What's your child really doing online? Huge rise in 'harmful' searches triggers warning

·5 min read
Teens online worry many parents
Young teens can spend hours online - but is it good for them? (Getty)

Parents are concerned about the increased risks of online harm after increased screen time during the coronavirus pandemic, child safety campaigners have suggested.

According to a new report by child protection non-profit Internet Matters, while more than half (56%) of 2,000 parents surveyed by the group said they believed their children’s internet use had had a positive effect on them since the beginning of the pandemic, 53% agreed their child had become too reliant on online technology. 

Over the previous year, children have increasingly relied on technology to help them navigate changes brought about by lockdown and other COVID-19 restrictions. 

And while many parents believe there have been certain positives, there are also concerns about a potential increase of online risks. Parents have reported a 42% rise in viewing content promoting either self-harm or suicide, alongside a 39% increase in sharing of sexual images since January 2020.

Parental concern about cyberbullying increased by 24% compared to pre-pandemic levels, whilst concern about exposure to fake news and misinformation, and content promoting self-harm and suicide also increased, particularly for parents of children with vulnerabilities. 

Read more: How to tell if your child’s screen time is a problem

(Getty Images)
Parents have reported a 42% rise in viewing content promoting either self-harm or suicide, Internet Matters has warned. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

As a result, parents say they need more support in helping their children adjust to a new way of living virtually and rebalancing the amount of time teenagers spend using smartphones, laptops, tablets and other digital devices as lockdown restrictions continue to lift. 

The report, From Survive to Thrive: Digital family life after lockdown, also reveals parents will need more help and information about setting parental controls on devices and holding open conversations with children about safe online conduct,.

Commenting on the report findings, Carolyn Bunting, Chief Executive of Internet Matters, said: “This report highlights not just all the risk and harms that can occur online, but acknowledges that it has played a vital role for our children in lockdown. 

“However, it does also bring up the need for more support for parents as they battle to keep on top of a rapid change in the pace of technology."

Watch: Parents are worried about their children's declining social skills. 

Dr. Amanda Gummer, psychologist and founder of The Good Play Guide says that many parents have lost the screen-time battle over lockdown. 

"A lack of in-person socialising, along with home learning and increasing prevalence of social media and online gaming has made digital communication run of the mill," she explains. 

"However, rather than seeing screen time as a single activity, it’s worth looking at how the screens are being used and how it impacts on other areas of a child’s life. Online learning is obviously a really positive use of screens, as is socialising with friends and family."

Read more: Most children now have their own mobile phone by the age of seven, new research reveals

Children became increasingly reliant on technology during the pandemic. (Getty Images)
Children became increasingly reliant on technology during the pandemic. (Posed by models, Getty Images)

But Dr Gummer warns that certain online usage can have negative impacts on children's health and development. 

"Repetitive, often addictive, online games that interfere with children’s willingness to engage in normal family life, or their sleep patterns is something that needs careful handling," she says. 

"It’s also vital that you are engaged with your child’s digital world so you can help identify and manage any issues around cyber bullying and other online harms." 

Dr Gummer says making an effort to keep up with their digital world, will make children more likely to come to parents for help when they do have questions or concerns.

"Becoming digitally responsible is a gradual process and, like most things, it’s best to start slowly and let children earn your trust and the additional privileges that come with it," she advises.  

"There’s no set age for when a child should have their own device, but whether it’s their device or a shared one, starting off with clear boundaries around how long they can use it for and what they will be doing on it, will allow you to assess whether they have the self-regulation and emotion maturity to be able to handle having more freedom with the device."

Read more: Adults spending more than a quarter of their day online: what effect is this having on our health?

Parents are concerned about teenage screen time following lockdown. (Getty Images)
Parents are concerned about teenage screen time following lockdown. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

Internet Matters have put together some tips and advice for parents to become more engaged in their children's digital life.

Five things you can do today to stay more involved in your child's online life

1. Talk to them about what apps, games and websites they still regularly visit - and do it just as regularly as you would talk to them about their school life.

2. Think about resetting boundaries over screen time. Sit down with your child and agree a plan together.

3. Revisit parental controls - Parental Controls and Privacy Settings are useful tools to help minimise the risks your children may face, but they are not 100% effective.

4. Use the ‘T-shirt test’ if you’re worried about them over sharing online. “Would you wear it on your T-shirt? Then don’t post it online.”

5. Teach them critical thinking skills and resilience so they know what to do if they encounter risk. Always encourage them to talk to you about anything they find upsetting online.

Watch: How your child's screen time influences their diet.