The internet can be a dangerous playground for children. While opportunities for education, friendship and fun abound, there are plenty of safety hazards, too
As a concerned parent, it's easy to feel overwhelmed or conflicted about this. You want your child to be able to take advantage of the good things the internet offers, but you also want to help protect their well-being. Here are some ways to accomplish both.
Cultivate an Open, Supportive Environment
Although you might feel uncomfortable talking to younger children about internet safety and cyber threats, it's important to do this at an early age. After all, even if your children aren't allowed to use the internet at home, they may be able to access it at school or at a friend's house.
You should set family rules about what types of online content and activities are acceptable. Be specific. Also, mention the types of content or behavior that isn't allowed and should be brought to your attention (such as pornography, excessive violence, hate speech and risky or illegal acts).
If your child comes to you about something inappropriate they've seen or experienced online, don't act alarmed. Instead, be reassuring. Listen attentively, tell them it's not their fault, answer their questions and help them report any unsuitable behavior or content to the website/app or authorities. Encourage them to ask you for advice if they're ever unsure if something crosses the line regarding internet safety.
Lastly, make using the internet with your young children a fun, family activity that allows you to subtly reinforce your message about what's appropriate online. Place your computers in open areas of your house for easier monitoring.
Warn About Oversharing
Children often love to share with others. Sometimes this includes revealing seemingly innocent details about themselves and their lives.
It's important for your children to understand what's not acceptable to post about themselves online — as well as why.
Explain in simple terms why certain types of personal information — such as their full name, birthday, home address, email address, phone numbers and names of family, friends or pets — shouldn't be given on some online platforms. This information could be used by cybercriminals for fraudulent activities or to determine their location. There's no need to terrify your child when explaining this, or to delve too deeply into possible worst-case scenarios.
This conversation should also cover photos. Tell your child that pictures of family and friends should only be posted with their permission to ensure their internet privacy. Also, before posting or texting images of themselves, teach your children to ask questions, such as is this something I would want my grandmother to see? My teachers? My college admissions counselor? My future spouse or children?
Remember, it's possible to view these images now or even decades later because the internet never forgets. So, unless your child can safely answer “yes” to those questions, they shouldn't share the images.
Be Cybersecurity Saavy
Work with your kids to ensure they follow cybersecurity best practices.
For example, encourage them to use strong, unique passwords for each of their social media accounts to help prevent hackers from accessing or taking over the accounts. And remind them not to share their passwords with anyone — even their best friend.
Also, caution your children about clicking on suspicious links in emails or text messages, which could present a cyber threat. Or refrain from downloading anything from untrustworthy sources that could install malware on their device.
Watch for Signs of Cyberbullying
Nearly half of U.S. teens have been subjected to cyberbulling.1
What constitutes cyberbullying? It's using electronic communications to bully a person, typically by sending intimidating or threatening messages.
Considering the growing frequency of cyberbullying and its impact, it's important to talk with your children about this subject and watch for signs they could be a victim — or even a perpetrator.
Signs of being a victim include a child who stops using a computer or cell phone, acts nervous when receiving an email, IM or text, seems uneasy about going to school, withdraws from friends and family and suffers from low self-esteem.
As a parent, if you notice these signs, you should save any evidence of cyberbullying you find, block those doing the bullying from contacting your child, set up new email and social media accounts for your child and talk to authorities at your child's school.
How can you help prevent bullying behavior? Establish the proper expectations for online behavior, set strict punishment for cyberbullying and encourage your child to get involved when they witness cyberbullying instead of being a bystander.
Discuss Sexting and Sexual Solicitations
As a parent, it's one of those conversations you don't want to have with your child. But, you need to discuss sexting and other types of sexual advances. About 15% of teens with cell phones admit they've received sexually suggestive or nude images from someone they know by text.2 And considering how teens often tend to hide embarrassing incidents, that percentage could actually be much higher.
Unfortunately, you don't have to worry only about sexting from your child's peers. Adult predators may sexually solicit your child by sexting or other means. This often occurs on social media sites, with offenders grooming children by exploiting their curiosity, gradually introducing explicit images and then using their adult status to control the child's behavior (sometimes by offering gifts).
Signs that your child may be receiving sexual advances from an adult include when your child receives gifts from strangers, calls from unknown numbers, rejects family and friends, seems upset or distracted when they're away from their computer or phone and changes or minimizes their screen rapidly when anyone approaches.
So, what can you do to help protect your children?
- Talk to your kids about the consequences of sexting and how images can spread out of control online.
- Encourage them to be open with you and report any type of sexual advance or cyber abuse they witness.
- Teach them about the warning signs of sexual abuse, including receiving explicit content or images or getting requests from strangers to meet them in person.
- Make sure they know to never accept “friend” requests or gifts from strangers.
As a parent, you understand it's impossible to protect your child from every danger. But, by making your child aware of the importance of internet safety and the possible risks they might encounter while using their devices, you've made their online world much safer.