Parents warned of online dangers for children as schools close

Parents are being warned to remain vigilant to the dangers their children face by spending more time online as schools close due to the coronavirus outbreak.

As more people spend longer at home, online safety organisations have said youngsters are likely to be more exposed to potential grooming and inappropriate content.

Millions of children across the UK are expected to turn to the internet this week for at-home learning resources as well as entertainment following the closure of schools in response to the spread of Covid-19.

But online safety groups and charities have urged parents to speak to their children about staying safe while using the internet and put in place parental controls to help protect them.

Child safety online organisation Internet Matters said parents should check their children’s devices have age-appropriate settings in place and set screen time limits as part of their routine.

Carolyn Bunting, the group’s chief executive, said: “As parents, we are all facing uncharted territory amid the coronavirus pandemic as we try to navigate work, schooling and our children’s well-being.

“Tech provides many fantastic opportunities at this time, giving children additional tools to learn, create, socialise and a place to have their downtime; however, as a child’s screen time increases, so does their chances of facing online risks.

“It’s essential parents don’t become complacent about their child’s digital world and the harms they could be facing online, which could include everything from seeing inappropriate content to having unwanted contact from strangers.

“We would encourage parents to ensure their child’s devices are set up safely with age-appropriate settings and, where they can, set clear boundaries to balance their screen time and ensure they’re making the most of their time online.

“Crucially, parents need to be having frequent conversations with their child about their online world to stay in tune with what they’re getting up to.

“An open dialogue that discusses the risks children may face, and together agrees ways to manage them, is the best way to keep your child safe in the digital world.”

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) said it is expecting to see an increase in reports of online child sexual abuse amid the pandemic.

The charity is responsible for finding and removing videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse from the internet.

“We are bracing ourselves for a spike in reports,” said chief executive Susie Hargreaves.

“The pandemic is forcing more and more people to stay indoors, and a lot of people are going to be spending much more time on the internet and at home on electronic devices.

“More people alone in their homes and more people spending longer online sadly means we are likely to see more people stumbling across criminal material involving child sexual abuse on the internet.

“We are also expecting criminals to be more active on the internet during the coming months.

“This could mean we’ll see an unprecedented number of public reports to our hotline as more people spot things that are not right and report it to us.”

The charity also encouraged parents to have a frank discussion with their children about how to stay safe online.

That advice came as the IWF said its figures show that around a third of all known child sexual abuse material it finds online has been posted by children themselves, having been groomed or coerced into making and sharing images and video.

Ms Hargreaves added: “My fear is that, with more young children being sent home from school, more of them will be spending a lot longer online, possibly exposing them to some of these criminals.”