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Staying safe online – Covid-19 and extremist influences online

While we are all spending more time at home and apart due to Coronavirus, social media platforms, like Twitter, Snapchat and video calls, are a great way to stay in touch with friends and family, share your thoughts and ideas and connect with like-minded people.

The online world is a necessity for many children in accessing school work and it delivers huge benefits, not least in enabling us to stay connected to family and friends during this period. However, many parents may feel concerned about the content their children are accessing.

In some instances, social distancing restrictions have meant that individuals are isolated from their usual social circles - this reduces the protective factors that these safe environments provide. An understanding of digital safety can support parents and carers to help to protect loved ones from a range of online harms, whether that’s child sexual exploitation, fraud, or extremist groomers seeking to radicalise vulnerable people.

Although rare, there is a risk that online groomers are targeting vulnerable young people who are spending more time on their devices, and looking to exploit those who may be feeling an increase in feelings of stress and isolation at this time. Some of the ideas these groomers hold, and look to sow and develop in others, are aligned to hateful extremist ideologies associated with terrorist groups, and when a person starts to support or be involved in them, this is called radicalisation.

Keeping your children safe online

There are a number of steps that parents, teachers and carers can take to keep children and young people safe online. If you have downloaded new apps or bought new technology to help stay connected at this time, remember to review and adjust privacy and safety settings if you or your child is signing up to a new online service.

The Government has encouraged Internet Service Providers to allow parents to easily filter content to put you in control of what your child can see online. Have a look through your devices to see what family friendly filters are available to help prevent age inappropriate content being accessed on devices in your home.

If you need support doing this the UK Safer Internet Centre provides guidance and Internet Matters has also provided step by step guides on how to setup parental controls.

Spotting the signs

Online exploitation can be really difficult to identify, it’s a complex issue. Sometimes there will be clear warning signs, while in many children and young people it will be less obvious that they are being drawn into extremist ideas online.

Although some of these traits may be quite common among teenagers, taken together there are indicators that your child may need some help. For example, if your child appears to be exploring new and unusual websites, chat forums and platforms where they are speaking with ‘new friends’ or being secretive about their activity this could be seen as a warning sign – particularly if coupled with watching, sharing or creating hateful materials online. They may start showing a strong desire to seek new meaning, identity and purpose, using language you wouldn’t expect them to know and become increasingly argumentative, refusing to listen to different points of view.

Starting a conversation

The above are merely signs that they might need help, but you know your child best and you will want to speak with them first. Check in with them and ask about what they are viewing, who they are speaking to and how they are feeling.

This might feel difficult, but here are some pointers to help you:

- Listen carefully to their fears and worries. Find some helpful tips here.

- Avoid explanations that could be interpreted as antagonistic, belittling or frightening.

- Advice and support is available to help them understand COVID-19.

- If they are finding it hard to cope with bereavement and grief - advice can be found here.

What to do if you’re worried

It is important to safeguard loved ones from a range of online harms. If you are concerned that your child may be at risk of radicalisation, help is available to make sure they get the support they need to move away from harmful influences.

Teachers, healthcare practitioners, social workers, the police, charities, psychologists and religious leaders work together to safeguard those vulnerable to radicalisation through a safeguarding programme known as Prevent.

Prevent protects people from being drawn into hateful extremism – regardless of the ideology. It works in a similar way to safeguarding processes designed to protect people from gangs, drug abuse, and physical and sexual exploitation.

Receiving support through Prevent is voluntary, confidential and not any form of criminal sanction. It will not show up on any checks or negatively affect an individual’s future in any way. The type of support available is wide-ranging, and can include help with education or careers advice, dealing with mental or emotional health issues, or digital safety training for parents; it all depends on the individual’s needs.

With this specialist help, vulnerable people across the country have moved away from supporting hateful extremism, enabling them to live more stable and fulfilling lives.

The Home Office have produced a new film providing an introduction to Prevent, part of a weekly series of videos explaining how the programme works, including how to get support for friends and family and how it tackles the threat from the extreme right.

For further advice on digital safety at this time, the Home Office has produced Online Safety Guidance, while more information and resources can be found at Lets Talk About It and Educate Against Hate.


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