Last reviewed 25 August 2023

It is easy to vilify the internet and to see children’s online access in a negative way, especially in light of the potential risks, but it’s important to remember the positives. These were particularly highlighted during the pandemic, where messaging services and digital platforms such as Zoom enabled families and friends to stay connected, especially during lockdowns.

Not all bad!

Early years settings were able to reach out to the children they were unable to care for directly, including recording videos of stories and holding online activities. Schools, universities and other educational services took learning online. Working from home was facilitated by those same platforms. Medical services such as GP appointments became e-consultations and wellbeing services, such as counselling also went online. Elements of remote or hybrid working have been retained to some extent, becoming the norm in some cases, even though the pandemic is over.

Other benefits to the internet include:

  • opportunities for research, training and professional development

  • gaining updates on events, news and current affairs

  • opportunities for personal expression and creativity

  • watching and engaging with live and recorded arts, drama and music performances and content, including streaming

  • marketing, advertising and promotion of businesses, events and services

  • opportunities to buy services and goods

  • opportunities to express opinions and share knowledge and ideas with others.

It is important that those working with children recognise and acknowledge that whilst there are risks associated with going online, just as there are risks that children encounter in other parts of their lives, it is about how those risks are managed and minimised that is crucial.

The most recent Ofcom report on media use and literacy demonstrated that children are themselves aware of the potentially negative aspects and impacts of being online, however they are also conscious of the positives too. 53% said that being online was good for their mental health, with 80% of 13–17-year-olds accessing apps and online services to find support for their wellbeing, including sleep; relaxation and meditation; healthy eating; help with “growing-up issue”; fitness programmes and health trackers, and help for low moods and anxiety.

Duty of care

Keeping children safe is everyone’s responsibility and as early years educators you hold a particular role in safeguarding and protecting children, including online, whilst also giving children the tools and knowledge they need to keep themselves safe. This duty of care extends to children of all ages and is irrespective of whether or not there is online access available at the setting.

The internet is a powerful tool, one that is constantly developing and who knows what may come next? Part of your role is to prepare children for the unknown. One way to do this is to help children to become digital media literate, that is, to help them develop the ability to understand, question and manage their online environment, using critical thinking skills and risk assessment, in order to benefit from the internet and other digital platforms available to them, whilst avoiding potential risks or harms.

It is important that early years settings address how they can support children’s growing understanding of safety online, as well as providing direct protection. It is not sufficient to simply ban use of the internet in the setting and believe the job is done. This does children a disservice and does nothing to provide them with the tools they will need to navigate a rapidly evolving digital world. Settings that have no internet access still have a responsibility to support children in this area. Even if children don’t have access to technology within your setting, they will still be using it at home, with their friends or in other public spaces. This is no different in effect, to teaching children road safety, even if as a setting, you don’t take children on outings.

Children are naturally curious. They want to understand all aspects of the world they live in, including the virtual world. It is your responsibility to enable them to do so, including helping them to recognise the value of technology and use it safely.

Ways in which practitioners can support children

With very young children, teaching internet safety may be as simple as helping them to know they must always tell a grown up if they see something online that upsets them or if someone they don’t know tries to talk to them. It could include teaching children that they should be supervised online and not go online without a grown up knowing or giving permission — an important message to share with parents too.

Talk to children about keeping safe online and what to do if they are worried.

  • Use the topics of interest to them to open conversations:

    • research topics online together

    • talk about their favourite online games or characters.

  • Discuss how the child uses the internet at home, including services such as YouTube or devices like Alexa.

  • Be open and honest and help children understand that uncomfortable secrets apply just the same online as in the real world — they should not be kept and always shared with a trusted adult.

Role model safe internet use and privacy awareness.

  • Ask permission before taking a child’s picture and before posting it anywhere, including their online journal, if applicable, even if parental consent has been given.

  • Explain why setting devices, such as tablets, have passwords and can only be used under supervision, with permission.

  • Share books, stories and role play about internet scenarios. Childnet has excellent resources which are aimed at children aged three and above, but could be adapted for younger children.

Strategies to minimise risk in the setting include:

  • checking any apps, websites and search results before using them with children

  • supervising children when they are accessing the internet

  • ensuring filters, controls and monitoring systems are in place

  • making sure privacy settings are secure so personal data is not shared inappropriately

  • ensuring devices belonging to the setting are never used for personal reasons

  • using home visits or “All About Me” forms to understand how technology is used by children at home

  • setting age-appropriate time limits and boundaries

  • ensuring your safeguarding policy and procedure covers online and technology safety, including the use of mobile phones, cameras and other digital technology and is embedded throughout the setting

  • sharing information around online safety with parents, including promoting events such as Safer Internet Day

  • keeping up to date through training and research and being familiar with sources of help and useful resources.

Digital 5 a day for children

To end on a positive note, the Children’s Commissioner for England suggests that just like having five fruit and vegetable portions each day is good for physical health, there should be a “five-a-day” for good digital health.

Based on the NHS’s Five Steps to Better Mental Wellbeing, the digital “5 a day” campaign aims to provide children and parents with easy to follow, practical steps to achieve a healthy and balanced digital diet.

  1. Connect — have fun and play with friends and family both online and offline.

  2. Be Active — take some time off and get active to boost emotional wellbeing.

  3. Get Creative — don’t just browse the internet but use digital tools to create content, to build new skills and discover new passions.

  4. Give to Others — be positive online, report bad content and help others to balance their own five a day.

  5. Be Mindful — if time online is causing stress or tiredness then take some time off and ask for help when you need it.

Useful links