How to Keep Children Safe Online in a Post-Covid World
A Safety Guide For 2021 and Beyond
By Hannah Miller
When the Covid pandemic first appeared, I, like many parents, adapted to the changing circumstances.
Many days during the summer months were spent with my children in the garden where we enjoyed fun activities such as growing super tall sunflowers, eating our first home-grown potatoes and even selling excess fruit to the neighbours.
I also helped my sister design and build a sensory garden for her autistic son Jason.
Now winter has arrived; it’s far too cold for children to be outside and health concerns are limiting physical contact with others. Children all across the world are inevitably spending more and more time online.
And here is where new and evolving threats can be found.
My name is Hannah Miller, I’m a co-owner of this website, and before taking time off work to bring up children I used to work as an administrator for the NSPCC – the UK’s leading children’s charity and I previously held a position within the NHS, the UK’s health service.
This website is where I share information about things that are important to me; health, gardening and children’s safety to name just a few.
Not only is the amount of time children spend online increasing, but how children access online content is also evolving.
In July 2020, Pew Research discovered that:
66% of parents polled felt that parenting was harder now than 20 years ago and the vast majority stated that technology and social media were their main concerns.
A survey by Mott Poll before the Covid pandemic found that:
Of respondants whose children play online games, 54% claimed their child spent 3 or more hours playing each day.
In late 2019, a survey of 4000 children was published and revealed:
43% of children between the ages of 8 and 13 have have talked to people they have never met in real life via social media platforms and online games.
Perhaps most worrying, the vast majority of statistics were generated before national and regional lockdowns due to the Covid pandemic. With so many parents now limiting their children’s time spent with others in the real world, the amount of time spent online will be much higher.
How to Keep Children Safe Online in 2021 and Beyond
- How children access the internet.
- The most popular apps and sites among children and their safety ratings.
- The most common dangers you child will face on the internet and how to handle them
- Tips on managing your child’s online activities.
Popular Entry Points
The most common ways kids access the internet is through their smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and laptops/PCs.
Most children have access to at least one WiFi-enabled device that probably belongs to their parents but which they use.
If you are going to get your child a device for the first time, it is wise to consider getting at least one of the following monitoring services installed. However, these are not a “fit it and forget” product. We will discuss additional and perhaps better methods to use later on in this guide. For now, here are 2 of our favourites:
Mobicip: this replaces your normal browser and is useful in blocking selected sites, filtering content, and monitoring any other activity. It is also user friendly.
WatchOver: this app is specifically for iOS, but it is still one of the best out there. It takes a screenshot of your child’s screen at intervals of 60 seconds and sends them to the device of your choice. These screenshots are stored for 48 hours. You will also gain access to the messages they exchange and their browsing history. The software is also quite affordable; it only costs £4.99. The downside? It can be deleted by the child so only works when the child respects the authority of the parent and there is an agreement that the child won’t delete or circumvent the software.
You can also consider Nischint, uKnowKids, and mSpy; which are also quite good.
The Most Popular Apps and Sites
Ever since the dawn of the internet, communication has changed dramatically. The modes of communication have not only become faster and more efficient but also more dynamic than ever.
New apps and software keep cropping up every day, and new updates are made for the existing ones at least monthly. At the moment, these are the most popular ones:
Whilst popular with parents, Facebook is often seen by children as “old fashioned”. Still, many children still use this social platform and even more use the messaging service within it.
As you probably know, Facebook allows you to create a profile and share photos, stories, videos, and comments. you can also react to your friend’s posts and send or accept friend requests. There is also the option of joining various niche groups, or just a group of your friends, and playing games within the group.
This application should only be used by people above the age of 13 but a good number of pre-teens are thought to access the site. Facebook doesn’t require ID for new signups, so in reality, anyone can create a profile.
You can filter out posts with profane words, but you cannot filter out disturbing photos for your child. The best thing to do would be to control the people they follow. Basic safety precautions like ensuring your child do not share their location or communicate with strangers will be the most you can do. For these reasons, we would say that Facebook is only moderately safe.
However, there is the Messenger Kids app which is much safer. If you’re currently allowing your child to communicate with others via the main platform, consider using the Messenger Kids app instead.
NSPCC safety rating: Average.
Our safety rating 2.5/5
2. Messenger Kids
This messaging application is much safer than the main Facebook app. It is designed by Facebook for children between the ages of 6 and 12. Your child can message their friends and even you with it. it is fun to use and your child’s safety is ensured.
There are no adverts, no in-app purchases, the user won’t show up on Facebook or search engine searches and parents have oversight and control.
Messenger Kids Ratings
Online reviews by parents are generally positive, with most complaints about the lack of features and general data harvesting by Facebook rather than safety issues.
Our safety rating: 4/5.
Instagram allows you to share pictures and videos. You can also share these or other people’s posts on your story, which will last for 24 hours. There is also a live streaming feature. You can follow people you know; family and celebrities and they can follow you back. You can also comment on other people’s posts.
Your child can set their account to private and disable location sharing. Otherwise, the content they will be exposed to will still not be filtered. Although Instagram does have some community guidelines, some of the content may still not be age-appropriate.
We liked the safety features, blocking controls and privacy options but disliked the filtering; way too much inappropriate content gets onto Instagram and moderators are often slow to remove it.
NSPCC safety rating: Average.
Our safety rating: 3/5.
TikTok is an app that allows you to create and share fun or educative 60-second videos with special effects and popular music.
You can also discover other creators, follow them, and share their videos.
We think parents should enable the feature that allows content created to be shared only with friends. Non-private accounts, which are the default, are risky for children.
NSPCC safety rating: Average.
Our safety rating: 2/5.
This app lets you share photos and short videos known as ‘Snaps’ with your friends, these disappear after a short time.
Unfortunately, the recipient can take a screenshot of any messages they receive so messages aren’t guaranteed to disappear.
Photos and videos can also be accompanied by messages, allowing you to connect with your friends.
Content can’t be easily filtered and the user will need to block senders of unwanted messages or snaps.
We recommend parents turn on ghost mode to keep their location private.
NSPPC safety rating: Average.
Our safety rating: 2/5.
This app is used as an add-on for Snapchat.
It allows you to anonymously ask and answer questions on Snapchat stories.
There are currently no filters and your child may be exposed to all kinds of adult content, hate speech, and even bullying.
The app recommends that you give your child permission to use it and states that they recommend it for children over the age of 13, but we would recommend 16 as a minimum age.
The only thing your child has to defend themselves is a ‘Report Inappropriate Content’ button that they can use if they come across anything problematic.
Anonymity in the online world often leads to abuse, bullying and hate speech so we think you should read this guide to Yolo by Kids n Clicks if your child is using Yolo.
NSPCC safety rating: Very poor.
Our safety rating: 1/5.
Tumblr is a microblogging site where you can share short articles and quotes, links, videos, and photos.
It has a chequered history with previous complaints about adult content, self-harming content and poor filtering.
Tumbler has made improvements and now shows less content promoting self-harm and a recent ban on adult content has helped. However, some harmful content does still appear and this is a concern for us.
Blocking and privacy features are solid but these don’t negate the risk from the harmful content that may appear on this blogging site.
NSPCC safety rating: Poor.
Our safety rating: 2/5.
Kik is a free instant messaging app that allows you to send messages and other media to individuals and groups.
It’s incredibly easy to open an account on Kik, you don’t need to provide a phone number; a username and an email address are all that’s needed to create an account.
This app is often used by people who communicate with others they have met on adult websites, sites that promote extramarital affairs and “hookup” dating sites.
Kik allows the user to hide their identity, you don’t need to share your email address, real name or phone number with the person you are communicating with.
Whilst blocking features do work, you should assume that anyone that your child s communicating with on Kik is 100% anonymous.
Kik should only be used by those over the age of 18.
If you see Kik installed on your child’s phone, they are most likely communicating with someone who wishes to hide their identity.
NSPCC safety rating: Very Poor.
Our safety rating: 0/5.
This site is very popular with gamers who use it to share live streams of games that they’re playing.
Most of the appeal of the site is the fact that it connects gamers from anywhere and everywhere in real-time.
User cannot join in a game on Twitch, it’s just a site for watching people playing games and for commenting. Users can also send and receive messages, that are called whispers.
More recently, new non-game content is appearing on Twitch; DIY, lifestyle and music live streams are becoming popular.
Our biggest issue with Twitch is that these private messages or “whispers” are enabled by default.
To prevent a stranger from sending your child private messages, disable whispers in the settings and teach your child that not everyone online may be who they appear to be.
Users of Twitch communicate publicly with each other, this is one of the key reasons it’s so popular; viewers can communicate with the gamer/broadcaster and anyone else watching the stream. This obviously poses a risk, hence the low safety scores.
Not sure if Twitch is safe for your child? Try this report by Internet Safe Education.
NSPCC safety rating: Poor.
Our safety rating: 2/5 (once whispers has been disabled).
This video conferencing app allows up to 100 people to have virtual meetings and has mostly been used to replace physical classes during the Covid pandemic. Less informal meetings take place there as well.
This app usually requires some basic verification from its members before they can access meetings through links that the convener creates, meaning the environment is somewhat controlled provided the access link isn’t shared publicly.
The best thing to do is to be aware of who your child is meeting with and why. If the access link is shared publicly, anyone can join the video conference and there have been reports of abusive comments and the sharing of adult content etc, this is called “Zoom Bombing” and is discussed on this page where you’ll also find tips on how to secure the Zoom meeting.
NSPCC safety rating: Average.
Our safety rating: 3.5/5 (once settings have been adjusted to limit bombing).
This app allows you to get your creative juices flowing by creating online games.
You also have the option of playing games created by other players and chatting with other users.
As of August 2020, 164million people play Roblox on a regular basis and the majority of them are children.
Roblox has received criticism in the past for its chat feature and specifically, the chat filter. As of September 2020, Roblox has over 1600 moderators monitoring messages for inappropriate content, although a report by Fast Company compared their efforts to a game of whack a mole.
As with many similar apps and social platforms, parents have the option to limit who their child can communicate with by adjusting the privacy settings which does improve safety considerably.
The type of games children play should be monitored as some contain more mature content, although it’s not very life-like and mostly “cartoonish”.
NSPCC safety rating: Good.
Our safety rating: 4/5 (once direct contact with strangers is blocked via the privacy settings).
12. Fortnite: Battle Royale
This is one of the most popular survival games ever created. It lets up to 100 players fight to earn the title of “last player standing”.
100 players are dropped onto an island where they must collect resources and weapons. A storm then forms that gradually forces the players into an ever-smaller area.
User can play solo or as part of a group, hence the popularity and competition between school friends.
The game uses cartoonish graphics that are far from realistic but there’s plenty of shootouts involving rocket launchers, grenades and even sniper rifles. There is an element of building as the users can collect wood, bricks and metal to build elaborate structures to gain a height advantage or even hide from another player.
Fortnite is free to play but players can change the appearance of their character by purchasing upgrades such as new uniforms, outfits, colour schemes and more.
It’s important to note that these purchases are purely decorative, you cannot gain a competitive advantage by spending money. That said, one should not underestimate the desire youngsters have to create personalised and custom avatars within an online game. In 2019, Fortnite generated $1.8billion of revenue, and this is from a game that can be played for free. In short; Fortnite is addictive and can be costly if the user buys new outfits frequently.
It’s easy to switch off the chat feature within the game so strangers cannot communicate with your child but there have been concerns by some parents about the level of violence in this cartoonish game. Bullying and mocking are also prevalent in Fortnite.
While there are no safety ratings for Fortnite, below you’ll find our take on this popular game.
Not sure if Fortnite is suitable for your child? Watch a typical game on YouTube here.
Sexual content: Low/none.
Violence: High but cartoonish.
Bullying, mocking etc leading to potential self-harm: Medium.
Addictiveness: Very high.
Proactive Approaches to Common Dangers on the Internet
We’ve covered the main entry points to the internet and also the most popular sites, apps and games. We’ve also suggested steps you can take to protect your child such as changing privacy settings and using software that takes screenshots for you to view. Yet, there are still more threats to consider, and some can come from close friends, school friends, peers and even strangers that have managed to contact your child privately.
Now let’s take a look at:
- Bullying and trolling.
- Blackmail and extortion.
Bullying and Trolling
Trolling is often perpetrated by strangers, often anonymous, who attempt to start arguments by provoking their target.
There are several ways to deal with an internet troll; report them to the platform/website they are using to communicate, ignore them and don’t rise to the bait which is what they want and finally; block them.
Bullying is a different kettle of fish as it’s often perpetrated by school friends or those within or close to their circle of friends.
bullying.co.uk has a detailed list of suggestions here that are worth going through should you or someone you know experience online bullying.
Blackmail, Extortion and Sextortion
Blackmail, extortion and sextortion all have similar traits; they are an attempt by an individual to get something from a target by threatening them.
Sextortion is where a victim shares an embarrassing sexual image or video of themselves to someone who then uses it to threaten them.
Children lack the experience to understand the consequences of sharing highly personal material so the best way to help them is to teach them about what can happen.
- Children should be taught that if they share an embarrassing photo of themselves, they should assume that it will be shared with all their friends and family. If they don’t want that to happen, they shouldn’t share the photo in the first place.
- They should be taught that any live chats could be recorded and shared to embarrass them.
- They should not trust someone they met online.
Radicalisation and Extremism
Victims of radicalization and extremism come from many cultural and religious (also non-religious) backgrounds and may commit illegal acts on or offline.
In recent months we have seen right-wing political extremists use violence in the United States in an attempt to undermine democracy. Left-wing extremists have also been accused of using the racial divide and social issues to commit offences. Covid deniers and anti-vaxxers have also engaged in violent protests in many western countries.
Preventing extremism and radicalisation is a complex task, but here are some links we think are worth exploring:
Real stories from the UK’s government’s Prevent programme.
Top Tips to Keep Your Child Safe Online
It can be particularly challenging, even with this knowledge of how the web works, to fully understand the technology around us today. Our children may be more tech-savvy than we are, and this may make us feel insecure about our ability to fully protect them from the dangers out there.
Even though we may be plagued by these fears as parents, we need to understand that depriving our children of the internet is detrimental at best. The internet offers so much to young growing minds. there is information on nearly everything, multiple opportunities to socialize, and countless platforms where they can exercise their creativity. Giving your child access to the internet is a great gift, but it also comes with great responsibility.
At the end of the day, the best you can do is observe and let them explore the internet fully. Here are a few general steps you can apply to any internet-related concern you may be facing:
1. Talk to Your Child
This is a strategy that will serve you well no matter the situation. Your child needs to feel that you value what they think and that you can treat their feelings with dignity. They need to want to talk to you when they are in trouble. Not so that you can help them evade responsibility for mistakes, but so that you can help them solve problems and make amends. Fostering this attitude in your child will create transparency. This openness will make it easier for them to talk to you about anything they are unsure about on the internet and by extension life. It will also make it easier for you to set rules that will be followed.
Another important thing this attitude does is that it makes your child trust the values you pass on to them. this shapes their character making it easy for them to turn down any radicalization and extremist religious or political views and conspiracies. Effective communication and trust between you and your child is probably the most important method of safeguarding your child.
2. Learn the Lingo
Bringing yourself up to speed with technology may be an impossible task for some parents, but learning the language used may be easier. By keeping abreast with these terms, you will be able to keep an ear open and follow what’s going on. It is also a great way to bring yourself to your child’s level, or know when they are trying to be naughty. Here are some of the most commonly used terms and what they mean:
- BAE – babe or before anyone else
- NSFW – not safe for work; something your parents shouldn’t see
- PIR – parents in the room
- KFY – kiss for you
- Cheddar – money
- Hooking up – meeting up, but with sexual connotations
- GMOC -Get naked on camera
- LMK – Let me know
- LMIRL – Let’s meet in real life
- MSM – mainstream media
- KK – OK
- NIFOC – naked in front of a camera
- NM – never mind
- Skurt – go away
- Throw shade – look at someone disdainfully or make a comment that affirms your superiority over another
- Tool – an insult meaning ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’
- WTTP – want to trade photos?
- YOLO – you only live once
3. Get Your Kids Interested in Educational/ Constructive Online Activities
As mentioned earlier, the internet is a hub of information. There are thousands of educational platforms, apps, and sites that you can try getting your child involved in. they don’t always have to be playing games or following celebrities who have already made a name for themselves. Here are a few ways you can turn the internet into a self-improvement tool for your child:
- Skill Learning Platforms – Ever since the pandemic started, many people have been forced to learn new skills to find new jobs, or to supplement a strained source of income. This means that a good number of skills sharing platforms have cropped up, such as skill share where you can learn to do just about anything. This would be a great platform to introduce your child to, where they can learn some cool skills to build self-esteem, profit from later, or just show off to their friends. There are also numerous other platforms and even courses you can consider depending on the interests of your child. There are even online dance and cooking classes and even apps.
- Subscribing to Useful YouTube Channels – This is a passive way to get your child to learn. There are several entertaining and child-friendly channels your child can watch on their downtime. They could also watch tutorials on things they are interested in. Your child having their eyes glued to a screen doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
- Animation or Computer Science Apps – There are many fun animation apps and sites such as Flipaclip that your child can use to hone, or start honing, their animation and design skills. This is a particularly popular activity among teenagers, especially because of the cool thing that can be created. You could also try getting the preteens interested in coding. This may seem like an impossible task, but it is worth a shot. Coding apps for kids make coding look fun and easy. This is a highly beneficial skill to practice from an early age and a great way to keep your child busy. Considerably encouraging is the fact that experienced coders say that coding can get quite engrossing and enjoyable, wouldn’t hurt to see if your child will be thinking the same in a few years.
- Small Business on Instagram – Instagram is fun, especially if you are getting positive feedback from your followers. This is potentially problematic if you get all or most of your validation from it, but there is a way around it that you can use to keep your child constructively occupied. What if that feedback could be converted to growth and even profits? Getting your child to start, perhaps, an online baking business on Instagram would be a good way to use feedback as positive criticism, or give them practice in dealing with criticism that isn’t too personal. As a parent, you could help your child analyze the sales, improve techniques via tutorials, and even talk about any negative criticism. This is a powerful method because:
- You make your child a creator instead of a consumer on social media
- They get a different perspective on receiving criticism
- They will be less exposed to bullying but still involved in social media
- It gives them a sense of responsibility and teaches them the value of money
- You will be able to monitor who engages with your child and help them understand how to deal with bullies