We live in a time when internet usage is a fixture of the average American child’s life. In 2015, over 70% of children ages 3 to 18 used the internet and more children used the internet at home than at school. With this online presence and activity comes many benefits—communication with family and friends, access to learning tools and educational information, and a dynamic source of entertainment. However, as parents, we must also be aware of and safeguard our children from the ever-present dangers of the internet.
Nearly one third of teens report that they have talked to a stranger online and discussed the possibility of meeting in person. These potentially very dangerous encounters can be a threat to your child’s physical safety and put them at risk for child trafficking.
The risks of unsupervised internet use also go beyond the obvious dangers of interactions with strangers, with more than half of “tweens” reporting that they have witnessed cyberbullying, mostly on Facebook, but also on other social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.
So, what can parents do to help protect their children from these dangers? Like most other areas of parenting, solutions for protecting our kids from internet dangers center around communication, awareness, engagement, and supervision. Here are some specific habits and strategies you can implement in your family to increase your kid’s awareness of these risks and make sure proper safeguards are in place:
Share facts and stories with your child in an age-appropriate manner
We can all remember being kids and teenagers ourselves and, sometimes, simply instructing our children on what to do and what not to do does not translate into obedience. Just like adults, children can benefit from a tangible “why”—reasoning they internalize and take on as their own for the choices they make.
Statistics can feel distant, theoretical, and impersonal. Stories, on the other hand, are how our human brain best connect to information and empathize with it. Unfortunately, cautionary tales of children harmed by cyberbullying and online predators are not hard to find. Of course, be sure that the examples you share with your children are explained in an age-appropriate manner.
Set and communicate clear expectations and boundaries for internet use
Your kids cannot follow safe internet practices if you haven’t provided them with clear rules of dos and do nots. While the rules you set for your children will likely be influenced by their age and, perhaps, their past internet-related indiscretions, there are a few redlines that most families will find useful:
- Do not post or share any personal information like your address, cell phone number, home phone number, location, or school on forums, social media, or in direct messages.
- Do not meet or discuss meeting in person someone who you met on the internet.
- If you receive a rude, mean, or harassing comment or message, do not respond or engage with the individual. Inform a parent.
- Maintain privacy settings set by parents on social media accounts.
- Maintain internet child security settings put in place by parents.
- Do not post photos that violate the family’s “dress code”, i.e. clothing that is too revealing, etc.
- Do not use the internet, either on the computer or smart phone, during prohibited hours or days of the week.
These are just a few examples. You can find more suggestions of internet usage rules that might be appropriate for your family in the form of a kids’ internet safety “pledge”, available here.
Implement systems for transparency and accountability with your kids
In every stage of life, particularly in childhood, we benefit from a certain degree of transparency and accountability in our lives. The way that you implement systems that foster these elements as they relate to your children’s safety on the internet will differ from family to family based on your individual parenting philosophy, your child’s age, and your assessment of your child’s needs.
This often involves balancing your child’s privacy with their protection. You may wish to allow your child to expect more privacy as they get older, yet also realize that their exposure to certain dangers increases during their teenage years.
The degree of privacy you allow your child is an individual parenting choice. If you wish to implement some systems for monitoring who your child is talking to online, the content they are viewing, how much time they are spending on the internet, and when they are using it, here are a few strategies to consider:
- Use software to filter and monitor internet content. There are countless apps and software options available on the market to help you restrict your child’s ability to access mature or inappropriate websites, and help you monitor the details of their online activity. You can find a list of different options here.
- Implement a policy of “turning in” phones or laptops at nighttime or other designated times. With a reported 1 in 5 teenagers waking up throughout the night to check social media on their phones, making the bedroom a no-phone zone after certain hours cannot only help keep teenagers safer from being consumed by cyberbullying, but can also help them get more sleep and perform better at school during the day.
- Designate no-technology family time. Scheduling regular family time during which parents and kids all agree not to use technology can help to facilitate important conversations, and establish and reinforce trust, intimacy, and connection between your family members. Staying connected with your kids, particularly your teenagers, and building closeness makes it easier for your children to approach you when they experience an emotional or situational challenge.
- Consider requiring access to all of your children’s internet and social media accounts. While requiring access (user names and passwords) to your kid’s accounts places a limitation on their level of privacy, it also enables you to have oversight of their activities online and provide accountability for your child from a place of love and wisdom.
Parents have many different parenting styles that will no doubt influence the way they guide and restrict their children. In whatever ways you choose to parent your child when it comes to safe internet use, the key is to regard the word “parent” as a verb and apply that action word to your child’s online activities.
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