Coronavirus and COVID-19

Online parenting in 2020; living with COVID-19

The Child Abuse and Trauma Studies Centre (CATS) at Middlesex University highlights the importance around online safety for children during the COVID-19 crisis.

We are facing a global pandemic that stopped the world in its tracks and changed the face of working, socialising and educating, before we had chance to catch our breath.

We have had no time to pause as we’re too busy adapting whilst running.

We have had to keep the economy moving, our children’s education going, our health and the health of others paramount. We’re all learning to ride in a new online terrain together, at the same time, regardless of our prior experience to operating remotely, and amongst all of the chaos we need to remind ourselves of how to stay safe.

Not just from COVID-19 but from those who would wish us, and our families harm online, and the vulnerabilities our children pose to themselves as their online social interaction intensifies.

Black and white close up of hands typing on a laptop

Working from home and being parents

Since COVID-19 has forced all of us into lockdown, most people working from home face a number of challenges to perform as efficiently and effectively as they did before.

In the US, as more people are working from home, more artificial intelligence is utilised to moderate content during the Cononavirus crisis.

This may well mean that children have unfettered access to social media sites, chat rooms, dating sites, violent online gaming platforms, pornography and the Dark Web, then ever before.

Do four things well

There has never been more urgency for parents to have frank conversations with their children on online risks. So it is important that we learn how to do four things well:

  1. Understand what our children are accessing online
  2. Learn how to turn on privacy settings to protect our children’s online content and the communications they receive
  3. Begin to have difficult conversations with our children about being safe online, including safety from sexual predators
  4. Observe our children behaviour, monitor if there are any changes in their personalities and try your best to discuss with them the reasons behind these changes.

Whilst sites will stipulate the age regulations for access there is no way of accurately protecting them. Within these sites, children are blindly stumbling across content or being exposed to it by their peers.

Exposure to violent, sexual content in pornography may have the potential to cause long term emotional, mental health implications, as well as an unhealthy perception of positive sexual behaviours towards others.

Most common social media being used


The world’s largest social media site in which its member have their own profile page and can interact with friends, family members and meet new people online.

Images, videos, thoughts and actions are published for all to see. You can private message as well as publish messages publicly. You can determine your own level of privacy settings and parental controls.

Made famous by the MTV show, Catfishing has presented a new problem in which people are stealing the images of others for the purpose of creating a false identity online to engage with others. Also known as sock-puppeting. This process is also used by cyberbullies and sex offenders.


This is a photo-sharing app which also has the capacity to private message. All accounts are open unless they are deliberately made private by the account holder.

Fake Instagram accounts called Finsta accounts, are often created by teens without the knowledge of their parents. You can activate the parent controls to prevent strangers from contacting your child and there are easy solutions to tackle any harassment or cyberbullying.

Recent changes have been made to hide likes, restrict targeted ads, screen for words synonymous with cyberbullying, and the ability to restrict comments.


This app allows people to send brief images to others before they “self-destruct” once the time limit has expired.

It encourages the sense of zero consequence messaging with children often sending inappropriate content, such as ‘nudes’, ‘sexual messages’ or abusive content. This is a misplaced belief as recipients can screen shot what they have been sent or saved by using external apps.

Fortunately, there are parental controls which can place limitations on who can contact your child as well as who can view their messages.


This a video sharing platform for both self-made and re-distributed videos. Everyone is able to use this app to watch the videos of others and upload videos of their own, like and dislike videos, and leave comments.

YouTube has recently received a negative backlash from parents and the FTC for tracking children’s data, resulting in serious changes being made towards targeted adverts and the disabling of online comments.


An encrypted messaging app where text, images and videos can be shared for free. Popular for its ability to share an unlimited number of messages and videos, and the ability to conduct group chat with over 250 people at once.


(17+) This is a free messaging service similar to WhatsApp except you don’t need to provide a phone number to register.

In addition to this, the app has no age verification, no parental controls, and no way of validating who you are talking too; making it difficult to police engagement with strangers.


This app allows users to create and share videos. Some of the videos are unsuitable for young children and the videos from this site are often shared to other social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.

Their minimum age is listed as 13+ but no verification is used and there is no way of confirming identity or age. It’s not possible to authenticate users and private messaging is available. All accounts are made public but there are parental controls which can be enabled.


This is a secret sharing app in which its users can make amusing or disturbing confessions about themselves. This app is designed for older teens and adults yet there is no way of restricting children from downloading it onto their devices.

Concerning elements to this app is its ability for others to determine your precise location without even having a geo-location setting enabled, and the basis of this app is for people to private message others, send images, videos, and information all anonymously. Exposing children to highly inappropriate content, explicit language and the high risk of cyberbullying.


Originally used by gamers during game play as a voice and text chatting app, it has more than 100 million subscribers.

Discord offers servers focused on specific topics such as sports teams or to connect fans.

This app allows children to anonymously ask, give and get answers to questions they have.

Due to the anonymous nature of the app it provides an opportunity for cyberbullies to target others online.


This is another image sharing app

Google Hangout

Children often use Google Docs for homework but very few know that it is possible to create a Google Hangout between peers. There is a high number of reported incidents of cyberbullying using this app.

Dating apps

  • Tinder
  • Plenty of Fish
  • Bumble
  • Grindr
  • Zoosk
  • Match
  • Hinge
  • Facebook Dating
  • Happn

Establishing a greater sense of Parental Control

There are now social media parenting control apps which allow you to monitor you child’s social media behaviour from your own device. Such apps are Kidbridge and Qustodio.

It’s important to establish family media rules such as asking permission before downloading an app. You can also consider a device charging zone so you can check devices. Speak to you child and explain that you will be checking their phone, asking them questions regarding their usage

Setting up Privacy Settings and Parental Controls for ALL apps on your children’s devices can also ensure they’re staying safe online.

Teaching your child about internet safety is important and that discussion needs to include conversations about what apps are appropriate and how their behaviour affects others and the permanence of their actions online.

Health & wellbeing Social commentary

Supporting Parents in the Digital Age

Today’s parents are facing many new challenges and safeguarding issues once their children become active online. Dr Jacqueline Harding has launched an online TV channel specifically for parents who are concerned about protecting their children online.

There’s little doubt that many parents are feeling overwhelmed about how to support their children in the digital age as confirmed by my own recent small scale study in 2018 and other larger studies (Livingstone, 2018).

In an attempt to meet parents’ needs using a familiar format and one that parents often feel is more accessible, Tomorrowschildtv was built as a pilot online channel for parents of children from birth to 18 years, with over 40 films designed to help and support parents in the digital age led by a former BBC presenter with parents, experts and children debating specific issues. It was filmed at Middlesex University by students and is launching 29th November 2019.

In agreement with Livingstone’s (2018) observations of the lack of support for parents, my study revealed anxiety right across all age ranges. Indeed, Ofcom’s study (2017) revealed a similar picture where more than three quarters of parents of 5-15 year olds have sought information about how to manage online risks.

Addressing Parents’ Concerns

In answer to questions about identification of specific help/advice regarding media that a parent might seek out regarding these matters, answers typically fell into the following four broad categories: safety; behaviour; time restrictions and educational opportunities.

Several parents expressed similar concerns and the need for sources of help around behaviour and media with most parents admitting to feeling like a ‘bad parent’ or wishing not to appear negligent (this was a reason for seeking help). Parents commented on the lack of advice available about suitable lengths of time for their children to spend on a particular media device:

“I need to know how much screen time is too much?”

Although overwhelmingly, parents were primarily concerned about online safety regardless of age, parents of younger children tended to speak of their fear increasing as their child matures. Typically, parents reported feeling anxious:

“Desperate, yes, I’d say I was desperate for help.”

“They are so quick… they minimize the screen…I need support from someone who knows about these things.”

“I won’t allow a phone until secondary school – it’s too worrying – although there is less about stranger danger nowadays it’s more fear about online.”

“I heard about a child in the media…they were bullied online and committed suicide… it’s so worrying.”

“I worry about YouTube videos with inappropriate content still coming up even with parental controls.”

“I’m worried about my child (six years old) and her use of apps to insult people.”

“Access to porn had such a bad impact on my child – it caused him to act up at a later age.” (child now 13)

“I caught my child being the abuser online – I was shocked…”

The study found agreement with Livingstone’s (2018:11) enquiry into where parents might turn for advice about digital media where answers differed according to the age of the child. Parents of younger children were more confident of where to search for help and spoke of seeking help on Google, Mumsnet, CBeebies, Facebook mums’ groups, forums, and from peers. Others suggested that the responsibility shifts to the child as they mature: “My own children will get advice when they are older at primary school.”

Parents of children in the 6-12 year age range spoke of going to the school and asking for help. This also correlated with Ofcom’s (2017) study, where 61% of parents seek help or advice from their child’s school. In the study a number of other parents felt unable to seek help from their own parents) as:

“They wouldn’t know what to do… all this stuff happened after their time,”

and continued by trying to offer suggestions such as: “Kids YouTube might help… maybe; or a neighbour?”

Parents of 12-18 year olds were the most puzzled and felt unable to think of where to begin to access help, and three parents with children ranging between 13 and 17 years, were openly bewildered about where to access help.

Feeling helpless

Ofcom’s recent study (2017: 209) found that ‘one in six parents of 12-15 year olds feel they don’t know enough to help their child manage online risks’. One parent stated: “I guess I feel pretty helpless.”

In response to questions around a dedicated online TV channel for parents providing support – the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Some participants were even anxious to ensure that other parents would know about the resource by suggesting that it must be discoverable. The majority of responses to the suggestion of an online video-based platform tended to suggest the level of anxiety that parents were experiencing:

“I’m desperate for help”

“Online TV great…so it’s available on my phone.”

“Definitely yes.”

In light of Livingstone’s (2018) comments: ‘parents have woefully few sources of support and advice when they have digital questions and dilemmas,’ the parents’ responses in our study were unsurprising.

Law & politics

An education toolkit for migrant parents

Professor Louise Ryan Middlesex UniversityProfessor Louise Ryan is Co-Director of the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), which is launching a new toolkit to help practitioners and migrant families in settling foreign children in British schools.

The numbers of migrant families arriving in Britain is increasing. There has been much discussion in the media and in political circles about how schools and teachers respond to the needs of migrant children. Research conducted by the Social Policy Research Centre at Middlesex over many years has shown that there is often a mismatch in expectations and understanding between schools and migrant families (Sales, et al, 2010; D’Angelo and Ryan, 2011; Ryan and Sales, 2013).

Elizabeth Albert - Creative Commons 2.0
Photo by Elizabeth Albert (Creative Commons 2.0)

Different system

Migrant families often struggle to understand and navigate the English educational system. The school system in the UK differs in many ways from that in other countries. In the UK schooling starts earlier than elsewhere – generally before the child’s fifth birthday. Many parents and children, especially if they have only just arrived in Britain, are unprepared for this. Choosing a school and getting your child enrolled can be complicated, especially if you are unfamiliar with the system.

With funding from the School of Law’s Impact Fund, we have designed a toolkit that aims to provide a user-friendly, comprehensive online resource for use by schools, local authorities and community organisations to help explain the rules and regulations in an accessible manner. It is hoped the toolkit will be widely used as a valuable resource to schools and will save teachers precious time. For parents, the booklet provides information and guidance to help them negotiate the school system and suggests ways in which they can support their children in settling into school, progressing through primary school and making the transition to secondary school.

Responding to changes

The toolkit is a new, updated and revised version of a guide we previously produced in 2010. Various policies and practices within the UK education have changed since then and, since that guide proved to be popular among parents and practitioners, there was a need to update the information and improve the visual aspect of the booklet.

A particularly important change during the intervening period has been an increase in the different types of school and consequently, different internal regulations, admission criteria and general structure of learning and curriculum within those schools. Today, children have to stay in education until 18, not 16, as was the case until 2013. Assessment criteria and style have changed considerably since 2010. Also, the structure of schooling varies considerably between local authorities and parents need to check this information with their local schools and local authority (the elected body responsible for education at local level e.g. borough, district or county council).

All these changes convinced us that the toolkit needed updating in order to continue to be a reliable source of information for newly arrived migrant parents.

A toolkit for migrant parents and practitioners‘ by Magdalena Lopez Rodriguez, Alessio D’Angelo, Louise Ryan and Rosemary Sales of the Social Policy Research Centre will be formally launched on 10 June 2016 at Hendon Town Hall, London. 

Health & wellbeing

The social impact of authoritative parenting

Lynn McDonald Middlesex UniversityProfessor Lynn McDonald is the founder of Families and Schools Together (FAST), a multi-family group programme designed to increase child well-being and build cohesion within low-income and socially marginalised families. She responds to the recent government pledge to increase relationship support for families to help prevent poverty.

In a recent speech on his Life Chances Strategy, David Cameron outlined how the government intends to transform the lives of Britain’s poor. Emphasising the importance of strengthening families in helping to prevent poverty, he pledged to take action against poor parenting and announced a doubling of funding for relationship support over the next five years.

“Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented,” Mr Cameron said. “They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one.”

Solid structures

As the founder of early intervention programme Families and Schools Together (FAST), I support David Cameron’s initiative to make evidence-based and supportive parenting groups available to everyone. Modern societies should provide solid structures to support the challenge of parenting a child into adulthood, rather than leaving them on their own to manage.

Cameron’s comments sparked renewed debate about the wider social impact of parenting– particularly in a comment piece in the Observer, which referenced a parenting typology developed by psychologist Diana Baumrind. In the early 1960s, Baumrind began conducting research which led to the identification of four parenting styles – authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and uninvolved – which impact child development outcomes.

Modern societies should provide solid structures to support the challenge of parenting a child into adulthood.

Authoritative parenting

According to Baumrind’s typology ‘authoritative’ is the best of the four types of parenting, combining authority and warmth. With this as my basis, I developed a parent-child relationship self-assessment scale with questions on authority and warmth to produce an overall score. This scale is a key component of FAST, a programme bringing together parents, children, teachers and the wider community in order to strengthen relationships and make sure children get the support they need to fulfil their potential at school.

FAST expresses the traditional notion that it takes a village to raise a child.  The multi-family group is open to everyone and gathers between 20 and 40 whole families for sessions at a local school. The activities are led by parents and focus on strengthening the parent-child relationship, the family as a unit, the parents’ social networks as well as the parent-school relationship.

Parents reported feeling more efficacious and having a stronger parent-child bond

FAST is having a positive impact. As well as showing a significant impact on education performance, parents reported feeling more efficacious, having a stronger parent-child bond, having reduced family conflict, increased social support for parents, and a higher parent involvement in school and community.

The scale I developed has assessed 9,500 parents in the UK before and after an eight-week multi-family parenting programme since 2010, with results demonstrating a statistically significant improvement in authoritative parenting after the programme.

Health & wellbeing

Child poverty: one pathway to adult depression

Ruth Spence Middlesex UniversityAntonia Bifulco Middlesex UniversityResearch being conducted by Professor Antonia Bifulco and Research Fellow Ruth Spence in the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University has found a link between child poverty and depression – raising the stakes for the austerity-driven welfare cuts currently being made in the UK. 

The Child Poverty Act 2010 set out a commitment by the government to end child poverty in the UK by 2020. This was recently abolished amidst the release of figures that show child poverty is increasing in the UK. Data from the Department for Work and Pensions show that absolute child poverty now stands at 2.6 million and the New Policy Institute estimates that 17 per cent of children are living in poverty (this rises to 28 per cent after housing costs are taken into account).

Worryingly, poverty can have effects far greater than a lack of money – both social and psychological. The Family Stress Model suggests that when parents are unable to make ends meet and have to cut back on necessary expenses they are more likely to become more stressed and anxious. This can in turn disrupt family relationships and affect the ability to parent well as the whole family suffers stress. Indeed, research shows that living in poverty has many long-term consequences for children – for instance poorer health and lower educational attainment. Also, disadvantage can be passed down from one generation to the next, meaning children grow up missing out on life opportunities.

Tim Beckett - Creative Commons 2.0
Photo by Tim Beckett (Creative Commons 2.0)

Lasting consequences

One outcome that hasn’t been fully investigated is whether childhood material deprivation can lead to mental health problems later in life – in particular depression. This is one of the most common clinical disorders (about six per cent of people in the UK suffer from depression each year, with rates of 15 per cent in inner city women). As part of a programme of work being undertaken by us and our colleagues to explore the impact of childhood adversity across the lifespan, we looked at data collected from intensive interviews with 197 high-risk London women about deprivation and its relationship with depression in childhood and adulthood.

We did two analyses: the first looked at how childhood financial hardship related to adult financial hardship and depression. This showed children experiencing financial hardship were more likely to experience financial hardship as adults and develop depression in both childhood and adulthood. This association with later depression held regardless of whether or not they had been depressed during childhood.

As the Family Stress Model suggests that economic hardship influences parenting, the second looked at childhood experience of poor parenting (neglect and/or hostility by mother and/or father). This showed early financial hardship and having parents that used poor parenting techniques were very strongly associated. These also related to teenage depression. When we took into account childhood experience of poor parenting, childhood financial hardship no longer predicted adulthood depression or financial hardship. This means that it is the association between early financial hardship and poor parenting that is responsible for the relationship between childhood poverty and the adult outcomes (as we found in our first analysis).

There are a couple of important things to highlight about this research: firstly, the associations between childhood financial hardship, childhood experience of poorer parenting and early depression only show that when one is present the others are more likely to be present. This means there are plenty of parents who experience financial hardship but whose parenting practices are not affected. Secondly, this analysis was only conducted on women, so men may show different patterns.

Our research provides evidence that the family stress caused by current cuts to welfare may well have a negative impact on parenting practices, with long-term consequences for the wellbeing of children in deprived areas.

Feeling the strain

That said we believe our results support the Family Stress Model; that is, the strain caused by a lack of money and resources is associated with parents using poorer parenting techniques and early depression as evidenced in the early experience of the women we interviewed. Also, the association between financial hardship and poor parenting means that children who grow up in poor families are more likely to experience financial hardship in adulthood. Lastly, early experiences of financial hardship, poor parenting and early depression increase the likelihood of later depression.

So what does this mean in terms of the growing numbers of children experiencing poverty? We think our research provides evidence that the family stress caused by current cuts to welfare may well have a negative impact on parenting practices, with long-term consequences for the wellbeing of children in deprived areas. This could have serious implications for future mental health prevalence and resulting NHS spending, as it is likely to increase the number of people who are vulnerable to depression, not only in childhood but as adults. It also highlights that poverty can be a life-long condition with childhood poverty related to adult poverty, and suggesting that the disruption to relationships caused by poverty may hinder equality of opportunities.