The internet has a huge influence on children and young people, both directly and indirectly affecting almost every aspect of their life. And this influence is mostly positive, providing an essential tool for learning, building relationships and helping them find their place in the world.
But what happens when the experience is less positive, and what can you do as a foster carer to protect them from the dark side of the web?
With social media, apps and the web now at our fingertips, it’s getting harder to oversee and enforce what children can and can’t do online. No longer are the dangers limited to the family PC – making it increasingly difficult to supervise and monitor internet usage.
As a foster carer, dealing with a child’s vulnerabilities in the online world is now as vital as it is in the real one. So, to give you the tools and advice you need to supervise your child’s online activity, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to internet safety for foster carers – covering everything from the risks children face online, to the steps you can take to make sure the internet continues to have a positive influence on children in your care.
We’ve added the following links to help you navigate the guide.
- Online Grooming
- Over-sharing and Security
- Smartphone Apps and Gaming
- Specific Online Risks for Looked After Children
- Other Risks Online
- Recognising the Signs and Impact of Improper Internet Use
Understanding the Risks and What to Look Out For
Used properly and with adult supervision, the internet can be a great resource for young people. But like any form of communication, it also has its risks, and caregivers need to understand them to protect vulnerable young people from the dangers of the online world.
In this section, we look at the risks children face online, and the impact these can have when things go wrong.
The ease at which people can remain anonymous online has given rise to the most disturbing aspect of the internet: online grooming. This is when an adult enters a dialogue with children online or via social media, using a friendly and approachable persona to quickly befriend them. They then encourage the child to share personal information, explicit images, or, in the most serious cases, attempt to arrange a face-to-face meeting.
Sadly, online grooming is notoriously effective, with the anonymous nature of the web leading to children trusting virtual ‘friends’ much more quickly than they would those they meet in the real world. Those who seek to abuse children are also much less restricted online – particularly if they target youngsters whose parents don’t actively supervise their child’s internet use.
Once viewed with scepticism, cyberbullying has become one of the biggest risks young people face online, and its impact – like traditional forms of bullying – can have a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing.
Cyberbullying often begins with a joke which escalates into a targeted campaign of abuse, threats, and inappropriate images, often across multiple social media platforms. It can either stem from within a child’s peer group – which could indicate a continuation of physical bullying in school – or as a random act from an internet troll, who use their anonymity to torment young people online.
If left unchecked, cyberbullying can have serious consequences for the victim, as well as those involved in the online abuse. That’s why, even if you suspect a child in your care could be a perpetrator of cyberbullying, it’s always best to monitor and tackle the issue early to prevent more serious ramifications.
Over-sharing and Sexting
Children and young adults are often naïve to the risks of sharing aspects of their life online, be it personal information or sexually explicit content, known as sexting. What started as a message or image to a peer can quickly escalate into something more damaging if the content is circulated, and this can subsequently lead to cyberbullying, exploitation or abuse.
Sharing sexual, pornographic or violent content is something many young people will do online, without fully understanding the gravity of their actions. It’s important to impress upon children the dangers of oversharing on social media, even among their friendship group, and discourage them from ever sharing or producing sexually explicit images, which could constitute a crime.
Smartphone Apps and Gaming
Smartphone apps are gradually taking over traditional web browsing and online gaming, with thousands available to download at the touch of a button. While most are safe to use for children and young adults, others carry age restrictions or are generally unsuitable for youngsters, and should be avoided.
The problem with apps is that they can be easily exploited by online criminals, who can make contact with vulnerable children through the interface or else access their personal information and data, including their location. That’s why it’s important to screen the apps a child in your care downloads to their smartphone or tablet, not only to check its suitability, but to make sure they aren’t unwittingly sharing private data with cybercriminals.
For more information on the potential risks of smartphone apps, read our guide on the smartphone apps to watch out for, which includes a long list of apps which could pose a danger to your foster child.
Specific Online Risks for Looked After Children
While no child is invulnerable to the dangers of the online world, those in care may be at an increased risk from improper internet use. As a foster carer, you need to be equipped to deal with the added dangers of a child accessing the internet privately on a smartphone or tablet, and make an effort to supervise their interactions online to keep them safe from potential harm.
As well as the potential dangers listed above, looked after children may be at risk from the following:
- Unregulated contact from birth parents or relatives – Once in care, children may have limited, regulated or no contact with their birth parents or relatives, as part of their care plan. Remember – if contact isn’t allowed in the real world, the same applies online.
- Bullying – Sadly, children in care are often seen as ‘different’ among their peers, and this may place them at an added risk of both physical and cyberbullying. Monitor the online interactions of children in your care to safeguard against malicious content and abusive messages.
- Security and safety – As a foster carer, you’re responsible for the child’s safety and security both in the real world and online, so taking an active approach to supervising their internet use is a good step to avoiding any potential protection issues. Set an example in online security by checking your privacy settings, and equip yourself with the knowledge to safeguard children’s online interactions.
To support and nurture a positive relationship between your child and the web, we’d recommend reading the CEOP’s online safety resources – particularly the information that applies to the child’s age group.
Other Risks Online
Beyond the obvious risks of unwittingly interacting with criminals, sharing explicit images or messages, or falling victim to cyberbullying; there are other dangers which could jeopardise the child’s safety online. Below, we list some additional online safety risks you need to be aware of:
- Content promoting harmful behaviours, including anorexia, suicide, self-harm or drug abuse.
- The sharing of fake news or false information, which could have a negative impact on your child’s online persona, or raise more serious legal ramifications.
- Hacking and identity theft. While this applies to everyone using the internet, it’s important you discuss online privacy and security with your child.
- Extortion or blackmail. This is often one of the more serious consequences of sharing explicit images or intimate personal information.
- The dark web. Though not high on the list of potential internet risks, you should at least talk to children in your care about the dangers of the dark web – particularly if they’re tech-savvy and have shown an interest in computing. The dark web is a section of the internet for illegal transactions, be it guns, drugs, human trafficking or child pornography. Although it’s very difficult to access, it may be worth reiterating its risks to children in your care as they could become curious and start clicking where they shouldn’t.
Recognising the Signs and Impact of Improper Internet Use
As a foster carer, understanding and recognising the signs of fear, distress and anxiety are vital in building a positive and fulfilling relationship. As the internet can have a huge influence over young people, it’s important to know when a child’s online interactions are having a negative impact in the real world – and when it’s time to step in and make changes to how they use the internet.
In this section, we look at the potential impact of improper internet use, and how this could affect children.
- Upset or anxious about something they’ve seen online – Whether it’s a violent video or sexually explicit images, children can be hugely affected by online content, so implement adult controls where necessary.
- Fear of missing out – Constantly checking social media feeds can lead to a form of internet addiction, whereby young people feel they’re missing out by not interacting with peers online. This can affect many aspects of their life, from their mood to their education.
- Peer pressure – Whether directly or indirectly, peer pressure is a significant side effect of improper internet use. Many young people feel pressured into sharing content online they perhaps wouldn’t without the compulsion to do so from friends.
- Developing unrealistic ideals about body image – From beauty tutorials on YouTube to celebrity social media accounts, the internet is awash with images and content that set unrealistic standards in how people should look, dress or act. Young people are particularly influenced by this, and it could lead to them developing negative ideals about body image.
- Creating a negative online reputation – Once something has been uploaded and shared online, it can be difficult to undo and remove. If young people share inappropriate content online, the consequences could stay with them for a long time, potentially affecting future relationships and their chances of getting a job.
Practical Help for Internet and Mobile Phone Safety for Children and Young People
Supervising internet use is now a big part of safeguarding vulnerable children, but many parents perhaps lack the knowledge and confidence to effectively deal with the dangers of the online world. While the internet is ingrained in the upbringing of children and young people, the same can’t be said for a large majority of parents and carers – placing us at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping our children safe online.
We want you to feel equipped to deal with every aspect of the life of children in your care, both in the real world and online. So, here are some practical steps you can take to protect your child from improper internet and smartphone use.
Communication and Involvement
The key to supervising internet use while instilling the positive aspects of being online is communication and involvement. You need to take an active approach to your child’s online interactions, and be genuinely engaged in how and why they use the web.
While listening to a constant stream of read-aloud Facebook statuses might be annoying, keeping an open and honest dialogue with children in your care about their internet use will mitigate the risk of them falling into bad online habits. In our internet age, young people can never be completely protected from the dark side of the web, but by having honest conversations about the implications of social media, you can encourage your child to change their behaviours for the better.
Don’t be afraid to talk to the child about the dangers of the internet, and balance this by reinforcing the benefits of being online. If they know you’re an advocate for the internet, when used properly, they’ll be more likely to come to you with a problem they’ve faced online, and then you can find a resolution together.
Such is the importance of communicating and engaging with how young people use the internet, that several organisations have developed schemes and codes of best practice for parents about how they approach the issue. In our view, the most effective of these is Netmums Digital Safety Code, which impresses on parents the need for absolute transparency and involvement in their child’s online life.
For more on communication and online safety best practice, click here.
Security and Privacy Controls
The internet isn’t a scary place where children are in danger at every turn. In fact, most social media platforms, websites and apps offer a huge variety of privacy and security controls, allowing parents and carers to tailor and fine-tune the type of content children can access online.
Establishing privacy and content controls on both the family computer and children’s personal devices should be a priority before they start using the internet, and not a countermeasure after they’ve already been exposed to explicit content or unscrupulous people. Here, we list some of the practical steps you can take to ensure children in your care can only access appropriate material.
- Sit down with the child and ask about the apps they use and the websites they visit frequently. This needn’t be serious, simply ask what they like about them and whether they can show you around the interface. Then, involve them in the process of establishing privacy controls, and chat with them about why it’s necessary. This will limit their resentment and hopefully give them an insight into safer internet use.
- Ask to check the privacy controls on their social media accounts, without prying into messages and comments. Help set up privacy controls so that only approved friends can talk and interact with them. Again, involve them in this to reinforce the message of online safety.
- Check if any of the apps they’re using, or the device itself, has ‘geo-location’ enabled, which could be sharing their location with strangers unintentionally when using certain apps or software. You can usually control which apps have access to location services in the phone’s settings.
- Show them how to report offensive comments and block people on their favourite social platforms. Not only will this help them to stay safer online, but it will reinforce the idea that you trust them to make their own decisions when it comes to the internet.
- Some apps let people tag others in images and comments, which raises the problem of children being unwittingly tagged in offensive online content. Check these tagging settings in their social accounts, and make sure they can’t be identified by others after being tagged.
- Encourage children in your care to talk to you about their phone’s security and privacy settings. No parent or guardian wants to feel like ‘Big Brother’, spying on a child, as this can create a barrier of distrust, so always be open, honest and flexible about privacy and content controls.
- Keep apps and devices up to date. If the manufacturer offers an update, you should make sure these are installed as soon as possible, as they may include better security provision or offer enhanced protection against malware.
As a foster carer, it’s easy to get left behind by technology and feel like children in your care know much more than you do. This makes it difficult to supervise and manage a child’s online life, meaning they could be using the internet poorly and without the appropriate privacy and security controls.
Thankfully, there are hundreds of online resources that can help adults negotiate the often-confusing world of social media and the internet, equipping you with the tools and knowledge needed to take an active and engaged role in keeping children safe online.
Below, we list useful resources that we’d recommend you read before letting your foster child access the internet or social media. There are also some helpful guides aimed at children themselves, which can help foster an understanding of the dangers of the internet.
Websites and General Advice:
- Netmums Digital Safety Guide
- Child Safety Online – GOV.UK Guidelines for Parents and Carers
- Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP)
- NSPCC Share Aware Online Safety Guide
- Internet Matters
Apps and Tools:
- Qustodio – Great for content filtering and adding time limits, so children can only access the web at designated times.
- OpenDNS Family Shield – Perfect for busy households, this free tool works to filter content across multiple platforms, rather than on separate devices.
- Kidlogger – Ideal if you suspect a child in your care is a victim of cyberbullying, this app tells you who they’ve interacted with online and records certain keystrokes, so you can monitor for inappropriate or malicious messages.
Websites and Games:
- Safe Web Surfing: Top Tips for Kids and Teens Online
- Child Focus E-Safety
- Cybersmart Detectives
- Professor Garfield Internet Safety
At the NFA, we help foster carer build fulfilling relationships with children in their care, equipping them with the knowledge, guidance and confidence to make a real difference to a child’s life. For more information, visit the homepage or call us today on 0800 044 3030.