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How to stay safe online

The internet is undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions of our time. Providing us with the opportunity to learn, research, explore and develop, online we can be whoever we want, get whatever we want, whenever we want. But as with all great innovations, our online activities can all come with their own unique risks.

Each time you go online and use the world wide web, you could be at risk of experiencing online abuse, cyberbullying, witnessing illegal activities, and more. From identity theft to cyberstalking, the internet is rift with activities that could pose a threat to you. To help minimise your chances of falling victim to an online scam or another form of harm, it’s important that you make yourself as aware as possible of the potential dangers out there, and follow advice and guidance on how you can best stay safe online. 

We share our simple guide to staying safe online, to help you (and your family) enjoy exploring online without putting yourselves at risk.

How to stay safe online - a young woman browses online on her phone

Why is online safety important?

Being safe online is as important as being safe in the ‘real world’. What we do online can have very real consequences for ourselves and others, both in the moment and in the future. Our online lives are becoming less and less anonymous. It’s easier than ever before to track who posted what; once a comment is shared, for better or worse, it is out there for everyone to see.

In the same way we look after and keep in mind our safety in our day to day activities, we also need to protect ourselves in the digital environments we find ourselves in. While the internet offers an invaluable source of information, knowledge, and support, there are risks you should be aware of. 

Just like in the real world, bad behaviour is present online – only the perpetrators sometimes able to remain anonymous, sheltered behind their computer screens. While we are getting better at tracking and holding individuals accountable for what they say and do online, words and actions shared digitally can still have a very real impact on those they are aimed at. 

What we say, do, and share online can be distressing, damaging, and far-reaching. That’s why it’s so important that we not only try to keep ourselves safe, but we take a moment to step back and think before posting. Ask yourself: would I say this to someone in person? If not, chances are, you shouldn’t be saying it online.  

What are the risks of going online?

Offering an unrivalled sense of freedom to learn, express ourselves, and connect with others, the internet, unfortunately, can lead to some people activating in ways the would never consider behaving in public. 

Bullies, scammers and fraudsters can use the internet to target individuals anywhere in the world, thanks to social media, chatrooms, shopping and auction sites, emails, and more. With the rise in smartphones and tablets, we’re rarely away from our online lives for more than a short time. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to err on the side of caution when going online.

Why do people troll, bully, and scam others online?

Why do people act in such a different way online than they would in person? What drives them to change their behaviour? Some experts believe that the protection of our screens allows us a level of anonymity to do things that we never would consider doing otherwise. 

As one counsellor explains, our destructive behaviour is often a sign of deeper issues that we feel unable to cope with.

I’ve spent nearly 10 years now working in the field of counselling and social care, and I’m still learning about why people do what they do and how best to help them.

Treating any kind of destructive behaviour… the person involved is normally using that behaviour to cope with that which has so far been unmanageable.

Worried that someone you know and love may be experiencing cyberbullying behaviour? Find out more about the hidden impact of cyberbullying, signs that someone you know may be a cyberbully, and how you can help them to change their behaviour online.


Cyberbullying

We have so many different ways to access online communities now, thanks to smartphones, tablets, laptops, smart TVs, and games consoles. While this newfound connectivity can offer many positives, it has also seen a concerning rise in cyberbullying. Unlike in-person bullying, digital bullying can happen anytime anywhere. Victims of cyberbullying can be left feeling on edge or under attack at all times, as they never know when or where the next message will come from.

According to statistics revealed by YoungMinds and The Children’s Society, almost half (47%) of those aged 11-25 have experienced threatening, intimidating, or otherwise nasty messages via social media, email or text. Nearly a third (32%) have had personal, private, or embarrassing information shared publically without their consent by bullies. Two in five (39%) have felt as though they have been personally bullied online.

If you or your child use chatrooms, social media (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook), instant messaging apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messanger) or online games, there are steps you can take to try and get the most out of your time online without falling victim to vicious online behaviour.

What ‘counts’ as cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying exists in many different forms. This can include:

Emails - bullies commonly send victims inappropriate images, abusive group or private emails to ridicule, attack, or cause humiliation. 

Instant messaging (IM) - instant messaging apps such as SnapChat, Facebook Messanger, and WhatsApp are hugely popular amongst users of all ages. Designed to allow friends and colleagues to chat online in real-time, unfortunately, some individuals abuse these platforms, sending inappropriate attachments and messages. In many cases, IM apps may ask you to ‘add’ or ‘approve new contacts, as these platforms are generally used to catch up with people you already know. If in doubt, it may be worth not adding or accepting requests from anyone you don’t know or haven’t spoken to before.

Chatrooms - similarly to IM, chatrooms allow you to talk in real-time, although unlike with IMs, you may not know everyone else you are speaking with. Another key difference is that anyone can access chat rooms without providing personal details. This lack of official procedure provides scope for individuals to lie or exaggerate the truth, creating completely false identities for themselves. This can create the opportunity for some individuals to send abusive, inappropriate messages that are unlikely to be traced back to them. 

Social media - social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook provide bullies with an opportunity to embarrass and demean others by either writing a nasty ‘status’, or by making comments or jokes about another person's post. Some people may take screenshots of private messages or images sent in confidence to share them publically or to make fun of others. If in doubt, avoid sharing or posting anything you wouldn’t want everyone to see.

It is not uncommon for bullies to set-up fake profiles so that they can assume a false identity. Some bullies will even go as far as to create a page dedicated to bullying someone else so that a large group can see the bullying.

Online gaming - online gaming has continued to grow in popularity. Offering the chance to connect with others who are passionate about the same games as you are, online gaming can also open the door to bullying through public or private messaging, depending on the platform on which you are playing.  

Hacking - sometimes bullies manage to obtain log in information that they use to hack into their victim’s email or social networking accounts. From here, they commonly send abusive or inappropriate messages to the victim’s contact list.

A  row of people check their social media accounts on their phones

What can I do to stay safe online?

Staying safe online doesn’t have to be a scary process. If you, your child or someone you love frequently go online and are worried about staying safe, these tips can help you to minimise your chance of falling victim to online harassment and scams.

  • Never share your personal information or details online. This includes your name, address, telephone number, where you work or go to school, or your national insurance number. Sharing these details can open you up to identity theft or cyberbullying across different platforms. 
  • Avoid sharing photos of yourself to anyone other than verified close friends and family members online. 
  • Never reveal or send any of your passwords or payment details. Official accounts will never need or request these details from you. If in doubt, look up their official website or contact details, and call them in person. Pretending to be your bank, from big popular companies such as Amazon or Apple, or even pretending to be from HMRC are all common scams that people use to try and get access to your details and accounts. 
  • If you want to meet up with somebody you have met on the Internet, take a friend or family member with you and meet in a public place. Ensure someone you trust knows where you are going, when, and what time to expect you home. If you can, set up a time for them to call or text you during your pre-arranged meeting; this can let them know if you need any help or are in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Do not open email attachments that come from someone you don’t know. They may contain viruses that could damage your computer. 
  • Be aware of minimum age guidelines and parental controls. Many parents aren’t aware of the age requirements for popular social media apps and games. For Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitch, Snapchat, and Tumblr, users should all be 13 or older. WhatsApp users should be 16 or older, while YouTube requires users to be 18 or over (though teens aged 13 and up can sign-up with parental permission). Setting up parental controls to ensure younger users are only getting age-appropriate content in games, chat, and online can also help to add another layer of protection. Discover more with our parent's guide to helping kids and teens stay safe online

Close-up of 'YouTube' open on someone's laptop

What can I do if I’m being cyberbullied?

If you are the victim of cyberbullying, it’s important to know that you aren’t alone. You can speak up and seek help. If you’re unsure how to start finding help and support, it’s worth keeping in mind what you should and shouldn’t do.

Do:

  • Keep a record of all emails, messages, chats, and correspondence you have had. Save these, take screenshots, or download these. On some social media platforms, when a user deletes their message history or sets their account to private, you may lose access to their abusive messages. Keeping a record is key towards proving that their behaviour has been unacceptable and needs addressing. 
    Report the inappropriate behaviour. Most sites have a ‘report’ button to flag inappropriate content,
  • messages, or images. Using this when something is sent to you, or when you spot bullying behaviour shared online, can help to highlight the issue to website admins. This can be the first step towards ensuring that the user has to answer for their inappropriate behaviour, be that through temporary or permanent bans, or a further escalation. 
  • Speak up. Talk to a friend, family member, or someone you know and trust about your concerns. If you’re worried about yourself or someone else, speaking out can help you (or someone else) to access help and support they may not currently be aware that they need.

Avoid:

  • Speaking to or responding to cyberbullies and trolls. This can cause situations to escalate, may lead them to increase the frequency of their messages, or could risk actions being taken against you by the website, app or platform if your behaviour is also deemed to be inappropriate. Taking the high road may seem tough, but it can help avoid any escalations. Some bullies reach out to incite reactions and gain attention; by denying them your time, attention, and reactions, this can lead to them losing interest. 

What is cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking generally refers to a digital form of stalking, where someone receives frequent, unwanted, often obsessive attention from someone else online. This may be on a single social media platform, by emails, IMs, or across numerous places online. Most commonly experienced by women and girls, cyberstalking can happen to anyone, at any time.

Circumstances can vary from case to case, however cyberstalking often happens between two people who have had some form of relationship or prior encounter. This may unwanted attention from an ex-partner after a breakup, or it could be carried out by a complete stranger. Cyberstalking behaviours can include:

  • identity theft
  • having your accounts being taken over (hacked)
  • location tracking or spyware installed on your phone, tablet or other devices
  • impersonation of you to stalk others
  • being discredited on social networking websites
  • receiving direct threats online
  • escalation to in-person stalking or physical violence

Since 2012, stalking has been an official offence in England and Wales and is not something to be taken lightly. If you are worried that you may be experiencing cyberstalking, keep a record of the messages and behaviours that have caused you concern. It could be time to reach out and seek support from the police.

Close-up of a Mac keyboard, with a 'Get me out of here' button in red replacing some of the keys

How can I protect myself from cyberstalking?

Worried about cyberstalking? There are a number of different things you can do to help protect yourself online.

Do:

  • Keep information about yourself shared publically online to a minimum. If possible, set your personal details to friends only. This can help you to control who can see your information, and to identify how your details may be getting back to someone who is harassing you online.
  • Change your passwords frequently. This can help minimise your chances of having your account hacked or your details shared.

Avoid:

  • Saving your login details on any shared devices. This includes your username, password, and card payment details. While storing these on your device (or writing them down) can save you a little time, this can then allow anyone else who accesses your devices to also gain access to your accounts, potentially change your login details, and even impersonate you online. 
  • Sending personal information over public WiFi connections (unless you are using a secure webpage).

If you are a victim of cyberstalking, keep a record of as much evidence as possible and report the stalking to the police. If some of the stalking has occurred online, make sure you report the incident(s) to the website or app that they occurred through. Reporting messages and images online can be frustrating. It can feel like you are getting nowhere, or as though you are putting in a lot of time and effort for nothing, but it’s only through reporting these behaviours that the sites can start to take action. 

A man browses on twitter, his thumb hovering over the 'report' button on a tweet


What is identity theft?

The more information you share online through shopping, sharing photos and documents, the higher risk you may be of falling victim to identity theft. While it may be tempting to share or post personal information online - especially among those who you consider to be friends - you should avoid this where possible. There are numerous ways in which online scammers and identity thieves can access your information without you knowing. To limit the chances of this happening, avoid sharing or sending any information that could put you at risk. 

The personal information you avoid sharing online includes:

  • your home, work or mobile number 
  • your personal email or home address
  • all banking information (including passwords, login details, and account numbers)

The consequences of sharing this information can be enormous. It can potentially lead to fraud or identity theft that could leave you out of pocket, in danger, or in serious trouble.

What do I do if I think my identity has been stolen?

In order to minimise the impact of identity theft you should:

  • Contact your bank immediately to report the incident. They may freeze your account and cancel your cards to prevent further unauthorized use.
  • Report any lost or stolen documents to the relevant authorities as soon as possible e.g. passport or driving license.
  • If an online account has been compromised, be sure to change your login details and password. If you use the same password across multiple accounts remember to change these too.

What is online grooming/sexual grooming?

Grooming is the word used to describe how a person manipulates or attempts to gain the trust of a young person with the intent of sexual harm. Online grooming most commonly occurs in chat rooms and on social networking sites, where predatory adults use this method to contact young people by disguising himself or herself as another young person.

How do I protect my children from online grooming?

If you are concerned that your child or teen may be vulnerable to online grooming, there are a number of things you should and shouldn’t do.

Do:

  • Make sure your child knows not to share any personal information online. This includes where they live, their full name, what school they go to, or any personal photos of themselves.
  • Ensure your child knows that you are there to listen if they ever see anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, upset, or unsure. Make sure that they know you won’t be angry. This can help them to feel reassured that they can speak to you (or another close family friend, family member, or loved one) if they ever feel uncomfortable.
  • Encourage them to set their profiles to ‘private’ so that only friends and family can see and speak to them.
  • Be on the lookout for unusual signs or changes in behaviour. Are they avoiding you or attempting to hide emails or messages? Changes in behaviour can be an indication that something else is going on.

Avoid:

  • Waiting for something to happen. Discussing the risks of online grooming and how to stay safe online can help them to spot any potential warning signs, as well as helping to keep the conversation between you open. This can create a reassuring, safe environment for them. 
  • Try not to give in to knee-jerk reactions. Your first instinct, when worried, may be to demand access to their accounts or to read their messages, but this can destroy trust built between you, and may even lead them to more secretive behaviour such as creating a second secret account you do not know of. Instead, make sure that you are talking openly about why you are worried, asking instead of demanding access if you are concerned, and sharing the potential dangers of online activities (in an age-appropriate manner) can all help.

A child sits alone outside, looking down at his mobile with a troubled expression

How do I report online grooming?

If you are worried someone may be being groomed, or that you may have found someone who is grooming others online, report any incidents to the relevant law enforcement agency in your country. In the UK, this falls under the jurisdiction of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP).

What is inappropriate online content, and what can I do about it?

Whilst browsing online, children may deliberately or accidentally view illegal or inappropriate content through search engines, social networks, online forums such as Reddit, or private messages. This can include sexual or violent content that may be distressing for them. 

If you do come across any websites on which you witness illegal activity such as violence or drug abuse, you can report the material to the Internet Watch Foundation. If you are a parent, you can also set-up parental controls in either your computer or browser settings. Bear in mind however, these are not 100% effective and are not a substitute for parental supervision.

If you are worried about your child or are unfamiliar with how parental controls work on gaming accounts or social media platforms, we’ve created a short guide to help you keep your kids and teens safe online

What do I do if I’m worried about someone else online?

If you are concerned that a friend or family member may be getting into something they shouldn’t, or you are worried they’re the victim of something, you need to encourage them to talk about it. It’s understandable that they may find it difficult to talk about or feel embarrassed at first. The most important thing, however, is to ensure they know you are there to listen.

If you don’t think your friend is ready to talk things through with someone they know, or they would like some advice - encourage them to seek out another mode of help. Visiting any relevant charities or organisations listed throughout this fact-sheet is a great starting point for those looking to enhance their own awareness. Alternatively, if any of the online issues mentioned have started to affect your friend or child’s life, work, health or happiness, it might be time to consider help from a professional counsellor.


How can counselling help me stay safe online?

Counsellors with experience helping those who have been cyberstalked, cyberbullied, scammed, or experienced other online-based issues can help provide clients with a greater understanding of the online behaviour they were a victim of, often employing specialist techniques including transactional analysis and cognitive behavioural therapy.

In addition to helping clients break free from online behaviour, counselling can also be extremely beneficial when it comes to addressing certain side effects of common negative online actions. Cyberstalking for example often leads to anxiety and depression – two areas in which counselling could be a useful tool. 

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