Children’s exposure to adult material online ranked parents’ number one concern

Kids’ rising internet use is putting pressure on parents to discuss ‘the birds and the bees’ far sooner than planned

A new survey by AVG Technologies has revealed that parents’ number one concern about their child surfing the web is the potential for exposure to inappropriate adult material.

Published on this year’s Safer Internet Day (9 February 2021), the study revealed that, driven by heightened internet usage – largely due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and subsequent school closures – parents across the UK are facing mounting pressures to have important sex and relationships discussions with their kids, many of whom are feeling pressed to do so sooner than the currently compulsory age that it’s currently taught in schools (11 years old).

In AVG’s global survey, 67% of parents agreed that their children’s internet activity has accelerated conversations about sex-related issues, while an overwhelming 89% of parents cite unintentional exposure to adult material as one of their biggest concerns about their child’s life online.

Worryingly, 7 in 10 (72%) children who admitted to having bad online experiences during lockdown say they have been exposed to offensive, rude and adult content.

“If a child is exposed to adult content online, and this raises questions, it’s truly helpful for parents to be prepared and relaxed when they have these important conversations with their children, and to feel confident answering their questions honestly and openly” – Sue Atkins, parenting coach

More than half (52%) of UK parent respondents have had conversations with their children about sex when they were just 10 years old or younger, while only a third (33%) said they had actually planned to have this conversation with their child at such a young age.

Other concerns over children’s internet usage include parents who worry about their kids visiting unsuitable websites without their permission (67%); parents who fear for their child viewing adult content (42%); and parents who are concerned for their child being exposed to or even taking part in sexting (33%).

“It’s clear that more time spent inside and online is increasing the rate at which children are exposed to inappropriate and adult material,” said Sue Atkins, a parenting coach and expert. “Though, from AVG’s findings, it’s positive to understand that parents are having frank and open conversations with their children about sex and relationships at the same time.

“When approaching conversations with children, it’s important to firstly start by understanding what they know already. Give your children the facts, and correct any misinformation they may have encountered there and then. If a child is exposed to adult content online, and this raises questions, it’s truly helpful for parents to be prepared and relaxed when they have these important conversations with their children, and to feel confident answering their questions honestly and openly.”

Despite rising pressures, the study also found that parents across the nation are doing all they can to maintain internet safety and security, striving to educate children about what is and isn’t appropriate for them to see and do online.

Forty-seven percent of parents have already had conversations with their kids about what is classed as good and bad internet behaviour, with 46% claiming they work with their children to set safety standards – i.e. websites to visit, apps they can use, etc.

But open conversations are not the only online safety measures implemented by UK parents, with 39% of respondents claiming they have set up parental controls on every device used; 31% regularly tracking their child’s search history; and 26% only allowing their kids to surf the net from a communal space in the home, such as the kitchen or living room.

With schools set to reopen in early March, Melanie Thomson, online safety representative at RM Education, has shared her thoughts on how educators can make the internet a safer, happier space in this new and increasingly digital world.

“While adapting to home learning, teachers and parents have been faced with challenges anew in the form of online safety,” Thomson explained. “In fact, one of the biggest unanticipated [consequences] of school closures and remote learning has been a lack of digital literacy among students – so it’s especially pertinent that this year’s Safer Internet Day affirms that we should all work ‘together for a better internet’.

“…While it’s true that school-age children are adept at using technology, we all have a role to play in helping them learn how to use it wisely and safely.”

For schools, Ms Thomson says, this means working in partnership with parents and carers to establish online filtering and monitoring controls to safeguard pupils from dangerous content, and promoting a PSHE curriculum that emphasises digital literacy to help both parents and students better navigate the digital landscape.

“In a ‘new normal’ where children are spending almost all of their time online – for learning, entertainment and even to socialise – it’s more important than ever before that schools, parents, carers and online technology providers come together to ensure everyone uses the internet happily, securely and safely,” she said.

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