Some thoughts from our Safeguarding lead on the extended school closure due to Covid-19 and online safety.
We’ve all seen the headlines about the disastrous impact that online abuse of all types can have on children, young people and indeed vulnerable adults. Due to the Corona Virus (Covid-19) we’ve seen around the world schools closing and it’s highly likely that schools in the UK will be closing too. So what impact might this have on the online safety for children, and what should or could you do about it?
One of the benefits of being an adult is that we’ve all been children and hopefully we can all remember what it was like, during those long hot summer holidays, when our friends were away with their families and there simply wasn’t anything to do at all. Many of us got up to mischief, simply to try to beat the boredom.
Despite the fact that it is not a holiday when the schools close in response to this Corona Virus pandemic, and children need to carry on as best they can with their lesson plans, they will undoubtedly get bored and try to entertain themselves to alleviate the monotony. How many adults who will have to work from home will find it hard to stay motivated and productive for their teams when working from home? It will be much harder for children outside of the formal disciplines of the school environment.
The temptation to go online will simply be too great. Indeed there may well be very good reasons why children should go online to keep in touch as best possible with the friends during these contact-restricted times, to socialise and just maybe collaborate on some homework. But we know already that predators lurk online, on the same social media apps your children will be using, looking for the unwary, the naïve and the vulnerable. But it’s not just the unware, naïve and vulnerable child that is the prey; it’s the bored child.
What some kicks? Parents not at home? I’ll come over, let’s play!
If you are working from home, then it would be great to set up a routine where both you and your children are working at the same time. Set break times, just like at school. Make sure they follow and complete their lesson plans so that they develop a sense of achievement and worthwhileness, purpose. Be available to help them if they get stuck or have questions, and when they’ve finished some work why not review with them?
They will be worried about their lives (and yours too) so they will need plenty of reassurance. As is the way with especially teenage children, they will turn to their friends for advice first. Their online friends. Who may not be who they say they are.
One of the aims of an online predator is to try to isolate their victim, your child, from their peer groups and indeed from you. Try to ensure your child is spending as much time as possible with a wide group of friends, rather than focussing on just one, especially if you don’t know or haven’t met this person. Remember, it’s so, so easy to set up a fake account that looks just like a 13 year old girl. Or boy. When in fact it’s a 45 year old man.
Grooming is the process by which a predator will isolate their victim. And they may have many victims on the go at any one time. Perpetrators that have been caught have been found to use note books to keep track of the detailed online fake personalities they use for each child victim. For the child, the grooming process makes them feel special and the advice about “If anything makes you feel uncomfortable tell someone” simply doesn’t work. Grooming, in short, feels nice. Some of the signs to look for are if your child has some new stuff neither you nor your partner bought for them – that pair of trainers, where did they come from? An AppleWatch?
But there are gifts that may be less obvious and harder to spot. In the online gaming world, rewards within the games can be used to win the confidence of the child victim. Virtual currency. Extra lives. There’s a gaming term “grinding”, which means a lot of long, hard work to get to the level within a game, but guess what? If you pay, there’s a short cut.
These are the virtual, unnoticeable (for you), untraceable (by you), invisible (to you) gifts that can be used to gain the trust, confidence and even admiration of the child. So seductive are these people, so devious, so manipulative, that it’s not unusual that if this “relationship” is discovered, the child will defend the perpetrator, even in the face of all the evidence. This can lead to a lot of family pain, arguments, and there have been extreme cases where, when the parents have confiscated the child’s phone, the child has gone on to commit suicide.
This of course is very unlikely to happen. But the fact is that as schools shut down and real world social interaction is diminished as a result, young minds will need distraction and entertainment, young people will need comforting and entertaining, and it’s our job as parents to ensure that they are just as safe online during these testing times as they would be at any other time – or ideally safer.
Here are my top five tips to help you keep your children safe online while they are at home:
- Start as you mean to go on and keep your child’s day as structured as possible
- Limit phone time as would happen if they were at school
- In down-time, engage with your child. Ask them about any messages from their school friends and show interest in the news from their friendship group
- After work, plan family time such as a film or walking the dog
- Don’t let your child withdraw with their phone for long periods of time without checking in on them
Children are obviously concerned about their privacy, and parents are concerned about their children’s safety. We believe that with our safeguarding and wellbeing app, we can provide the safety for children that parents desire, with the privacy that children crave.
Download SafeToNet today, from the Appstore of your choice.
Having arrived in the UK as a child refugee from Uganda, Sarah Castro has seen first-hand the importance of safeguarding children. She currently works as Head of Safeguarding at cyber safety company SafeToNet, guiding their work in steering children away from cyberbullying, grooming, sexual abuse, and exploitation. Sarah has helped SafeToNet to understand the dangerous underbelly of online behaviour and expose hidden predatory behaviour like radicalisation and the economy of grooming.
Despite her work mostly taking place under the radar, Sarah’s advocacy for the underprivileged has won acclaim from a number of quarters, having been awarded an MBE, a Commendation for Exemplary Contribution from the Metropolitan Police, and a Guardian Public Service Award.