How To Keep Kids Safe Online in 2020

Social Media Safety

What is ‘Social Media’?

The term ‘Social Media’ is used to describe websites and online/mobile software/tools which enable people to interact with each other – by sharing information, opinions, knowledge and interests.

Social Media makes it easy for people to listen, network, engage and collaborate with each other online.

Over the last four to five years, social networking has become a major part of young people’s lives.

62% of all 5-16 year olds visited a social networking site in the last week.

Amongst 9-16 year olds who go online (most of them), 73% have a profile on a social network, and 79% visited a social networking site in the last week."

(Childwise Monitor Special Report 2013-14. Digital Lives)

And parents beware – it is not only computers and laptops where a child can access social media platforms.

Four in ten (41%) 12-15s with an active profile say they mostly use a mobile phone to visit their main social networking site profile - which makes this the most popular device for accessing their profiles."

Ofcom (Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2013 Page 6) 
History of Social Media

By the 1970s networking technology had advanced rapidly and in 1979 a company called UseNet gave their subscribers the tools needed to communicate to each other via an electronic newsletter.

In the 1980s home computers were becoming more common and sophisticated and this applied to Social Media too. In the late 1980s, Internet Relay Chats (typically a service that allows participants to "chat" in a live forum online) were first used and continued to be popular well into the 1990′s.

In 1997 a website named ‘Six Degrees’ was launched and this is usually acknowledged as the first Social Media website. This innovative website allowed users to upload a bio/profile and make friends with other users.

The first blogging websites became available in the late 1990s and still remain popular today.

By 2006 popular Social Media websites such as Facebook and Twitter had become available and these websites still remain some of the most popular social networking tools today.

Because of the faster Broadband connections now available, social networking sites are easier and more interesting to use. A faster connection enables more inventive use of the site, such as streaming video and music. Basic tasks, such as uploading photos, can be done quickly and easily.

There is a huge variety of social networking websites available. Many of them can even be linked or connected to other social media websites to allow multiple or cross-posting. This enables users to easily reach more people without sacrificing the personal touch.

Why do children enjoy using Social Media websites?
Children enjoy Social Media websites for many reasons, some of these being:
  • They are more easily able to self-express and explore their identity.
  • They can socialise with their friends.
  • They enjoy being informed and kept up to date on the latest news about their friends, relatives, and peer groups.
  • They can collaborate easily with their peers on school work.
  • They can give or receive emotional support.
  • It helps them with learning in an informal setting.
  • It helps them discover and explore alternative interests.
The 6 types of social media:

Social Networks – These websites allow people to connect with other people of similar interests and background and they generally consist of a user profile, various ways to interact with other users, and the ability to setup groups.

Bookmarking Sites – These websites allow people to save, organise and manage links to favourite websites and resources around the internet. Most allow people to save these links to make them easy to search and share.

Social News – These websites normally enable people to post various news items or links to outside articles, and then allow other users to “vote” on the post. The voting on these posts is the social aspect of the website and it is usually the posts that get the most votes that are most prominently displayed.

Media Sharing –These websites allow people to upload and share various media such as pictures and video.

Microblogging –These websites focus on short messages or updates that are available to the subscribed reader.

Forums - Online forums allow members to hold conversations by posting and replying to messages usually on a specific subject.  

What are the risks involved with Social Media?
Children with a social networking site profile that be visible to people not known to them are more likely to have undertaken some kind of potentially risky online behaviour, such as adding people to their contacts they don’t know in person, or sending photos or personal details to people only known online.”

Ofcom (Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2013 Page 8) 

Parents need to also teach their child to be aware that Social Media websites frequently change their default privacy settings unsystematically and without giving their members prior notice. When this happens private information and details are publicly available to find via search engines such as Google, enabling people to easily find your child!

Cyberbullying is the most common risk for children when using Social Media. It is important therefore for you to teach your child not to post any messages or chat to someone online in anger or on impulse and to always think before they post anything as these messages are extremely difficult to take back.

It is also very important your child knows to come to you if they themselves feel bullied or harassed in any way.

Money transfer scams on Social Media websites are increasing. In some cases people have been tricked into transferring money to a friend or relative who has asked for help via a Social Media website, only to discover later that the friend’s Social Media account had been hacked and they did not send any such request for help. 

If your child has a credit/debit card make sure they know never to give the card details out to anyone and also make sure they know never to transfer money to anyone without your permission – even if it is a very close friend or relative.

Other risks include ‘clickjacking’. This is the term given when a seemingly harmless post with a link to enticing content redirects the user to a site that installs malware or spyware on their device.

‘Likejacking’ is the term given when a hacker controls your account and makes it look like you “like” a website or someone else’s post.

Fake applications can also put the child at risk so parents should also be vigilant against these. These are typically small programs not supported by the social media website, such as, “see who viewed your timeline.” Parents should make sure their child is aware of these and avoids using them!

When looking at the responses for children aged 8-12 with an active profile on Facebook/ Bebo/ MySpace, more than one in four of these children talk to people who are potentially not directly known to them (22%)."

Ofcom (Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2012 Page 95) 
How to Protect your Child while he/she is using Social Media
  • It is recommended that parents read the data privacy policy and terms & conditions of the chosen Social Media website before allowing their child to create an account.
  • Immediately after account creation, parents should set the privacy settings before the child starts using the service or provides any further information.
  • Ensure your child never gives out personal information, such as name, age, or school details, to anyone they do not know. Explain the reasons why.
  • Ensure your child chooses a screen name that cannot be easily linked to them.
  • Ensure your child knows not to upload photos without your permission and explain the reasons why.
  • Parents should carry out a web search of their child’s name at regular intervals to make sure that the privacy settings stay in effect and your child cannot be found by strangers online. This task can be automated easily by using browser tools such as ‘Google Alerts’, where the parent can input the search specifications (i.e. their child’s name) and the results will be emailed to them in a detailed report.
  • Parents should report anyone who tries to contact or be ‘friends’ with their child to the relevant Social Media website if they are suspicious or have any doubts.
  • Parents should also be aware that the police sometimes scan Social Media websites. Ensure your child is aware of this also and explain that even a private posting mentioning or talking about doing something illegal can be found by the police.
Reporting problems

“Social Reporting” is a relatively new way to report problems on many Social Media websites but can be very effective in stopping mean or bullying behaviour. Parents will be given the technical support of someone who can help them. 

Most Social Media websites these days will explain about Social Reporting and how to use it in their help section .

Remember that as a parent you also have the option of reporting the incident to the relevant authorities or police. Remember to print out evidence if necessary to accompany your report.

Simple Social Media Rules to teach your Child
  1. “Only have friends online that you know and trust in the real world.” Adjusting your child’s privacy settings to ‘friends only’ on Social Media websites will restrict who sees their information, but you still need to teach your child to only have friends online that they know and trust in the real world and the reasons why.
  2. “Make sure private information remains private.” Explain to your child that the less private information they supply when filling out a bio/profile the better, and also explain what can happen to their personal data if it ends up in wrong hands.
  3. “Uncheck the ‘public search results box’.” If you do not uncheck the public search results box anyone can find your child’s Social Media webpage through a browser search.
  4. “Safeguard your reputation.” When your child posts something on a Social Media website it becomes available to anyone to read and extremely hard to delete. What may seem humorous or contemporary today could be seen as offensive to other people tomorrow and ruin your child’s reputation. Ensure your child understands that they must think about the consequences before posting any comment.
What else can you do?
  • Visit your country’s government websites dedicated to child online safety. Most countries will have recognised websites where you can select videos for your child to watch regarding online safety. These short films are usually from the child’s point of view. They can be quite shocking to a young child so caution is advised, but you and your child will benefit from watching these videos.
  • Check with your child’s school what their policy is with regards to social networking on either the school computers or mobile devices.
  • If your child is under 13 they are not legally permitted to join most social networking websites so you can contact the website involved and ask for your child’s profile to be removed.
  • Check your child’s ‘Browser History’. When your child visits a website it is saved in the browser history. You can easily and quickly view the websites your child has visited.
  • Install Parental Control Software which will allow you to control your child’s computer use. You can restrict access to social media websites if required.
  • Activate the ‘safesearch’ settings in your browser. Most browsers have settings now for parents to restrict access to various websites.

Although there are many risks, parents should remember that Social Media can be a valuable parental tool - it can give you a view into your child's social life and the knowledge of what they are doing when online.

Your child needs to be aware of the type of information that is visible in the room they are in (not just their bedroom) and remove anything that could make them vulnerable, such as names on certificates hanging on the wall or pieces of work from school that may have their name on it.

Make sure your child knows to turn the Webcam away from the room when it is not being used or switched it off. Criminals and dubious characters are always finding new ways of switching Webcams on remotely, without you or your child’s knowledge, so make your child aware of this fact.

Again make sure you have installed good security software to stop any potential risks.

Nicola Lonie, Online Safety Consultant & Author

Nicola Lonie is an Online Safety Consultant, IT Trainer & Author and has over 12 years' experience working for a large autism charity as IT specialist and Webmaster. She has designed and presented online safety courses to children with autism and ADHD at schools.

Additional Expert Comments

The social media landscape

The web is a mine of information and has transformed our access to knowledge, enabling anyone to find out what they need, anytime, anywhere. 

The internet shouldn’t be feared, as it can be a powerful force for good: from creating connections with people all over the globe to providing endless sources of entertainment and news. 

We can now communicate in a vast number of ways, not least through social media. We can share what we’re up to, where we are, who we’re with, videos of friends and pictures of loved ones.

They say sharing is caring - and that’s true to an extent - but when you overshare or share the wrong information online, that can often lead to tricky conversations or unintended consequences.

It’s never been more important to ensure that children are aware of these potential risks, but adults can be equally as guilty of putting themselves in a precarious position by not following some very basic rules. 

No post is ever truly private and no image is ever truly temporary - social media sites and other applications such as Whatsapp make their money by using your data, that’s why the apps are free for you to use.

Below are a few key points you should note in order to help keep your child safe when sharing information on social media.

Check age restrictions: Many social media sites don’t allow anyone under the age of 13 to join, but most children bypass this due to the lack of proper age verification tools on the networks. It’s your job as a parent to ensure your child doesn’t join until they are at the appropriate age for the site. These restrictions are put in place to protect children and keep them away from inappropriate content.

Utilise privacy settings: Many social media networks have the option to make your profile completely public, or lock it down to private. For any child under the age of 16 it should be standard practice to keep a private profile, and restrict sharing only to people that they know. It is worthwhile ensuring your child knows why these privacy settings are in place, and regularly checking in for peace of mind that they haven’t changed the controls.

Turn off geo-location settings: All smartphones these days have GPS built in. When you allow location settings, various GPS services will use your phone’s location for data; for example, traffic is measured by how many smartphones there are not moving on a road at a particular time. Anything you do on your phone is tagged with a location and therefore when sharing pictures from home on social media, you are advertising your home address. Equally, when you check in on holiday or at the airport, you’re leaving yourself wide open for burglary. Make sure your child isn’t putting themselves or their family at risk by advertising their location and making you vulnerable.

Be aware of what information can be shared in a selfie: It’s easy to give away personal information in a selfie without even realising it. Recognisable landmarks can give away a child’s location, photographs in school uniform can give details of the child’s school to potential online predators, and even your age can be given away by birthday cakes or badges at a party. It’s important to encourage your children to understand the benefits of keeping some information private, and ensuring they know how to not give too much information away in a selfie. 

Don’t believe everything you see on social media: It’s imperative that children, who can be easily influenced, understand not to take everything they see on social media as gospel. Bikini pictures of celebrities can give teenage girls a body complex, without them realising that the images are photoshopped. Equally, social media is now littered with ‘fake news’, which often can be hard to decipher from the truth. It’s important to encourage your children to talk to you regarding topics they see on social media, so that you’re able to give them an accurate portrayal of the truth.

The report feature is there to be used: Most social networking sites have the functionality to report content or users for being inappropriate. Children should be encouraged to use this in order to curate a news feed that is customised to their needs, and removes any unpleasant or unwanted content from being viewed. Every user of social media, even children, has a role to play in removing inappropriate content from the internet.

Social media offers users so many benefits, such as keeping in touch with friends, staying up to date with news, sharing your memories and so much more. 

Unfortunately, it’s also a place that predators use to exploit children and play on their vulnerabilities. 

In recent years, social media has hit the headlines for its use in recruiting children into radicalisation, as well as sexual abuse or grooming.

The key is to always be precautious when using social media and ensure that your child understands both the benefits and the dangers.

Social media use shouldn’t be discouraged, but it’s a parent's role to make sure that social media is used responsibly, and that your children are aware of the tools at their disposal to make social media a safe environment for them. 

Claire Stead, Head of Marketing and Online Safety Expert at Smoothwall.

Smoothwall’s mission is to make the internet a safer place for children, and they specialise in creating solutions to protect children and staff online. Smoothwall currently protect more than 7000 UK schools and 2.5 million students every day from accessing harmful content on the internet, and use their platform to promote online safety to both children and adults. 

Claire Stead is Head of Marketing and Online Safety Expert at Smoothwall. Since being with Smoothwall, Claire has been trained in e-Safety and has become the driving force of the online safety initiative at the organisation. Claire has delivered several online safety masterclasses and regularly blogs about the topic of how to keep children and adults safe online.

Social media tips for parents

Children from middle childhood onwards are very keen to use social media to stay in touch with their friends (although many parents would like to think they want to sign up because of their family!). 

As soon as they become socially aware, children want to have handheld devices. There is an expectation from middle childhood that they have a phone and pretty soon afterwards they want to start getting social media accounts.

Most forms of social media have a lower age limit of 13 or so, however it is my experience that children far younger than that are wanting to set up accounts because “their friends have one”.

For parents, children setting up social media accounts can be daunting. Many don't completely understand what their children want to access, as they only use one or two platforms themselves.

In my book, The Parent’s Guide to the Modern World, I go through over 30 different aspects of modern life, giving the do’s and don’ts for parents. 

Social media forms a large part of the lives of young people nowadays and this is reflected in the sheer number of software applications they use.

Here’s just a few of them:

  • Facebook – Facebook began life as an online ‘Yearbook’ at a university where people could comment on each other’s pictures and posts. Now one of the largest social media apps in the world, it enables users to share images, videos, text publicly, to connections or privately. Known to many parents as a place where children’s social problems grow as others join in with conversations.
  • Twitter – social media, but in just 280 characters. Users include hashtags to identify the relevant topics. Users are able to lock down their posts so only certain people can see them.
  • Snapchat – a video sharing app, where users can record short videos or pictures and share them. The key concept with Snapchat is that content is only available for a short time before it is deleted. This can lead to possibilities of access to violence, bullying, pornography, or groomers with very little trace.
  • Instagram – a photo (and short video) sharing application owned by Facebook, where people post photos and add descriptions, hashtags and comment on other people’s content.
  • WhatsApp – a free secure messaging service between phones. Acquired by Facebook in 2014, the app relies on connecting users whose numbers are known to each other.
  • Kik – a messaging app, that can transmit text, video, audio, sketches, webpages. Known for controversy due to the ease of setting up anonymous or fake accounts, leading to a number of groomers using it to contact children.
  • – an app for sharing 15 second video clips, users are known as “musers.” There have been concerns in the past about groomers approaching children through the app.
  • Tumblr – a blogging website that lets users set up their own blogs and share their own content. The system uses a hashtag system to help searching across the many thousands of blogs. It has faced criticism for the amount of pornography and also self-harm or suicide related blogs.
  • Whisper – a phone app that lets users write some text, which Whisper adds onto an image. Other users can then reply anonymously to the text either publicly or privately, leading to an ability to cyberbully or troll and make hurtful comments.
  • TikTok - a video sharing app. Users can watch and post short videos. There is a danger of your child witnessing inappropriate content, or sharing something they shouldn't.

Here are a few general rules for worried parents:

  • Set the social media profile up with your child, so that you and they understand about the privacy settings.
  • Show your child how to report posts.
  • Discuss with them how to set the privacy of posts.
  • Discuss the dangers of speaking offline to people they meet on social media.
  • Don’t spy on your children (they’ll often react by trying to shut you out), but do keep an eye on them.
  • Always keep the door open for non-judgemental conversations with your child, it’s far better for them to ask you for advice than it is for them to go elsewhere as they’re afraid of your reaction.

Richard Daniel Curtis, Author of The Parent’s Guide to the Modern World and The Young Person’s Guide to the Modern World,

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