Tips on how to stay safe online during the COVID-19 pandemic

Encourage your child to ask for help

Supporting your child to ask for help when they are online is key to keeping them safe.

This article is for parents and carers of children under 5, but it contains useful advice on empowering children of all ages to ask for help, as well as practical tips.

Young children are very good at asking for help because they are reliant on their parents, carers and the other trusted people in their lives. As they grow, we usually teach them to be self-reliant and independent – but it’s important not to rush that when it comes to online safety. Children need to know it’s OK to continue to ask for help when they are using digital devices.

When should your child ask for help?

No matter how young your child is, you can encourage habits that will help keep them safe online. From the moment they start using a digital device, whether it’s connected to the internet or not, it’s time to ‘start the chat’ about what’s happening on their screen. That way they will get used to talking about what they are doing, even when they don’t have a problem, so they feel comfortable coming to you if something unexpected happens.

As you explore games and apps together you can point out when it would be good to ask for help, such as when someone video calls or a pop up appears.

It’s especially important to teach your toddler or preschooler to ask for help in the following situations.

If they are contacted by anyone

Let your child know they should talk to you if anyone contacts them while they are using a device, including people they know, whether it’s in a video-call, online message or a game. It’s important for you to know who your child is communicating with online and to ensure they are not being contacted by strangers or people who may be a risk. You could say, ‘Come and get me if anyone talks to you or contacts you online, even if it’s a friend’.

If a pop-up appears

Lots of apps and games have in-app purchasing for things like additional levels or new characters, or they may contain ads or malware that will damage the security of your device. You can let your child know about this by saying something like, ‘It’s easy to spend money on devices by mistake. If something pops up on the screen don’t tap on it. Come and tell me and we can sort it out together’.

If they see or hear something that makes them feel uncomfortable, scared or sad

Encourage your child to talk to you if they see something on a device that is upsetting, worrying or scary. Explain that there is good and bad content and not everything is right for them. You could say, ‘Sometimes videos and games can be a bit scary or upsetting. Tell me if you see or hear something that worries you or makes you sad or uncomfortable’.

If they are unsure whether something is true

Even from an early age it’s important to start thinking critically about things online. Help your child by encouraging them to question what they see and hear. You could say something like, ‘Do you think they are telling the truth in that video? Do you think it’s a fact, or just for fun, or a lie? Why do you think so?’

If they are unsure about anything else online

Remind your child that you are always there if they need help with anything, even issues you have not mentioned or questions they think you may not be able to answer. Assure them they won’t be in trouble. For example, you can say, ‘You can always ask me for help, even if it’s about something you think is rude’.

Help your child to be aware of how they feel

The young children in our lives have big feelings, but they don’t always have words for them. Experts in child development and parenting tell us that identifying and talking about feelings, especially when something does not ‘feel right’, is a key part of recognising when to ask for help. Here are some strategies to encourage your child to recognise, value and express their feelings.

Name their feelings

You can encourage your child to talk about how they feel by helping them to name their feelings. By giving their feelings a label, you can help them to recognise when they are feeling sad, happy, worried, excited, scared, uncomfortable or unsure about something.

Identify what others are feeling

You can provide opportunities for your child to identify feelings in others. For example, through imaginative play with toys, by talking about what the characters in a book might be feeling, or by encouraging them to notice the emotions other children are experiencing.

Share your feelings

Talking about your own feelings can help your child learn about how you deal with those feelings in different situations. It also lets them know it’s OK to have a variety of feelings, whether they are positive or negative.

Help your child identify trusted grown-ups

It can be hard for young children to know who they can and can’t trust, so it’s a good idea to talk about which grown-ups they can ask for help, apart from you. Involve your child in deciding by asking them about their favourite grown-ups. This might include a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or their early childhood educator.

How to respond constructively when your child asks for help

Listen and take the time to answer all their questions

Your child might have lots of questions when they are using devices. If you take the time to listen and talk about the small things with them, they will be more likely to come to you when they are unsure about bigger issues. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you could involve them as you take steps to find out.

Let your child know they won’t be in trouble if they ask for help

Toddlers and preschoolers may worry they will get into trouble if they ask you for help about something they see or hear on a device, or if they have clicked on a pop-up or screen or possibly broken a device. Reassure them they will not get into trouble and you are always there if they need help with anything.

Repetition, praise and encouragement

It’s important to remind your child to ask for help when they are online. You can say something like, ‘Remember, I’m always here if you need me’, when they start to play a game or watch a video. If they do ask for help, praise them and suggest they come to you again next time they are unsure about something online.

Supervision in the early years

You know your child best and you will be able to decide on the right level of supervision for their use of devices, but here are some things to keep in mind:

  • It’s best to start with ‘explore together’ activities while your child is still learning to Ask for help and other key messages including how to Be safe, Be kind and Make good choices.
  • All new apps, games and content should be ‘explore together’ activities, when you play or watch together.
  • During ‘supervised’ activities toddlers and preschoolers can control the activity, while you remain nearby and talk with them about what they are doing.
  • Once you and your toddler or preschooler know a game or app really well, it may be appropriate for them to engage in ‘independent’ activities, while you are nearby.

For more information about the Early Years key messages and levels of supervision, see our Online safety for under 5s booklet.

Resources that encourage your child to ask for help

eSafety’s resources for families of Children under 5 will help you reinforce the Ask for help key message.

  • Swoosh, Glide and Rule Number 5 is an original picture book that tells the story of young sugar glider twins who are developing good online safety habits as they have fun experiences with digital technology.
  • My Family Rules is a song by Lah-Lah that reinforces the Ask for help messaging through music.

Enjoy them with your child!