Key online safety risks
The internet and connected technologies offer unparalleled opportunities for children and young people to communicate, find information and be entertained, as well as acquire and develop digital skills. However, these experiences are not without risk, and it is important for young people and those who work with them to have an awareness of the risks faced online and how they may be managed.
This module will explore the risks that children and young people may face when using technology and online services. You will also have the opportunity to consider how these risks may affect a child or young person, and general advice that can help support a child or young person if they encounter something worrying or upsetting online.
Why do children and young people enjoy technology and online services?
Before examining the risks faced by youth online, it is important to recognise the many positive experiences and opportunities offered by the internet and connected technologies:
- Entertainment – Access to video and music streaming services, online games and other digital recreation activities.
- Communication – Video conferencing, social media, photo sharing and other messaging services allow young people to keep connected with family and friends, and to interact and collaborate with other online users. Most importantly, online platforms can offer a voice to any young person who wishes to express themself.
- Information and education – Access to breaking news, updates, information, advice and a wealth of content that enables users to educate themselves and learn new skills.
- Creativity –Online platforms and services provide opportunities for young people to showcase their talents and skills, and work collaboratively with others to produce content for others to enjoy. Technology also enables people to crowdfund to support new products or good causes.
- Products and services – Just like adults, children and young people can also be consumers, and they enjoy the breadth of choice that online marketplaces can offer for both physical and digital products and services.
What do I need to know about risk and harm?
Conceptually, risk is the probability of harm, while harm includes a range of negative consequences to the child’s emotional, physical or mental well-being. (Livingstone, 2013)
The nature of online risk is constantly evolving and, while risks can be broadly identified, the impact of these risks on children and young people can vary dramatically depending on a large number of factors (many of which are outside of the control of an individual child).
When considering if an online risk may cause harm to an individual child, we must consider at least the following:
- The nature of the risk (the likelihood and severity of possible consequences).
- The digital environment in which it occurs (games, apps, social media, websites, online forums, livestreaming video, etc.).
- The technology used to access the digital environment (computer, smartphone, games console, wearable technology, Smart TV, connected home appliance, etc.).
- How the digital environment is designed and regulated (moderation, privacy controls, access to help and support).
- The role of other users (freedom and nature of contact with others, methods of communication, prevailing behaviours or ‘norms’ in the digital environment).
- Societal factors linked to an individual child (education, family systems, societal and cultural norms, attitudes of family and others around the child, political perspectives).
- Protective or vulnerability factors linked to an individual child (age, development, gender, race, socio-economic situation, level of digital skills, experience, personality, disability and additional needs).
Risk vs harm: A thought exercise
When considering all of the factors in the previous section, it becomes clear that a single online risk can affect one child very differently from another, even if they are of the same age, gender and from the same socioeconomic background.
To highlight these individual differences, and to help you consider your perspective on online risks, why not try the following activity?
(Note: you may wish to explore the following sections on specific risks and harmful impacts first and then return to carry out this exercise!)
- Copy or draw the graph provided.
- Consider one child that you currently work with.
- Select between 6-8 online risks that you think are relevant to that child, based on what you know about them.
- Plot these risks on the graph, considering the likelihood of that child encountering that risk, against the likelihood of it resulting in harm to that child.
- Reflect on your graph and consider what it means for you as a teacher.
Fig 1. Risk vs harm graph
Here are some possible questions to consider:
- Should your teaching focus be on risks that are unlikely but very harmful (such as child sexual exploitation) or risks that are far more prevalent but carry a much lower level of potential harm (such as a child’s account in a free online game being hacked)?
- Would you plot the risks in the same way for a different child that you work with? Why/why not?
- If you asked the child to plot the risks on the graph, would they plot them in a similar way to you? (If appropriate, you could ask a child or young person to do this and compare the results!)
- If you asked a colleague to plot the risks for the same child, would they come to the same conclusions?
Hopefully this exercise has helped you recognise that vulnerability online can mean different things for different individuals. Therefore, a child’s views and experiences are highly valuable in informing our understanding of the risks they face online.
While no teacher is expected to be an expert in all online safety risks, investing the time to familiarise yourself with the risks that may affect the children/young people you work with can help you to better support them in recognising and managing risk themselves, as well as empower you to be a source of support if they need it.
What are the risks faced by youth online?
This section will broadly outline and summarise a number of different online risks. Some risks are extremely complex and may require further study and research to fully understand them. The deep-dive section of the BIK Teacher corner contains additional learning modules focusing on these risks, and new modules will be added regularly. There are also a number of MOOCs (massive open online courses) available that focus on specific online risks and issues.
Fig 2. CO:RE Classification of the 4Cs of online risk to children
A broad overview of the online risks that children and young people may face online are summarised in Fig 2. This is taken from CO:RE – a knowledge base for researchers and educators on children and youth in the digital age.
Some of the identified risks can occur in a number of different ways and contexts, and some are easier to understand than others. It is important to understand the child’s role in each of the categories – children are not passive users who are merely targeted by and affected by online risks; they often play an active role in interacting with these risks (positively and negatively) and can also assume the role of perpetrator in some contexts (such as grooming, bullying, hateful behaviour and sexual harassment).
Here is a summary of the main risks under each of the 4Cs (Content, Contact, Conduct and Contract) that can apply to children:
- Aggressive – Violent or graphic content presented in video, images or video games. Content that is hateful in nature (hate speech such as racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc.). Extremist content that promotes extreme ideas or values.
- Sexual – Pornographic content (including illegal forms), sexualised content, content that reinforces stereotypes about bodies and cultures.
- Values – Misinformation (inaccurate but not intended to deceive), disinformation (inaccurate with the intention to deceive), fake news, clickbait, unsuitable online adverts, posts or emails. Content posted by other users that can negatively influence a child’s opinions and attitudes.
- Aggressive – Unwanted contact from strangers or known users, harassment and stalking behaviour. Hate speech directed towards a child. Unwanted or excessive surveillance could include an adult user pressuring a child to regularly share their location or access to their social media content.
- Sexual – Sexual harassment, grooming and exploitation. Creation and distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Most behaviours in this category are illegal.
- Values – Manipulating children towards extreme or dangerous ideologies and concepts, radicalisation and recruitment into extreme regimes or groups.
- Aggressive – Cyberbullying, hate speech and other forms of behaviour between children. This could also include harassment, stalking and surveillance at a peer-to-peer level. Risks could also include sabotaging or subverting another user’s online reputation or sharing their private personal data publicly with malicious intent (often known as doxing).
- Sexual – Sexual harassment, sexual pressures and the creation and sharing of youth-produced sexual content (often referred to as sexting).
- Values – Engaging in communities, discussions and experiences that may present a risk of harm to themselves or others (such as self-harm, anti-vaccine, extreme conspiracy theories, etc.). Adverse peer pressures may include participating in online challenges or engaging in or supporting higher-risk behaviours (for example, publicly taking a side in a highly controversial social issue, publicly supporting the use of banned substances, etc.)
- Aggressive – Attempts to steal personal data, money or possessions, or trick users into handing it over – identity theft, fraud, phishing and scams, hacking, blackmail, use of malware such as viruses and trojans.
- Sexual – Child trafficking, livestreamed child sexual abuse, abuse or harm of children for financial gain.
- Values – Gambling (and promoting gambling behaviours to children), filter bubbles (children only see and experience what online platforms deem are relevant to them), micro-targeting (children can be directly identified, marketed to and influenced by online services based on collected personal data). Dark patterns relate to persuasive design techniques that encourage users to spend longer on a game or app or to pressure/persuade users to make purchases.
- Privacy violations – These could be invasions of privacy by other online users (gaining access to private personal data through hacking or pressure), by institutions (such as governments collecting detailed data about their citizens’ online activities without justification) or by commercial bodies (companies collecting and using unnecessary personal data through their service).
- Physical and mental health risks – The use of technology and online services might be linked to less active lifestyles and a greater risk of obesity. Excessive or problematic use can lead to addiction in rare cases. The impact of using digital technology and online services may affect an individual’s sense of self and identity, as well as impact on relationships and emotions.
- Inequalities and discrimination – This can be at an individual level between users, as well as at institutional and commercial levels. Artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms may unfairly discriminate against users based on online behaviours or profiling. Certain vulnerabilities may be heightened and exploited online (for example, children with autism may be more vulnerable to coercion or manipulation) and access to/use of technology can reinforce social inequalities (such as the digital divide highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, where not all children were able to access and engage in remote learning due to lack of technology or connectivity).
What risks are relevant to the children/young people I work with?
A good way to help familiarise yourself with the risks outlined in the CO:RE classification is to consider which risks are relevant to the children/young people you work with.
Copy or draw the table below and decide which age groups are affected by each of the risks outlined in Fig 2. You may feel that some risks are more relevant or likely to occur with older online users (such as those aged 13 and upwards) or that a risk is relevant to all online users (for example, hacking is a risk relevant to any user who possesses an online account or device, regardless of age).
|Age 0-6||Age 7-11||Age 12-17||Age 18+|
What are the potential impacts of these risks?
As previously highlighted in this learning module, there are a number of factors that can affect whether a risk leads to a harmful impact on an individual. Different risks carry the potential for different forms of harm. Below is a summary of a number of different harms that a child could experience.
- Physical safety – Threatened or actual violence or abuse.
- Physical health – Long-term impacts on diet, weight, posture, eyesight.
- Mental health – Possible impacts on self-identity, anxiety, depression, etc.
- Emotional well-being – Impact on abilities to regulate emotions, or online experiences leading to frequent heightened emotional states.
- Behaviours and attitudes – Impact on attitudes towards self and others, attitudes towards risk, unhealthy behaviours, self-harming behaviours.
- Relationships – Impact on friendships, forming and maintaining relationships, making connections or interacting with others.
- Reputation – Impact on reputation (online and offline) which can further impact on current and future opportunities (education, careers, etc.).
- Personal data – Theft or exploitation of personal data resulting in a need to change details (phone numbers, address) or find ways to limit the impact.
- Technical – Damage or destruction to devices and connected technology through malware, hacking and risky modifications.
- Financial – Loss of money or possessions as a result of exploitation, hacking or impersonation. Financial implications of gambling behaviours or problematic purchasing online.
How can I support the children/young people I work with?
At this point in this learning module, you may be feeling somewhat overwhelmed! You recognise there are an extensive range of risks present online that can result in many forms of harm to different children.
It may feel like you are powerless to support the children or young people that you work with, but there is advice and support to help them and you to enjoy positive online experiences. Despite the range of risks, here is some universal advice that you can give to your students to help them identify, manage and respond to online risks:
- Talk to someone – One piece of advice that is applicable to all online users, regardless of age: if you are concerned, upset or negatively affected by something you see or experience online, tell someone about it. For younger children, this may mean turning to a trusted adult such as a parent/teacher. For other young people, turning to a trusted adult is always a good step, but they may also rely on friends, family members or other sources of support such as helplines. Seeking help is the first important step in solving an issue.
- Use the available tools – Many apps, games and online spaces increasingly include tools to help users manage their experience. These can include privacy settings that restrict contact with others or limit what others can see about you, filters that can manage what you see and experience on an online platform, or tools to help you respond to issues (such as block/mute buttons and reporting features). Encouraging your students to understand and use these tools can help them proactively protect themselves and also support others in need of help online.
- Regularly discuss online experiences and risk – As you may have found from this learning module, considering all online risks in one go is difficult! The same will be true for your students, so creating regular opportunities to chat about specific risks and online experiences can help them (and you) better understand the nature of risks and what they can do to protect themselves and others online. Posing questions such as ‘What if…?’ and using scenarios can also help your students consider different possibilities and outcomes without having to experience them first-hand.
- Be open-minded – As an adult, your current experience of the internet differs from that of your students. Even if you used the internet as a child, your experiences then are likely very different to the experiences of the youth of today. Keep an open mind when discussing online risks with your students – they may recognise and react to those risks in a very different way to you (or a different way to how you would expect them to behave). This doesn’t mean their approach or responses are wrong! Taking time to understand and work from their perspective is the best way to support them to lead positive and responsible digital lives.
- Know where to get help – Just as it is important for your students to know where to get help with online issues, it is equally important for you to know where to seek further help and advice if a student discloses an issue to you. Ensure you know who can seek support from in school, in your region and nationally. Your national Safer Internet Centre may also be able to support you.
- Think positive! – It is important to keep digital experiences in perspective. Not all children are affected by all risks all the time, and not all interactions result in harm. For most children, the vast majority of their online experiences are incredibly positive and enjoyable! Keep this in mind when discussing and teaching online safety; taking a positive outlook and approach will inspire and empower your students to do the same.
- Keep on learning - Many of the risks identified in this module require further explanation, and each come with the need for specific advice and considerations. The deep-dive section of the BIK Teacher corner is being regularly updated with modules on specific online risks, to allow you to improve your knowledge and understanding of the specific risks that may affect your students. Featured MOOCs (massive open online courses) on specific areas may also be relevant to you.
- Consider your approach – If you haven’t already, check out the ‘Teaching online safety, media literacy and digital citizenship in primary and secondary schools’ learning module in the BIK Teacher corner. This module will help you consider how best to teach your students about these important areas.
- Get your colleagues involved – The most effective educational approach to online safety is one that involves the whole school community. Check out the ‘Working towards a whole-school approach’ module to understand how to develop and implement a successful whole-school approach to promoting and teaching online safety.