The internet offers huge opportunities. From a young age, children have the chance to learn, research, play games, have fun and connect with family who may not live nearby. But it’s important to help them to use the online world in a way that’s safe and positive for their mental health.
That’s why it’s good to have regular conversations about the internet and social media from a young age – it should be as ordinary as talking about the weather, the dog, or something you’ve watched on TV.
You don’t need to pry or quiz your child about every website they’ve seen, but checking in with them for a minute or two can make a huge difference.
Talk to your child about your own experience of the online world. Show them sites and apps that you like, and explain why you like them. Show them how to use the internet in a positive way – to research things, to do homework, to talk to family, and to find out about the world. This helps them to have a critical eye.
You can also talk about your own less positive experiences online. If you feel pressured by the ‘perfect’ photos people share on social media, then being open with your child about this can be a good thing. It might help them understand that the ‘perfect’ pictures people share on social media don't always show reality. Encourage them to talk to you if they’re struggling with this.
Remember, children look to their parents as role models. For example, if you check your phone constantly at mealtimes, or play violent games in front of your children, then it’s likely your child might do the same.
It can be easy to feel that you don’t understand the latest technology, apps or social media that your child is using. But don’t use this as an excuse not to get involved.
Ask your child to teach you and show you there about their favourite apps, games or websites. This will help you understand how they work so that you can talk about the positives and whether you have any concerns. A quick Google search can also tell you a lot.
If you think anything your child is accessing is not appropriate for their age, be ready to explain why you think this. Wherever possible, make it a joint decision with your child, so they understand the reasons not to use something and will stick to it.
The boundaries you set for internet use will depend on your child's age. It’s like teaching your child to cross the road: you’ll make sure they hold your hand when they’re very young, but as they grow older you want them to assess the risks and stay safe more independently.
Whatever their age, it’s a good idea to sit down together with your child to agree some rules about how much time they spend online. For example, you might want to agree that they shouldn’t go online just before bed or use any devices at night, because this can affect their sleep. You can often set timers on devices to limit internet use – but try to help your child manage this for themselves as well.
You can also set up parental controls to stop your child from accessing harmful content online, but your child may well learn how to get round these. That’s why it’s important to make sure your child is able to make good decisions for themselves.
Research suggests that most children are actually more cautious than adults online, and that most are good at navigating the internet safely. Often when they do come across upsetting content, it’s not because they’ve gone looking for it, but because they’ve found it by accident, or because someone’s sent it to them.
It is a good idea to reassure your child that they can always talk to you.
- Ask them if they’ve seen anything online that they are not comfortable with. (They might have seen things like nasty comments, sexual content or violent images.)
- Tell them that you won’t overreact if they tell you about something they’ve seen, that you’d much rather that they talked to you, instead of keeping it to themselves.
- If they are upset or worried about something they've seen, talk about how they feel, and how they can avoid seeing them again in future.
- If necessary, help them to report or block content they find disturbing.
- Whatever happens, stay calm if you find they’ve come across something you don’t approve of.