Navigating a rapidly evolving online world with kids that are more fluent in tech than we are can be incredibly challenging. So how can you talk to your kids about online safety? To get the ball rolling, we thought we’d ask them.

The internet is an extraordinary tool that makes the world a whole lot more accessible to more people. Yet the culture that’s being cultivated doesn’t always represent the best of society. It can be challenging for adults to guide kids on how to stay safe online when many of us struggle to keep up to date on what platforms they’re using.

For Safer Internet Day this year, we’ll be running a series on how kids and adults can freely participate in a safer, more inclusive, respectful internet. To kick us off, we interviewed three young people, Lottie, Sophie and Zion on how they navigate the internet as 16-year-olds.

Plan International: Sophie, Lottie and Zion, what would you want your parents to know about what goes on online?

Lottie: I’ve met quite a few people online, and it can be dodgy, but I’ve also met one of my best friends online as well. So a big thing for parents to know is that yes, it can be unsafe, but if your child is careful and is sharing a lot with you, it can be a really good experience as well. That’s the thing I’ve found – my friend and I have been friends for 3 years now and we still chat every day. It can be really rewarding.

PI: How did your parents respond to those friendships?

Lottie: I was definitely very wary about telling them about it. First I didn’t say anything, but when I did talk to my mum about it, she was interested to know and wanted to know that I was being safe. I think she’s kind of warmed up to it. I think it’s taken a while because it’s a new idea for them. When they were little they sent letters or used the home line to talk to people.

Zion: I think that it depends on what sort of parents you have but I think they can take a bit of time to warm up to the idea of talking to people online. But I think you can have specific boundaries and precautions set in place, maybe FaceTiming to see the person. I think that it is a really good way to meet and connect with other people, especially if you live in a rural area or small town; I think parents should know that it can be a really safe space as long as those precautions and boundaries are set in place beforehand.

Lottie: It’s probably better as you get older because you are more likely able to tell if a situation is suspicious. If you are careful, it’s pretty easy to tell if a situation is dodgy or not. I think the biggest thing is that it’s not all bad.

Zion: I think the pros outweigh the cons.

Lottie: I think it can also give your child a deeper understanding of the world.

Sophie: It’s a fine line between understanding that there are dangerous people on the internet and that there are also good people and setting those precautions in place to protect yourself.

Lottie: It’s just like the real world though. Honestly, your parent is not going to tell you that you can’t go anywhere because there are bad people in the world. They can’t just shelter you, I think you have to be careful but also be open to new things.

Zion: I think you can learn how to understand people and how the world works a bit better with social media just because you get exposed to different kinds of people without having a physical one-on-one contact with them where you may feel uncomfortable. I think it’s a good way to see how different people work.

PI: Do you think it’s a different experience for boys and girls online?

Zion: I think it really can depend on what you are online for, for example, Lottie and I both like makeup, but it is still particularly centred towards girls. I think it is getting better, it still isn’t where it should be, but that is one small issue compared to the big issue of gender equality itself. I face a lot of not feeling like I’m included as much as I would like to be, so I think that it is different for boys and girls for certain things that may be sexist or just targeted towards one gender over the other

Sophie: I think it would be different for personal reasons, it shouldn’t matter about gender.

Lottie: I do think though there would be a double standard, as there is in life, with boys and girls. Especially, for example, if you got to a party and there’s a boy posting a photo, and maybe there’s good stuff coming out of that, but then if a girl posts a photo she could get some nasty comments about what she’s wearing and what she looks like.

Zion: I think that’s definitely true.

PI: What do you think about seemingly ‘flawless’ celebrities and standards seen on platforms like Instagram, do you think that affects people differently based on their gender? Do you think that different platforms encourage that kind of content?

Lottie: That probably affects people personally, maybe not to do with gender. I guess if you do have a strong self-esteem or you realise that isn’t their actual life you might not be as affected. I remember when I was younger starting out, there were a lot of issues with what people looked like and what I looked like. But I think as you get older, you get past that, and you realise that everyone is different.

Sophie: And on Instagram, all you see is photos, you cannot get an understanding of their whole life and you can’t get to know them on a personal level. You don’t know who that person is unless you’ve talked to them and got an understanding of their personality and them as a person.

Zion: Other platforms, potentially YouTube for example, could lead to a deeper understanding of a person’s character and what their thoughts are.

Sophie: On YouTube, you definitely have a deeper understanding, but again, you can only see what they choose to put up.

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PI: Do you think that you’ve had support through school and your parents to help you get to that viewpoint, in terms of understanding the ‘lens’ versus what the real world looks like, or is it something you’ve just come to, growing up surrounded by the internet?

Zion: I think it’s a bit of both, I think I’ve been told by my mum but also the rules I have on myself about how to approach things and I’m told by a lot of the media that I don’t have to compare to other people and that one snapshot doesn’t tell you who they really are. I think it was being told about these rules and also just being surrounded by social media so much that I just figured it out on my own.

Lottie: It’s probably also as you come into yourself and you become your own person, you’ll obviously be affected by your family and friends’ responses and morals. So you’re creating and following rules for yourself. I know I have rules for myself on social media that I won’t share certain things because I think that’s personal and things I want to share with family and friends, people close to you, not random people on the internet. But, other people might be happy to share that information. I think it just depends on the restrictions you put on yourself as well as the restrictions your parents put on you.

Zion: Especially at a younger age.

Lottie: Yeah, especially at a younger age it’s more parent-oriented…. But as you get older and you are deciding who you are and you are meeting new people…

Zion: You get to make your own rules socially.

Sophie: I’ve only had social media for one or two years now. Devices weren’t a big part of my life when I was younger. I’ve started on social media now that I’m a little older, so I already had a basic understanding of its platforms before I was present on it. So I think that helps.

PI: Are there things you avoid sharing online?

Lottie: It depends on the account, and also, weirdly, the platform I’m using. I find on Facebook that I am a lot more fluid and open with stuff, especially when you come across an article and you really want to tell people how you feel about it. I’m also a lot more open on platforms such as Facebook, as I believe more people want to read it. Whereas on Instagram, it’s just a like and go.

Zion: With Instagram, it depends what you use it for.  If you have a private account and you only use it for friends and family, I don’t really mind sharing, but that’s very different to being a personality on Instagram. It’s very similar to advertising, really. It depends, again, what you do on Instagram, but you are essentially creating a version of yourself to share with the public.

Lottie: Some of the stuff I wouldn’t want to post on social media, no matter the platform, is mainly the super private stuff that I hope to keep for myself, family and close friends. For example, if I was in a relationship, I don’t think I’d be too keen on sharing all that comes with that on social media. Maybe the base of the relationship, such as I’m dating this person, but anything deeper than that is too private, at least for me, to share online. And this applies to a lot of other stuff, too.

Sophie: I’m also into the idea that if you have a photo with a friend that you’ll ask before posting it. And if I see a photo of me that I’m not happy with, I want to be asked before they post it. And therefore, I want to ask them as well.

Lottie: It’s like the whole thing with birthdays… when people post all those silly photos of you. I mean, I’m not too fussed, but I know people who would be. So you just have to be respectful of that. Also, social media is something employers look at, so you have to be careful.

Sophie: Yeah, I’ve been told a lot about that. I’ve always known that employers look at social media pages, which is something you’d definitely have to be careful with. And you always have to remember that even if you delete a photo, it will still be on the internet. Anything – Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook – you put it out there, it’s not really under your control anymore. Even if you delete it, it’s still accessible.

Zion: And privacy settings can be very blurry.

Sophie: You really have to understand that if you are putting something out there, anyone can see it. And you have to think about how that will affect you in the long run. You have to have that sort of mindset.

PI: When you are online, do you find yourself commenting and becoming involved in conversations about things you feel passionate about, such as girl’s rights?

Lottie: I do, but rarely, only because there are a lot of people that come back with immature comments. I try to stay away from all that, especially if it is a sensitive issue. But sometimes, if I’m feeling confident, I’ll tell people how I feel in the comments, but I mainly just do it on my account for friends and family to see.

Sophie: And if we see something that we think is interesting, we will talk about it at school and have those conversations there instead. It isn’t all online.

Lottie: I also bring it to family at home. Conversations in person are better than those online, especially when talking about issues such as these. My dynamic at home is very supportive, and I can get a little passionate in these conversations, so it’s nice to have someone who will listen, but also someone to tell you when you are overreacting about certain things.

Sophie: Also, things online can be taken the wrong way, which is why I feel like it’s better to take it to your parents, take it to your friends and have a proper conversation than talk online. It’s so hard.

Lottie: Yeah, people are so fragile online, and it’s quite hard to get your point across, especially when tone isn’t clear.

PI: It’s interesting that in your homes and in your friendship groups that you are having constructive conversations around these issues.  Do you think there is that contrast in online conversations and communities?

Lottie: It’s very black and white online. When you are talking in person with someone, there’s more room to consider all options.

Zion: You might not feel attacked necessarily. 

Lottie: When online, it gets heated very quickly without meaning to.

PI: Which online groups/communities/platforms make you feel safe or empowered? If any?

Zion: I follow an account that shares a lot of empowering posts about women’s rights and gender equality and it’s a nice, safe community and I just like that because there are a lot of like-minded people and I don’t have to deal with arguing with people who are closed-minded.

Lottie: I don’t think that I have one specific platform that makes me feel better than the other because they all give me something different if you know what I mean. I feel like I can talk more on Facebook, I feel like I have more of a platform that I can reach out to people on.

I also just like seeing people talk about things, a lot of the ways we start trying to fix issues is to talk about them because you’re not going to get anywhere without actually figuring out what the problem is and why it’s still a problemZion: I think change is definitely happening and there are more safe spaces online where people can go and that’s important.

PI: On the flip side of that are there places that make you feel unsafe?

Zion: This is going to sound weird but a lot of comedy or meme pages post a lot of quite disrespectful content. I think the excuse that people use that that it’s just comedy and people should learn to take a joke and that people get “triggered.” I think people just don’t understand that while people might be getting seemingly more offended than they used to its just young people finding and putting a language around the issues such and sexism, transphobia, homophobia etc. I think a lot of pages that post “comedy” are a lot of sexist posts. That’s kind of the unsafe community.

Lottie: I don’t know if this is related but most women have a story (about sexual harassment) and it’s very confronting seeing all this stuff online because you realise how big it is and how many people are getting away with it. I remember the whole #Metoo thing, there was a whole hashtag with ways men can change their behaviour but there was also one called #idontneedtochange because I’m not the problem. Even if you’ve never done something you think made someone uncomfortable, they could’ve still felt uncomfortable.

Sophie: That’s what they say, like a joke is only a joke if both people are laughing.

PI: Sophie because you’re quite new to social media, have you made conscious decisions to avoid some of those spaces online?

Sophie: Yeah I just don’t really spend time looking at things that I think are going to make me feel unsafe or disempowered, I just avoid it. Because I was a little bit older when I started I already know or have an awareness about stuff that can happen and stuff that has happened (online), I just kept away from it.

PI: And finally, what would you like online communities to look like in the future?

Lottie: Probably somewhere where everyone feels safe to be and especially somewhere parents feel safe for their kids to be. You hear some stories that are horrendous and you’re like “How did that happen?” I don’t know how you’d get around that thought but there definitely has to be something around how can we look into breaking down that part of the internet, like obviously it’s really hard because the internet is really massive.

Zion: I think I’d want it to be a safe space for everyone and a place where people can... hmmm it’s interesting because I wanna say a safe place where everyone can share their opinion and not be shut down but… I dislike when people say “well it’s my opinion so I have the right to state it”. When your opinion affects other people or is hurtful or is disgusting, which I guess is maybe subjective, I just think your opinion then becomes open for criticism.

Lottie: Opinions are difficult because everyone does have a right to an opinion but also some are just so…

Zion: Awful.But ending on a positive note I just think a safe space where people can comment and post freely and not tear each other down. Somewhere where we can empower each other especially if we’re linking it back to women’s equality and gender equality, I think it should be a space for all genders.

Lottie: And a place where conversations that will begin change can happen so it can be safe for people to…

Zion: Educate others.

Lottie: Yeah exactly.

Thank you to Lottie, Sophie and Zion for sharing their experiences with us. These young people show us that they are switched on to the risks and the benefits of the internet as a global community capable of driving change. If you have tips you’ve learnt from young people in your lives on how they navigate #stayingsafeonline let us know on social media.

We’re bringing together a community that is raising global citizens by sharing knowledge and experiences and empowering young people to reach their full potential. If you’d like to be a part of it, sign up here.

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