Last reviewed 25 January 2024

Worries around children’s online safety have been heightened in recent years, with rapid advances in digital technology coupled with children’s increased access and usage of the internet, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, significantly contributing to these concerns.

In research conducted by Childwise, 41% of five to 16-year-olds said that they could not live without their mobile phone. The most recent Ofcom report on media use and literacy suggested that 99% of children went online in 2021/22. Their figures showed that it’s not just older children who are exposed:

  • 24% of three to seven-year-olds owned a mobile phone

  • 21% of three and four-year-olds used social media and 24% had their own profile, in spite of the legal age for this being 13

  • 50% of three and four-year-olds used messaging sites and apps

  • 89% of three and four-year-olds used video sharing platforms

  • 56% three to seven-year-olds took part in online gaming.

Similarly, Childwise’s research found that young children under three are becoming increasingly adept at operating touch screen devices independently, including basic functions such as volume control (42%), locating and opening apps (42%) and then navigating within these (28%), all without adult assistance. It is not uncommon to see babies and toddlers with a parent’s phone accessing a photo or music app and swiping through to find their favourite pictures, videos or songs. Modern babies may be as likely to try to swipe their way through a storybook as they turn the pages.

The fact is that digital technology, in some form, is here to stay, and is evolving more rapidly than we can keep pace with. It is also a fact that many children are immersed in a digital world from a very young age, with some even having their birth live streamed!

Just as children may be exposed to potential harms in their physical world, they may also be at risk in their virtual one. Such harms are not necessarily illegal but may, nonetheless have an adverse impact.

Concerns around the negative effects of online access and screen time include the following.

  • Impact on children’s wellbeing.

    • Poor self-esteem.

    • Reduced self-confidence.

    • Negative body image.

    • Mental health difficulties, including depression.

    • oObsession/addiction.

  • Impact on children’s health and development.

    • Self-harm; eating disorders; suicide.

    • Poor sleep.

    • Poor eating.

    • Attention and concentration difficulties.

    • Poor fitness, insufficient exercise, poor gross motor skills and posture.

    • Obesity.

    • Increased aggression: outbursts of anger or irritation.

    • Regressive behaviours like bed wetting, or thumb sucking.

    • Risks to personal safety, including physical harm such as from engaging in online challenges, or being groomed into taking part in sexual or criminal activities.

    • Risk-taking behaviours, such as the use of drugs or alcohol.

  • Impact on children’s social interactions and development.

    • Peer pressure.

    • Fear of missing out.

    • Feelings of isolation and being excluded.

    • Estrangement from family and friends.

    • Missing from education.

    • Real-world bullying and aggression being taken online and vice-versa.

    • Ill-considered risk taking.

  • Financial risk taking.

Online harms

The NSPCC says that online abuse is “any type of abuse that happens on the internet. It can happen across any device that's connected to the web, like computers, tablets, and mobile phones. And it can happen anywhere online”. In its initial draft of the Online Safety Bill the Government uses the term “online harms” and defines this as “user generated content or behaviour that is illegal or could cause significant physical or psychological harm to a person”.

Young children are impressionable, and they may think that what they see online is safe, believable and acceptable. Not all online harm is illegal but will nevertheless have a negative impact on those who experience it.

Examples of online harm include:

  • child sexual exploitation and abuse

  • extremist and terrorist use of the internet

  • hate crime and hate speech

  • cyberbullying and online abuse

  • promotion of self harm or suicide content.

EU Kids Online has developed a framework to describe the risks of being online, referred to as the 4 Cs: content; contact; conduct; and commerce.

Content

Children may see or hear harmful, inappropriate material or illegal content intentionally or accidentally, in a variety of formats, including images, video, text and audio, including:

  • inappropriate or adult sexual content, pornography, sex abuse images and videos

  • fke news and misinformation

  • racism, antisemitism, and other bias, including homophobia and transphobia

  • misogyny

  • self-harm/suicide

  • radicalisation/extremism

  • incitement to hate or violence

  • intimidating, violent, frightening, or other unwanted content

  • fake profiles; impersonation; catfishing

  • scam content; phishing

  • photo filters; influencers — unrealistic portrayal of life.

Contact

Children may become involved in interactions that could be harmful to them. These may be interactions they have initiated, or through uninitiated contact from others. The contact may be with someone they know or with strangers, such as someone pretending to be a child on a video gaming platform. Methods of harmful contact include using audio, video or text formats and may be via direct messaging platforms; texting; email; social media; in-game or in-app chat; and on chat forums or in chatrooms.

The types of contact can include the following.

  • From another child or someone impersonating another child or a friend; fake accounts.

  • Being bullied or subject to other harmful negative behaviours (see section on conduct below).

  • Radicalisation: exposure to extremist beliefs and terrorist activities.

  • Grooming:

    • manipulation for the purposes of abuse, including exploitation; criminal and sexual

    • coercion to engage in harmful activities, including commercial, social, sexual and criminal.

Conduct

Children may behave in a way that puts them and/or others at risk through their actions. This may be deliberate or unintentional. Early years children are particularly vulnerable due to their lack of life experience, naivety and natural curiosity. Their characteristically open nature makes them easier to manipulate, be tricked and coerced than older children.

Conduct can include becoming involved in the following.

  • Aggressive, intimidating behaviour.

  • Bullying:

    • excluding from games, activities or friendship groups

    • name calling

    • harassment, making threats or stalking

    • trolling: sending intimidating or upsetting messages on social media, in chat rooms or online games

    • sending threatening, upsetting or abusive messages.

  • Creating and sharing images or videos without consent.

  • Engaging in and sharing online challenges and hoaxes.

  • Making, sending, receiving indecent, explicit, sexual, offensive or inappropriate messages, images and video, including images of themselves, eg sexting.

  • Sharing or revealing sensitive personal information or location.

  • Making “friends” with someone they only know online, eg someone they game with online.

  • Engaging in ill-advised, inappropriate or illegal commercial activity, eg buying online; illegal downloading and copyright infringement; hacking; scams; stealing or destroying someone’s online items or designs and blackmail.

  • Sharing fake news or providing misleading or inaccurate information to others.

  • Having underage accounts or accessing underage material, eg social media accounts, TV/films and games.

  • Gaming and in-app purchasing, including without consent.

  • Accessing harmful material such as extremist views, self-harm or suicide information.

  • Inciting others to hate/violence/extremism/terrorism.

Commerce

Harmful commerce is not necessarily illegal and may be deliberate or inadvertent. There have been cases of even very young children making large, accidental purchases on Ebay or Amazon, for example, using smart speakers like Alexa, as well as unauthorised in-app or in-game purchases where there has been a credit card linked to the account they are using. Children are less savvy than adults and so more easily influenced by advertising and marketing, or influencers, and are therefore less aware of what may be affecting their decisions as consumers.

Harmful commerce can include the following.

  • Advertising, publicity, spam or sponsorship.

  • Quizzes, competitions or surveys.

  • Tracking the sites a child has looked at to harvest their personal information or target advertising.

  • Pirating and hacking.

  • Gambling.

  • In-app/game purchasing.

  • Phishing/financial scams.

  • Catfishing.

  • Clickbait

  • Financial abuse and coercion/groomingz.

  • Identity theft.

  • Dark web.

  • Smart wear, intelligent “connected” toys and tracking devices.

It is essential that early years practitioners are aware of the influence of the internet on the children in their care and the potential risks involved, in order to educate and support them to stay safe when online.

Useful links