The theme of Safer Internet Day 2022 is ‘All fun and games? Exploring respect and relationships online’. We all have different experiences when it comes to online relationships. Some of us will spend hours each day checking different social media platforms, gaming, and messaging. Others of us will dip in and out but don’t feel our social lives depend on it.
Most children have access to devices, and will enjoy gaming, using social media apps, sharing and posting content and messaging others. However, children will have different experiences, needs and interests. It’s not a one size fits all – our role is to understand the needs of the children in our care and give appropriate support.
Here are 7 ideas for supporting children to have happy and healthy online relationships:
Whatever a child’s age, it’s important to show an interest in their online relationships. By asking questions about what they enjoy doing, and with who, you can be on the lookout for any relationship that may cause concern (e.g., a child that is much older) or may be causing harm. You can keep up to date with the platforms, apps and games they are using, and consider whether these are safe spaces for them to socialise.
Understand that relationships offline, impact relationships online
Most children will spend a proportion of their time online with children they go to school with or socialise with offline. If a child is finding in-school relationships challenging, be alert to this spilling over into their time spent online. Most perpetrators of cyberbullying are known to the target.
Help children think about what it means to be a friend
Whether face to face or online it’s important to explore what behaviour is not acceptable. For example, pretending to be someone else, sharing a photo or video of someone without their consent, saying or sharing unkind or threatening comments about another person or ganging up on someone. Also discuss ways we can protect ourselves from the behaviour of others online, for example keeping accounts private, thinking carefully about what we share and with who – especially photos, videos and private thoughts and feelings and being aware that people may not be who they say they are.
Help children develop healthy habits
Research from Internet Matters suggests the longer children spend online, the more likely they are to experience negative impacts. Discuss with children what a sensible amount of time online might be, and support and encourage other interests and ways of socialising. It’s also a good idea to keep devices out of the bedroom. Children will chat late into the night if they can, and sleep deprivation can impact how we react and handle situations.
Help children be ready for when things go wrong
Relationships are messy – whether offline or online. There can be additional challenges with the online world – people may say things they wouldn’t say offline, lots of children can get involved and information can be quickly spread. See the Kidscape website for advice on cyberbullying and digital safety.
Think about the individual needs of children
No two children are the same. If a child struggles with relationships offline, if they sometimes say things that upset or annoy other people, if they don’t always understand people’s intentions, they may be at greater risk online. You also can’t control what other people might share online. For example, sexual or violent content, adult language and hate speech. It is always risky for younger children to use platforms that are made for teenagers and adults. Think about what they might see and share and whether it’s a safe space.
It can feel very challenging to keep on top of what’s popular. Technology changes quickly. There are lots of great organisations out there to help parents, carers and practitioners stay up to date and deal with any challenges that come up. For example, Kidscape, Internet Matters and the UK Safer Internet Centre.
Lauren Seager-Smith is the CEO of Kidscape a bullying prevention charity that gives practical support to children, families and schools. Kidscape offers a range of training programmes for schools and families, including online safety training for staff and for parents and carers.