Smart Living | Digital Parenting

Digital Parenting | 16 Feb 2023

What to do when your child encounters unsuitable content online

Nicola, 37, of Norfolk, describes the moment she found her child had been exposed to more online than she'd bargained for. We ask the experts how parents should respond when this happens.

“Recently we were in a restaurant, having Sunday lunch with friends. There were lots of kids in our party, but our three-year-old daughter was struggling to join in with their game and was a little tearful, so my husband put her favourite cartoon on YouTube to comfort and distract her.

“She was wearing her headphones to listen along, but sitting right on his knee at the table, so we felt like she was safe. My husband had his arm round her, and was chatting to a friend over her head. Suddenly, he looked down and grabbed the phone out of her hands.

“I’ve no idea how, but while he’d been chatting, the content had moved on from the official episode he’d picked for her. On the screen was a new, home-made video, in the style of her cartoon, with the same familiar characters, but cast in a twisted horror story. When we listened back to it, there was scary music and screaming.

“Our daughter seemed unfazed by the video; in fact she was more upset that we had taken the phone away so abruptly. She cried and couldn’t understand why one minute we had allowed her to watch her show, and then the next minute we had suddenly changed our minds.

“We hope she’s simply too young, and didn’t see enough of the video to have taken it in. But we were really shaken. And I can’t help worrying if – in the 15 minutes or so that she was in front of the phone – she may have seen other violent or lewd knock-offs with more troubling imagery and language.”

Tech Savvy Tweens: New research reveals kids’ digital knowledge surpasses their parents by the age of 12

On Safer Internet Day (SID) 2023, Vodafone launches Digital Parenting Pro, one of the biggest parental controls and safety settings resources in the UK, empowering parents to keep up with their kids and improve their own digital skills.

What the experts say

Dr Victoria Lewis, educational psychologist

Children of all ages are finding activities and content online that can support their imagination, creativity and problem-solving, says Dr Lewis. But what do we do if, instead, they see something upsetting?

“Psychologists often recommend ’emotion coaching’ when looking to problem-solve,” she says. “Acknowledge their feelings first, and then move on to find out what they know.”

In the case of a young child, advises Dr Lewis, you might say: “That was a scary picture, are you ok? Can you tell me about it and what you think happened?”

And since children can be very sensitive to an adult’s emotional state, it’s important to stay calm, she says.

“Perhaps give the child a hug while working out what needs to be done,” she suggests.

Very young children often find it hard to distinguish fact from fiction, so may need gentle help with this if they stumble across something troubling online.

Once older children and teens are regularly navigating the internet alone, another possibility emerges. They may actively go looking for material – from sexualised to violent content – that, in Lewis’ words, “can evoke a whole lot of different emotions for both child and parent. If that’s your situation, says Dr Lewis: “Try saying something like: ‘These topics are hard to discuss but I won’t be angry, I just want you to feel you can be free to ask anything you want.’

Ultimately, she says: “Don’t be afraid to share your values and where you stand on things,” she advises. “The NSPCC website has some helpful ideas for tackling difficult conversations and there are also organisations such as Childline where children can talk to trained counsellors about how they are feeling.”

‘We need parental controls to protect our kids, but we also need to talk’

As Vodafone UK launches Digital Parenting Pro, a content controls hub for parents and carers, Nicki Lyons, Chief Corporate Affairs & Sustainability Officer, reflects on how resources like this can protect kids from unsuitable content and help families have more informed conversations around online safety.

Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet and a director of the UK Safer Internet Centre.

“Kids are engaging with technology from a very early age,” says Mr Gardner. “The theme of this year’s Safer Internet Day centred around conversations, because these really are key to keeping them safe.”

There are lots of parental controls that help to keep your children safer while they’re online. For example, Vodafone has just launched Digital Parenting Pro, its own interactive parental controls resource for parents and carers. It provides helpful information about what parental controls and safety settings are available across the most popular apps, games and devices.

Digital Parenting Pro promo image showing the app on a smartphone
Click on the image to access our Digital Parenting Pro parental controls and safety settings resource

“These tools are important, but not foolproof,” says Mr Gardner. That’s why talking to your kids is equally as important, he believes.

“It’s really important to give even very young kids strategies they can use in situations where they come across material that worries them,” he says.

“These can be as simple as teaching them to immediately close the lid of the laptop, or turn the tablet over, to put some distance between them and it.”

Talking about the possibility of encountering material that makes them uncomfortable also opens up a channel between you, he explains, adding “it helps to make them feel confident that they can talk to you if it does happen”.

“Children and young people often say they fear getting into trouble, or having their tech taken away by their parents if they confide in them. But they also say that they fear their parents won’t understand.

“So having open conversations about their online lives, from a very young age, is vital to show that you are accessible and ready to talk, even if you’re not an expert.”

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Five tips for keeping kids safe on YouTube

  1. Switch off auto-play Auto-play is the function that prompts a related video to play automatically once your current one finishes. YouTube turns it off by default on accounts registered to young people aged 13–17. But if you’re over 18, it’s switched on automatically. So if your child is using your account, you might want to switch it off.
  2. Create playlists for them Making a playlist of their favourite cartoons or content means you’ll have a ready-vetted hour or so of material for them to watch if and when it’s suddenly required (do watch the videos first, though, just to be sure).
  3. Set up a supervised account These are linked to a parent’s own Google account, so you’re in control of content settings and parental controls that will help you manage what channels they can subscribe to and even how long they spend on the app.
  4. Set to ‘Restricted Mode’ This optional setting was designed to help you filter out the potentially mature content that you might not want them seeing. It’s not completely failsafe, but it’s popular with libraries and universities.
  5. Download YouTube Kids A separate app and website, YouTube Kids is filtered to try and ensure all videos are child-friendly. Not failsafe, but far safer.

Check out Vodafone’s Digital Parenting Pro parental controls hub.

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