Online safety in a shifting world


Mark Bentley reveals important changes in the way children are behaving and the threats they are facing online 

In 2018, schools from across the UK asked pupils to take part in what would become the UK’s largest ever online safety survey. 

Over the course of a month, almost 40,000 children and young people aged between seven and 16 provided insight into their online safety realities – the good and the bad. In the Hopes and Streams survey, organised by London Grid for Learning, 54 per cent of respondents were from primaries and 46 per cent from secondaries.

In comparison with previous surveys, the 2018 results revealed a potential shift in risks and dangers from strictly contact-based to content-based. For many years, stranger danger was treated as the main concern and many online-safety messages revolved around meeting strangers; today it seems that violent or sexual content is far more prevalent, whether sending or receiving, voluntarily or coerced. 

Unsurprisingly, sexting and child sexual exploitation via live streaming were flagged as major issues; however, the sheer scale and young ages of those affected underline the importance of relationships and sex education which is being implemented in schools.

 There was, however, encouraging news also reported, especially for parents. Although only 56 per cent of respondents said they spoke about online safety with a parent or carer more than once per year, nearly three quarters of those who did talk about their experiences, chose to talk to a parent before speaking to a friend, teacher or helpline.

One of the standout statistics of the report is that 73 per cent of all pupils said that their parents understood online safety. This is reassuring for parents and shows that you don’t need to know the latest game or app inside out – it’s all about behaviour.

Apps, sites and games

Young people were asked about the apps, sites and games they used. On the positive side, more than half of those questioned reported things they really liked about the platforms they used. For example, one in four young people said the apps, sites and games they use make them feel good about themselves, and 18 per cent said their online activities helped them to make new friends. 

On the flip-side, it is striking that only 3.5 per cent said the apps they used helped them to feel good about their body, which is reflected in wider societal issues relating to body shaming and how social and traditional media can perpetuate and consolidate poor body image messages. Another statistic which particularly stood out was the fact that nearly one in three pupils say it’s hard to stop using apps, sites and games to have a break. 

This feeds into the important debate around technology addiction and digital detox. Eight years since Dr Richard Graham launched the UK’s first Technology Addiction Service for young people at Nightingale Hospital, June 2018 saw the NHS and then the World Health Organisation officially recognise gaming addictions for the first time.

This important issue can be addressed to an extent through parental education and empowerment – for example, by offering frameworks for productive screen time or supporting parent-child communication through schools and online resources. The UK Children’s Commissioner’s “Digital Five a Day” programme is a good example of this.

Making friends and meeting people online

Contact risks are often discussed in online safety as part of the content, contact, conduct paradigm of dangers. The vast majority of young people are using apps, sites and games with some regularity, including even the very youngest, and the survey found that more than one in three young people have made new friends online, with boys nearly twice as likely to make new friends online as girls. One figure, which is of particular significance given grooming concerns, is that one in ten of seven- to 16 year-olds have made friends with an adult online for the first time.

In order for online safety messages in this area to be taken seriously, it is critical that adults also show young people that they recognise how friendships formed online can be thoroughly positive. For example, teachers might refer to statistics for people who marry after meeting online.

Video chatting and live-streaming

Video chatting has been increasing in popularity for many years and the landscape has expanded to such an extent that apps and games often offer it as an add-on, almost as an afterthought. The survey asked pupils specifically about their use of video chat with people they only knew online.

Overall, one in eight pupils said they had video chatted with someone they had not met in person. In line with expectations, secondary students are more than twice as likely to do this as primary pupils. There are some very worrying statistics revealed by this section of the survey, all made more concerning given the exponential increase in the use of these services. Nearly one in ten young people who video chat with people they haven’t met in person have been asked to change or take off clothes.

Parents and teachers are often, understandably, reticent to talk about such issues, but these figures show how important it is to find age-appropriate ways to explain what behaviours are inappropriate and when to seek help. It is key that parents can address these issues with their children; schools can help in various ways, including by explaining the extent to which children trust them and want to speak to them about online safety. 

It is tempting for parents and educators to compose a list of “apps where bad things happen”. It should be noted though, that both children and predators are very quick to move from one app to another. A focus on behaviour is therefore much more important. 

Finally, it’s important to remember the online world reflects reality: it is large, difficult to navigate and, too often, dangerous for young people. Nonetheless, like the real world, there are so many positive experiences which can’t be enjoyed from inside an internet-free room! I hope these tips will help grown-ups and children alike to use the Internet in a safe and positive way. 

Further information

Mark Bentley is Online Safety and Safeguarding Manager at London Grid for Learning, a charitable trust of schools and local authorities promoting the use of technology in teaching and learning:

The Hopes and Streams report includes further information on topics such as: seeing, sending and receiving; pornography; online friendships, bullying and mental health; and discrimination and hate speech, as well as sources of support. It is available at:

Mark Bentley
Mark Bentley

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