Since Monday 23 March 2020, most schools in the UK have embarked on school closure in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. For most parents, aside from juggling between the daunting prospect of home-schooling and their work, they are also overwhelmed by their children’s need to stay connected with friends.

This is particularly a challenge for parents of primary school age children who have not been extensively exposed to independent online social communications until the COVID-19 crisis. Under this stressful and rapidly developing situation, many parents handed over to their children some general purpose video conference applications or social media platforms as a quick and easy solution. This article highlights several things that parents should look out for when facilitating their young children’s first online chat or social communication, to keep their children safe, and enjoy a happy and rewarding home schooling time.

What are the risks?

Online social communication of teenagers has been more widely studied than primary school age children. Research has shown that online social communication provides a wonderful mechanism for teenagers to keep in touch with their friends during the increasingly dynamic modern family life, although they can also cause stressful or even damaging consequences to teenagers’ mental health, wellbeing or safety.

In the UK primary school age children (6-10 years old) are reported to spend most of their online time on gaming or watching videos. However, the emerging home schooling situation raises a new need for them to stay in touch with their friends to retain a social connection in a self-isolating or social-distancing context. Therefore, we see a surge of children of all ages embark on various online communication platforms without a full awareness of associated risks.

Many parents and children are probably aware of the risks of being approached by strangers, who are not their immediate friends from school or family members. Many platforms (such as Houseparty or Zoom) do not necessarily stop strangers from joining a video chat unless properly configured. Parents should ensure that any discovery function of such platforms (such as finding friends nearby) are disabled, particularly for young children. If you decide to give your child an email address or an old smartphone so that they can chat with their friends, be sure that they do not give out their contact details to strangers or receive contact from people they do not know.

Even when children are amongst their friends, they could still become emotionally overwhelmed as everyone may get easily excited, having not seen their friends for a couple of days and now ‘meeting’ them through a completely new way. A lot of the anxiety that teenagers have been reported to experience online are caused by feeling being left out or having their secrets exposed in public. This can also happen to young children and they would find it even harder to cope with or comprehend such behaviour. Make sure that you talk regularly to your children about the importance of their own and other people’s privacy (such as secrets), using respectful and appropriate language, and letting them know that they can also come over to talk to you if they encounter trouble. Online interactions should have lots of synergies to their social interactions at schools. Examples that schools have used to show children how to be kind can also help them understand that it is equally important to act responsibly and respectfully on the digital space.

Given the rapid rising need, parents are seeking solutions through general purpose tele-communication tools (like video conference tools used for the workplace) or social communication tools. These tools could be associated with various security or privacy risks. Some tools like Houseparty do not come with end-to-end encryption, which means that your children’s conversations are not necessarily private. Other tools, like WhatsApp or Messenger, are not expected to be used by children under the age of 13 and parents need to take up the legal responsibility.

What should parents do to keep your children safe?

  1. Think about the age restrictions: Unlike the age rating associated with apps or films, which indicates the appropriateness of the content, most social media platforms impose a minimum age restriction for accessing their services. This age restriction may vary in different countries. In the UK, you need to be 13 years older to have your own YouTube or WhatsApp account. Parents should think carefully when providing this consent on their children’s behalf.

  2. Respect your child’s privacy: For children as young as 4, they have already developed a sense of personal privacy or secret. Parents should tread carefully when trying to protect children from online risks and not breaking the mutual trust. For example, just because you know your child’s password for their email, you should not look into their conversation with their friends without their presence or permission.

  3. Talk about being respectful: Talk to your children about how to communicate respectfully to others, and when and from whom they should look for help if they find anything unpleasant. A private social network (e.g. setting “Houseparty” to private mode) that prevents children from being contacted by strangers is a good start. However, parents should talk to their children about what it means to a good friend online and how to respect your friends’ privacy.

  4. Use of parental control mechanisms: There are lots of parental control tools on the market that parents can install on your children’s devices. They offer a range of capabilities, including restricting the content or sites that your child can access, monitoring all their activities online, or sending alerts to parents for any inappropriate content or contact etc. Although these tools seem to offer peace of mind for parents, they may be pushed back or overcome by children. If such tools are to be introduced at home, parents should talk to their children about why these tools are used. Parents and children should treat the tools as offering an opportunity to co-develop online risk coping skills. Every alert you received can be a great learning opportunity for you and your child, instead of an initiative for punishment.

This is a super-busy time for all families and everyone is experiencing a steep learning curve of all things digital. Be mindful that we cannot all be perfect, and this is a new experience for all of us! Therefore we also compiled a list of resources to help make this an enjoyable time for us all!