Contributor

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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Online friendships: a parents' guide

Image: New Africa/stock.adobe.com

The term ‘online friend’ can be used to describe people you only know through the internet, but it can also mean engaging with someone online that you also know offline. 

Online friendships often develop when people bond and have things in common. Just like in an offline friendship, friends may chat to each other, play or share pictures and videos.

What are the benefits? 

For children who use social media, becoming ‘friends’ with people they already know on their chosen platforms can help to strengthen their relationship. It’s important to bear in mind that the minimum age for signing up to most popular social media platforms is 13, so this may not be appropriate for younger children. Instead, they might benefit from using video chat to stay in touch with their friends and family, under your supervision, especially in recent months during the pandemic. 

Some children may also make new friendships and have fun with like-minded individuals through other online platforms such as gaming sites. Whatever the type of friend, most children will have a positive experience chatting, sharing or playing with others online. 

There are some positives to online friendships, particularly as children go through a time in which face-to-face contact is not always an option. But, there are some things to be aware of and some practical steps you can take to help your child experience good online friendships.  

Making friends with people they don’t know

Chatting and meeting new people is a key feature of many sites, apps and games and some encourage users to gain as many ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ as possible. 

Some will have moderated and public chat functions but others allow online friends to chat privately. Most of the time, children will be talking to people they know, but this function can create opportunities for adults to contact children online. 

Some adults may set up fake profiles and accounts and may lie about their age in order to gain their trust. This means it can be difficult for children to know if someone they are talking to online is who they say they are. Some people online can use this to manipulate or pressure children into doing something they don’t want to do. 

What can I do to help? 

  • Talk to your child about their online friends. Talk about the difference between online friendships and offline ones and with younger children. Let them know they should only talk to friends online that they know offline. Younger children should be supervised at all times when watching videos, playing games or chatting with their friends online. 
  • Remind them to avoid requests to chat in private. If they do talk to someone they don’t know offline, remind them only to speak on a public chat function. Once they move to private chat, it’s unlikely to be monitored by the site, app or game they are using. They may share personal information or feel pressured to do something that they don’t want to do.
  • Encourage them to tell you if anything happens online that makes them feel worried, scared or uncomfortable. Make sure they know that you would never blame them for anything that might happen online and you will always give them non-judgemental support. 
    If they are worried about something that has happened when talking to someone online, you, or your child can also make a report to NCA CEOP
    NCA CEOP is a law enforcement agency which works to keep children and young people safe from sexual abuse and grooming online. 

Sharing personal information

Most sites, apps and games encourage users to share information about themselves. This may be personal information such as their name and age, information about their hobbies and interests or pictures and videos. 

Once they’ve put something online it can be copied, shared or edited, and it could turn up somewhere they wouldn't want it to be. 

If the site, app and game allows your child to live stream, this can present a greater risk for oversharing. Unlike pre-recorded videos that can be cut and edited, live streaming is live and uncensored. This means children can act on impulse and may share something they later regret. 

What can I do to help? 

  • Use privacy settings and parental controls. Privacy settings and parental controls are available on many sites, apps and games to limit who can access a profile and what information they can see. Many people think when online profiles are created, they are set to ‘private’ by default, but this isn’t always the case. Changing the privacy settings and parental controls can help you and your child to manage how and what kind of information is shared. For more information read A parents' guide to privacy settings  and Using parental controls
  • Talk about safe sharing. Discuss the type of things that are ok to share and things which you wouldn’t want them to share online. If they are sharing pictures or videos, remind them to check with you, or a grown-up they trust before posting anything. 
    Talk to your child about consent and If they’re considering sharing a photo or video of somebody else, they should always ask permission first. 
    Remind them that it’s OK to say ‘no’ if someone asks to share a picture or video – and if they do say no – it shouldn’t be shared. It’s also not OK if someone is pressuring them into sharing things online when they don’t want to. Read more about how to help your child to protect their personal information online.
  • Look at the Thinkuknow resources together. Thinkuknow is the education programme from NCA-CEOP. For 4-7 year olds, the Jessie & friends animations  cover topics such as sharing personal information, watching videos and more. For 8-10 year olds, Play Like Share helps children learn how to spot pressuring and manipulative behaviour online. 

Unkind or inappropriate behaviour

Your child may feel more confident online as they feel protected by the screen. This may cause them or their peers to do or say something online to someone that they wouldn’t usually do, or say, face-to-face. This could lead to bullying, loss of confidence or self-esteem and could even get them in trouble at school. 

What can I do to help? 

  • Talk to them about being kind online.  Discuss how they would deal with disagreements or what they would do if one of their friends was mean to them. Remind them they should treat their friends online as they would offline and vice versa. This includes respecting the wishes of others and never saying nasty things. You can use these scenarios as conversation starters to help talk about online kindness. 
  • Check out the sites, apps and games they are using. Sites like NSPCC's Net Aware break down some of the key features of popular sites, apps and games. It also includes comments and reviews from children and their parents on the type of behaviour they have seen when using them. This can help you decide the most appropriate apps for your child to use.
  • Know how to report and get help if they need to. Make sure you and your child know how to block and report users who are being unkind or inappropriate online. You can find this information on the site or an app’s privacy settings. Remind your child that they can always speak to someone confidentially at www.childline.org.uk, or by calling 0800 1111 if something is worrying or upsetting them.  

Action

The new RSE/RSHE curriculum

The new RSE (for primary) and RSHE (secondary) curriculum is compulsory from September 2020. However, due to the impact of COVID-19, schools have been given additional time to implement it if they need it. They must begin teaching by April 2021. Parent Info will be running a series of articles over the next year exploring the ‘Online Relationships’ aspect of the new primary curriculum and the ‘Online and media’ aspect of the secondary curriculum. This article will help parents of primary-aged and secondary-aged children to support their learning, specifically that they ‘Know how to critically consider their online friendships and sources of information including awareness of the risks associated with people they have never met.’

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