and discuss basic safety in the same way they are also are taught how to cross the road and not to talk to strangers.
“It’s normal to have conversations about crossing the road, bullying and talking to strangers, but with the digital world changing all the time, it can be hard to have conversations about staying safe online,” Azeez said. “We really want to help parents and carers to feel more confident and to talk to their children at least every two weeks, if not more regularly.”
In the NSPCC’s latest Net Aware survey, two thirds of children admitted to using apps while under the age limit. Popular sites such as YouTube, Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, WhatsApp and Musical.ly all have a minimum age of 13.
The survey of more than 1,600 children and young people in schools across the UK found that a third had seen violence and hatred online, a fifth had seen sexual content and bullying. In every category, live-streaming sites were the worst offenders, with content relating to suicide and self harm, bullying and violence reported by 18%, 31% and 46% of reviewers respectively.
More than a third of the children surveyed had added a stranger to their contacts in the past six months, and quarter said they were likely or very likely to add someone they didn’t know in the future.
Last year, a YouGov survey found that while one in five UK parents talked to their children about their online lives roughly once a fortnight, many were not confident that their children were using the internet safely.
Speaking ahead of an event on child safety at Cheltenham Science Festival on Tuesday evening, Azeez said that as soon as children have devices they should learn to be “share aware”. “They need to know how to think about the images they are sharing, the types of information they share, such as their location, and to think about who they are speaking to,” she said. “You wouldn’t want them to talk to strangers in real life, but when they’re on Minecraft, do you know who’s messaging them?”
By having regular conversations as soon as children go online, Azeed said parents can keep up-to-date with the apps and games their children like and the safety issues they may present. “We know most children, like all of us, are on their devices every day,” she said. “Having frequent conversations will help parents spot any problems, but will also encourage children to talk when they are worried about anything.”
The NSPCC is campaigning for online social networks to be regulated, so firms can be held to account if they fail to protect children. The charity has also called on government to draw up safeguarding standards and wants internet companies to offer children safer accounts that come with strict privacy and filter settings as default. To help parents who find themselves baffled by online safety measures, the charity has set up a free helpline and trained staff at high street O2 stores to go through devices and change the settings if necessary.
“Children want their parents to be part of their online life and to talk to them about it just as they do about their day at school,” Azeez said. “To children, online friends are real friends. Online life is real life. There is no distinction. Just like in real life, children need our help to stay safe online.”
Cheltenham Science Festival runs from 6 to 11 June.