March edition of the BIK bulletin: Staying safe online during the coronavirus pandemic

We are in unprecedented times. As schools close and people are confined to their homes due to the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we are using the internet and online services more now than perhaps ever before. Being online is providing a lifeline for everyone in society from the young to the old, learners and workers, and the vulnerable, curious and those seeking an escape from boredom. This is probably, therefore, a good time to remind ourselves of a few key points to keep safe online.

Talking with children and young people about the pandemic

Children and young people are in the same position as the rest of the population with regards to COVID-19 – they are confused, eager to understand more about the situation that we are in, and what this might mean for the future; and they will want opportunities to be able to talk about this. Adults should provide opportunities to engage in open and honest conversations about COVID-19 and how children and young people are feeling about it. One approach could be to take some time out every day to have a discussion – perhaps to discuss the latest developments and then talk about any questions or concerns it raises.

Safer Internet Centres (SICs) within the Insafe network have responded with various online guides which contain helpful information about how to have conversations with children and young people about the pandemic. For example, the Austrian Safer Internet Centre (SIC) has produced an article titled: How do I talk with my children about the coronavirus? (in German), while the Luxembourgish Safer Internet Centre has shared tips for parents and children on dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the family (in German, French and English).

Talking with children and young people about their technology use

As always, it's important to have open and honest conversations with children and young people about what they are doing online, and especially so at this point in time when they might be making more extensive use of technology. Check in on their technology use regularly – find out about what they are doing online, who they are talking to, how their online learning is going (as set by the school or done independently), and what new tools and apps they might be using. Take time to select new tools and content together, and discuss why certain tools, apps or content might not be appropriate. Be mindful of any age restrictions on apps and platforms too; those restrictions are there for a reason.

Equally keep the lines of conversation open for children and young people if they have any concerns about anything they might have encountered online; let them know that they can discuss any issues and that you'll find a solution together. As with discussing the COVID-19 situation generally, again it might be useful to find time each day to talk about how things have gone online, and perhaps even to share a couple of more uplifting pieces of content each of you have found or used that day.

Embrace the benefits of social media to help us get through difficult times

Social media will undoubtedly provide an invaluable tool over the coming weeks and months for communicating with friends and family, maintaining social contact while we are required to socially distance ourselves, and for checking that everyone we care about is okay. Seek out opportunities to use the power of social media for good, such as sharing positive messages and building or contributing a sense of community online – read our top tips on using digital technologies in a positive way during COVID-19 on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) website.

Equally, search out new content that interests or entertains you (being mindful also of its age appropriateness). For example, many public figures and celebrities are trying to keep spirits up by posting short video-clips, or live-streaming music or comedy to keep people entertained, or take part in online quizzes or visit a virtual museum. Many gyms and individuals are offering free access to their online exercise classes that you can do from home – it's important to remain fit and healthy, even if you are unable to exercise outside the home as usual. Or maybe take the opportunity to learn a new skill by attending an online drawing class or similar.

Additionally, the Austrian Safer Internet Centre published a list (in German) of activities to do at home during the lockdown.

Online learning

The experts are telling us that we shouldn't be trying recreate a school environment in the home. It will take time for everyone to adjust to these sudden changes in lifestyle. These are difficult times; we need to take things slowly, and not place too much pressure on all members of the family unit. There are, however, some amazing resources that are available for children and young people which can be both entertaining and educational – try to find out what might be available in your own language or country. For example, the South West Grid for Learning (part of the UK Safer Internet Centre) has published some useful information for colleagues in schools who are now needing to use and facilitate remote learning, and the Irish Safer Internet Centre maintains a repository of distance learning resources to support both teachers and students engaging in online learning (or in many cases, emergency remote teaching). Many schools and education authorities are developing similar guidance in response to recent events, and this is likely to materialise over the coming days and weeks. Check in regularly with your national Safer Internet Centre (SIC) to see what resources they might have available, and check in with your child's school also to see what their expectations and provisions are for remote learning, and what resources and support they can offer.

The important thing is to try to develop some sort of routine for children and young people while they are faced with the possibility of weeks or even months at home. For example, try to make a plan for each day which allows time for some online games, school work, reading, watching TV, exercising, and catching up online with friends and relatives. All of these things are important, and tech clearly has a role to play but be sure to factor in plenty of off-tech activities too.

Be mindful of online contacts and connections

Clearly social media platforms provide an excellent way to keep in touch; something which is vital given the fact that so many of us are having to socially distance ourselves for the foreseeable future. It is worth reiterating, however, that social media can also open up the possibility of communicating with strangers – this is not in itself a bad thing (depending on the age of the users), but children and young people should remember that they can never fully be aware of who they are talking to online, and that they are free to shut down any conversations which make them feel uncomfortable in any way. As with general online safety advice, children and young people should talk to their parent or carer if this is the case. For more information, South West Grid for Learning (part of the UK Safer Internet Centre) issued a few pieces of advice on staying connected and keeping safe at home during the COVID-19 outbreak, which provides an interesting read.

Choose your tools carefully

Now that many children (and parents) are staying at home, there will inevitably be a rise in the amount of time spent online and a wide range of social media platforms will be used. If children and young people suddenly find themselves with more time on their hands, they may well decide to experiment with new social media platforms. Parents should remember that many of these sites have age restrictions and it is important to understand the type of content that users might be exposed to. Remind yourself of how the privacy settings work on particular sites and of how to report a problem if you have one – more information on lots of the popular apps and platforms can be found in the BIK Guide to online services, including links to safety, privacy and reporting tools if needed.

Keep personal information private

Similarly it is important to think carefully about any personal information that might be shared – given many of us will be confined to our homes, boredom could set in and people could find they are lower their guard with regards to social media, perhaps sharing more personal information than they would normally, or taking less care of identifying factors which might be in the background of a photo or livestream.

Think before you share

It's an old mantra, but one that's so important in the current situation. People are naturally concerned by the events across the globe and there is a huge amount of content online and on social media which is talking about coronavirus and the impact it is having. It is easy to be shocked or scared by something that you see, but equally it's important to verify that the content being shared is genuine. There have already been several examples of online hoaxes – for example, the Haarlem Aldi hoax appeared recently showing video footage of people panic-buying from a supermarket in the Netherlands. Bellingcat, the investigative journalism website, proved that the video was actually from 2011 and showed a supermarket in Kiel in Germany which was having a sale.

It is easy to use these times to whip up fear and concern, but this must be avoided. The internet is a great place to keep up to date with the latest developments but, for reliable information relating to the virus and what is happening, official websites are the way to go – for example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) provides regularly updated advice for the public, as are many national governments. Many social media platforms are now posting prompts to official national sources of information when certain terms are searched on. Read more in our article on industry responses to COVID-19 on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) website.

It's equally important not to repost or share anything unless you're able to validate the source and the fact that it is reliable. For further advice, the German Safer Internet Centre recently shared information on avoiding scaremongering and disinformation online in times of coronavirus pandemic (available in English on the BIK website).

Scams

Sadly there are some who are seeking to exploit the coronavirus situation by creating online scams which could catch us out. Remember that if someone looks too good to be true, then it probably is. Equally, emails which try and suggest that you need to take urgent action can appear legitimate, but it's always worth taking a breath and stepping back to think whether it is genuine. Never be afraid to question what you are reading and remember that governments and health authorities are very unlikely to use unsolicited phone calls, emails or texts to ask you to share information. Make sure that children and young people are mindful of online scams too in the content and services they are using.

For more guidance on the topic, read our tips on staying alert to scams during COVID-19 on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) website, and a range of cybersecurity advice during coronavirus, from South West Grid for Learning (which is part of the UK Safer Internet Centre).

Sources of additional support and advice

As is often the case with a crisis, challenging times can bring out the best and the worst in people but let's try and focus on the positives. Dialogue and discussion is the most important thing in all of this – we have to keep talking to each other, whether virtually or face-to-face!

And, as always with challenges related to technology use, you are not alone. The network of Safer Internet Centres in Europe are dedicated to keeping children and young people safe online, and supporting those that care for them. Check out your national Safer Internet Centre profile page for contact information and links to national websites for sources of localised information and support, including helpline services which can help you respond to any specific online challenges.

As the situation evolves, the Better Internet for Kids Team will continue to share relevant information, tips, and educational resources from the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres and beyond, on how to keep children and young people safe and healthy online while in lockdown.

You will find daily updates on the betterinternetforkids.eu website, and we invite you to follow our mini-campaign which will unfold on Twitter (@Insafenetwork and @SafeInternetDay) and on Facebook (@SaferInternet and @SaferInternetDay).


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