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What your child needs to know about harmful content online

teenager in his bedroom using a computer

Psychology lecturer Dr. Maša Popovac explains some of the different types of harmful content that young people need to know about and how you can help your child to understand the impact of viewing it.

Social media, apps, games and websites present a range of opportunities for positive engagement. But, as your child begins to explore different online environments, they may encounter content that isn’t age-appropriate. 

What is ‘harmful content’?

  • Harmful content generally involves information, images or videos that can be upsetting, misleading, promote dangerous behaviours or are directed at adults. This includes:
  • Violence (for example, graphic images or videos)
  • Adult sexual content and pornography 
  • Misinformation (for example, misleading or dangerous information that can promote harmful behaviours)
  • Hate (for example, promotion of extreme views or hate towards groups)
  • Non-consensual sharing (for example, private images or videos shared with a wide audience)
  • Malicious software (for example, links or pop-up adverts that pose a security risk)

Children need to understand that viewing harmful content can have an impact on them.

Here are some things that they need to know:

Age limits are there for a reason

Children often see age limits as a barrier to enjoyment, but it is important to discuss why age limits are in place. For example, many social media sites and video hosting platforms are not appropriate for users under 13, because they contain content aimed at older audiences. Ask your child about what they enjoy doing online, which social media sites or apps they like best, and which search engines they like to use. Show an interest in the activities they enjoy and encourage positive use of technology. Use this as an opportunity to discuss any age limits and agree on some core ground rules. 

They need to be careful what they click on

Some children may come across harmful content by accident through innocent searches, downloading apps or clicking on links sent by others. Sometimes they may seek this content out of curiosity. Make sure your child knows that clicking on strange links from pop-ups can be risky as they don’t know where the link will take them and what they might end up seeing. It's also useful to discuss sticking to reputable websites that have been recommended by teachers, for any online research, to avoid coming across unexpected harmful content. 

There are different ways it can affect us 

Children need to understand that viewing some content can have serious effects, for example it can:

- Violate our rights and rights of others 

Some content goes against our rights to privacy, security or dignity and can make us (or others around us) feel unsafe and threatened in our daily lives. For example, content online that urges people to target a protected group like LGBTQ, might make some young people feel unsafe. It can have serious effects on our relationships with other people and sometimes make us feel like we can’t trust anyone around us. This can also impact our wellbeing and safety.

- Affect our wellbeing and safety

Exposure to some types of content can be alarming or confusing and can lead us to spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about it. This can make us feel uneasy and unsafe but, if it carries on for a longer period of time, it can also lead to more serious effects on our wellbeing such as developing anxiety or depression. 

- Influence attitudes or beliefs 

Some content (for example, watching content promoting extreme views) can make us see the world differently and can impact on the way we think or feel about others or influence our core beliefs. It can lead to adopting extreme beliefs, being persuaded about certain causes that may be harmful, or accepting incorrect information or evidence as fact. You can read more about helping your child to think critically and spot fake news here.

- Influence behaviours 

Exposure to some types of content can model inappropriate or harmful behaviours and can convince us that these behaviours are normal and accepted. This can influence us directly through engaging in behaviours that may be harmful to ourselves (for example, trying out extreme diets or hurting ourselves), or it can influence how we behave towards other people (for example, expressing extreme or hurtful views or acting aggressively).

- Be illegal 

Some content that is made available online is against the law. This means that sharing such content with others can be illegal and can put us at risk of committing criminal acts which can carry severe and long-term consequences.

They can (and should) talk to you about it 

Keeping the lines of communication open can help build trust and give your child the reassurance that they can come and talk to you if they encounter harmful content. This is an ongoing conversation — it should continue as they get older and as they explore the online world further. By talking about some of the risks, you can help them to develop their digital resilience. This can help them to build the skills they need to navigate the online environment in a safer way. 

How can you be supportive if your child comes across harmful content? 

It’s not easy for most children to approach an adult about harmful content they have seen. Although it can be understandably very upsetting for parents to learn about, it’s important to deal with their feelings first and not to overreact. 

  • Tell them you’re glad they approached you about it.
  • Don’t blame them for how they accessed the content.
  • Take their concerns seriously, even if you don’t think the content is that bad.
  • Reassure them that it’s normal to be feeling the way they do (for example, scared, angry, upset, confused).
  • Help them to report it, if needed. 

Having an open discussion with your child is often enough to reduce any serious negative effects, but keep a close eye out for any longer-term changes in behaviour or mood and seek out professional support if necessary. 

Further Reading:

Are you worried your child has seen something upsetting online?

Supporting your child with reporting unwanted content online


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 secondary-aged children to support their learning, specifically that they ‘know the impact of viewing harmful content online’.

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