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Looking after your child’s mental health when they are online

Published on
15 May 2023

Dr Amina Al-Yassin, a sessional GP for Barnardo’s, shares some guidance about keeping children and young people safe online, her tips for balancing your family’s mental health and wellbeing as well as the positives of the internet. 

The internet plays a huge part in the lives of children and young people today. It offers them endless opportunities to watch, listen, talk, read, play, socialise and learn about the world around them. A recent Ofcom study found that 97% of children aged 3-17 years old went online during 2022 in the UK.  

Many parents and carers may wonder about what impact the time spent online is having on their children and whether it’s a cause for concern. It is important to recognise that ‘digitally native’ children can reap the benefits of this online world. Leading child health experts, including Professor Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics, have said that there’s little evidence that children going online to do homework, when using an educational app or chatting with people they also know offline, poses a threat. In fact, it could be of benefit as it helps to meet their basic needs of social interaction, communication, play, and exercise.  

However, it is vital for parents and carers be aware of the dangers of some online content which children could stumble across too. Children need to know what could be potentially harmful content, such as that which isn’t age appropriate or what to do if they are bullied online.  

Online dangers 

The Online Safety Bill is currently working its way through Parliament. We hope new legislation will help to close some of the loopholes that allow children to be exposed to harmful content, including extreme and violent pornography. In the constantly evolving digital world, it can be hard for anyone responsible for a child to know what the current threats are. For example, The Breck Foundation found that there’s been an 84% increase in online grooming crimes in the last four years. Through our frontline work with children and families across the UK, we know that various social media platforms are being used to target and exploit children, leading to sexual abuse and forced criminal activity.  

Young people have told us that this is a concern for them too. A recent survey of the children and young people Barnardo’s helps throughout the UK found that: 

  • Over half (54%) have felt bullied or harassed online at some point, with 8% often or always feel bullied or harassed.  

  • Two thirds (67%) had seen things online that made them feel worried or scared, with one in 10 seeing them often or all the time. 

  • Over a third (36%) had been contacted online by someone they didn’t know who made them feel worried or scared, including 9% who said this had happened many times.  

It’s clear that alongside all its benefits and opportunities, the online world has the potential to put children’s mental health and wellbeing at risk.  However, there are some simple steps parents and carers can take to help keep children and young people safe online.  

Top tips for keeping children safe online 

As Mental Health Awareness Week gets underway, here’s some advice on how to help, support and encourage children to stay safe, happy and healthy online: 

  • Aim to have open and honest conversations with children about online content – both the good and the bad. Educate them on how to use the internet safely and what they should do if they see anything that concerns them. Talking candidly could help to encourage children to reach out to you should they see anything upsetting or disturbing, so you can help and support them afterwards. 

  • Set boundaries on what counts as appropriate internet use. Ofcom found that 97% of UK households with children at home had internet access. It’s unrealistic to think that they won’t spend any time online, especially when their peers will be doing so. Talk to your children about what you both think is fair and realistic in terms of what sites or apps they can use, how much time they spend online and then back this all up with parental controls – Childnet outline the basics here.  

  • Consider having family rules about time online and use of technology which apply to everyone in the home – not just the children. It could be as simple as ‘no phones during dinner’, but if rules can be applied equally across a household then it may encourage your children to follow them. 

  • Try to minimise use of smart devices at night possibly by putting phones or tablets out of reach or in another room, to stop late-night scrolling. Sleep is a crucial time for children, as it’s a period of brain development and growth. The Sleep Foundation says that without enough sleep, children can face difficulties with memory, attention and problem-solving as well as behaviour and emotional regulation, which could affect academic performance. Many of us know how appealing it is to browse social media. This appeal is even greater for children and young people when friendships are such a vital part of their lives.  

  • Look out for warning signs that a child may be being targeted or groomed online. These include spending more time online, using their phone secretively, seeming upset or angry when they come offline, getting a lot of calls or messages or talking about gifts or money they have received online. If this happens, try to talk to them about it. 

  • If you are worried about online sexual abuse or the way someone has been communicating with a child in your care online, you can report to Child Exploitation and Online Protection, which is part of the National Crime Agency, to be fully investigated. 

How Barnardo’s can support you

For more help and support, we have a host of resources aimed at different groups, including: 

Be Body Positive, which Barnardo’s runs in partnership with the East London NHS Foundation Trust, provides help, support and guidance for people who have disordered eating – which is a pre-clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder. 

Barnardo’s ‘My Mental Health’ website has lots of helpful articles, advice and signposting to further support for children and young people. 

The Barnardo’s Education Community, in partnership with the Zurich Community Trust, is a platform which aims to improve the mental health of children and young people by providing staff working in education with the knowledge, understanding and tools needed to support them. 

Real Love Rocks is for primary and secondary teachers to teach children about a range of issues including managing healthy relationships, including those with people who you meet online. 

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