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What do you need to know when your child is exploring their sexuality online? When they've never met their new girl/boyfriend? Or when they're using technology to take their relationship to the next level? Marie Smith of CEOP offers parents advice...
As children grow up and reach different stages of development, they will experiment and push boundaries when it comes to relationships and sex. This is a normal part of growing up and, though it can be hard to remember, most of us have been there.
When online friendship becomes something more
As your child becomes a teenager, their behaviour is likely to change: the way they dress, talk or the company they keep – staying out late, hanging around with a new crowd, taking up with a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Faced with these shifts in gear, many parents feel confident about starting conversations, for example about how their child should never feel pressured to do anything they don’t want to or that they aren't ready for; and about safe sex and contraception.
But what about when some of this curiosity is being expressed online? What if your child has never met their new ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’ face-to-face, or is using technology to explore and experiment with their sexuality? How can you help your child stay safe?
‘The risks are greater for teens, who might be more likely to behave impulsively’
Adults and young people may be using technology to keep in contact, to express their feelings and to take their relationships further. Online, this contact can happen with many more people, can take place in public spaces or in private, and through text, email, and instant messenger apps. For most adults, this is relatively safe. The risks are greater for teens, who might be more likely to behave impulsively, who have less experience to help them make well-informed decisions and who might be more likely to bow to peer pressure. As a result, something that can be said or sent in a heartbeat may leave a lasting trace and could have devastating effects.
Risky activities may include flirting, sexual and fantasy chat; sharing ‘selfies’, nude or otherwise; or using webcams to take their relationship to the ‘next level’ – for example by undressing or performing sexual acts. This type of behaviour is not unusual, and it doesn't necessarily mean that a young person has started having sex. While all of these activities are risky, they don't necessarily have to lead to a negative outcome. That said, if young people are talking to someone they have never met or their trust is broken with someone they have, things can get out of control.
What parents can say
The best way to keep your child safe is to talk to them. Above all, make sure they know that if anything ever did go wrong, you would want them to come to you for help. Tell them that whatever might have happened you would understand and would not be angry.
- Help them learn to keep themselves safe by talking to them about the fact that they always have a choice. Make sure they know they should never let anyone pressure them into doing anything they don’t want to, on or offline.
- Talk to them about what they think could go wrong online, especially when images and video content are involved.
- Ask them whether they know their online friends in the ‘real world’? If not, how do they know who they really are? Explain that it is easy to lie online and that there are adults who will gain the trust of a child to build a relationship, gain sexual content from them - and that they could then use this content to blackmail them.
- Find out if they have seen media articles about instances where this has happened, or seen videos in school about it – such as the CEOP videos at www.thinkuknow.co.uk.
- Discuss the fact that sometimes relationships don’t work out. In the heat of the moment, a relationship might feel like it will last forever, but if it were to end, their ex could have some of their private and very personal information. Ask what they think that person could do with that information - images, webcam footage - if for example they were to be angry about the break-up.
- Make sure they are aware that any content they share or post online can be saved, recorded, stored and sent to anyone over the internet. It could even get sent to you. Ask how they would feel if that were to happen.
- Remember, it’s important to make sure they know they can always come to you for help. Explain that you understand how things can get out of control in the heat of a moment and if anything were ever to go wrong, you wouldn't be angry and you'd still be there to support them.
For more information visit www.thinkuknow.co.uk/parents.
The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.
First published: February 2015
Updated: May 2018