This article was contributed by NCA-CEOP

NCA-CEOP is a command of the National Crime Agency. As well as being a reporting mechanism, NCA-CEOP works with child protection partners across the UK and overseas to identify the main threats to children, and coordinates activity against these threats to bring offenders to account.

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Are you worried your child might see something upsetting online?

keeping children safe online

The internet is a public and open place, one where anybody can post and share content. This is all part of the fun, but what happens if your child sees something they shouldn’t? NCA-CEOP offers advice.

Many parents and carers will see news stories or hear about disturbing videos being shared online or through social network and messaging apps.

It’s an all-too-common problem: content is shared online and quickly goes viral, with new links springing up as quickly as the platform removes them. 

Whether your child has social media accounts or just spends time on video platforms and websites, there’s always a chance they might see something that is intended for adults, and which could confuse or upset them. 

This might be violent or sexual content, extreme opinion or anger, or inappropriate advertising.

What is inappropriate?

Inappropriate can mean different things to different people, from swear words to sexual images or videos, and what is inappropriate for your child will also change as they grow and develop.

Every household will have different ideas on what’s appropriate for their child, so it’s important to discuss this as a family, giving your child examples that you feel are appropriate for their age or development.

What to say

Children are naturally curious. They may well search for information online about subjects they are too embarrassed to talk to you about, don’t understand, that they think will make them laugh or they’ve heard their friends talking about.

No matter how young your child is, if they are using the internet, you will need to talk to them about the kind of things they might see online – good and bad.

This doesn’t mean you have to sit them down to have ‘a big conversation’. Instead, broach the subject during more general chats about using the internet and the whole family’s internet use.

During these conversations it’s important to explain, especially to younger children, that they may see things they don’t expect to see online. This can happen when they click on pop-up adverts or even by typing in the wrong words when searching for something completely innocent on Google.

Children often tell us that a reason they don’t tell a parent or carer when something goes wrong or upsets them online is because they’re worried the adult will overreact and take their technology away from them. 

Reassure them that whatever they have seen, if it’s upset or confused them, or raised questions, they can always come to you. Let them know that you would never blame them for anything that might happen online. 

What can you do to protect them?

There are some simple practical  things you can do to limit what children see online:

  • Check the age requirements. Most online platforms, including video streaming services, games, apps, video platforms and social networks have age ratings. Younger children are more likely to come across inappropriate content if they are using apps, websites or services before reaching the minimum age requirements.
  • Set up parental controls and filters. Most apps, sites, games and services have parental controls and filters to help you manage the content your child may see. Some services also let you set up child accounts, so content can be automatically filtered, or you can choose what content your child can view. For example, on YouTube you can subscribe to channels you have agreed are OK.

    You can also set the search engine (for example, Google, Bing) to ‘safe mode’ – this means that the search engine will look to block any obvious adult content so this is not visible in the search results.

    YouTube is particularly popular with primary-aged children and it’s easy for children to click on ‘related videos’ and accidently see something they shouldn’t. Ensure that younger children are supervised when watching YouTube and consider setting YouTube search to ‘safe mode’. For very young children it’s a good idea to only use YouTube Kids.

It’s important to remember that parental controls and filters are just tools. They are not 100% accurate and are no substitute for open and honest conversations with your child.

If your child tells you they’ve seen something inappropriate online

Stay calm

Although you may be upset, perhaps even angry, you don’t want to put them off coming to you for help and support when in need. It’s important to try to stay calm and supportive for your child.

If your emotions are running high, give yourself time and space to be calm, before talking with your child. For example, talk to another family member about what has happened so you have time to express your own emotions and approach the conversation more calmly

Think about how your child is feeling

The impact of seeing inappropriate content varies from child to child, and depends on the type of content they have seen. Some children will be worried and upset by what they see, others will not. Think about how hard it may be for your child to talk to you about what has happened. 

Talk to them

Many parents are worried they will say the wrong thing to their child and so they say nothing at all. To help you talk to your child you can read our tips on how to open a difficult conversation.

In the first conversation you should:

  • Reassure them that whatever has happened, you are there for them. Make sure they know that you would never blame them for anything that might happen online.
  • Listen to what they say to establish the facts. Did they stumble onto the content accidentally, were they simply curious and went looking for it or did someone send it to them?
  • Ask them to express their feelings so you can help them recover.

Meanwhile, try to help them focus on the positive aspects of going online and show them ways they can avoid the negative as much as possible in future. Children today have to be able to feel confident online and they may miss out on opportunities in the future if they avoid using the internet because of their bad experience.

Report it

In some situations, it may be necessary to report the content. If you need to report content, try to do this together. This will help your child to feel in control of what has happened. For advice on where you can report worrying content your child tells you about, click here

Talk to your child about how they can learn to report and block content themselves, to help build their digital resilience. 

Further reading

Safety and privacy settings for social media apps 

Digital Resilience – A Parent’s Guide

What are parental controls and how can they help children stay safe online?

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: ​September 2020

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