Spending time online is a significant part of almost everyone’s life today. Daily screen time for tweens now exceeds 5 hours; it’s even more for teens. 95% of 13- to 17- year-olds are on YouTube, regardless of gender, race, ethnic group, and income levels. Understanding how to talk to your kids about online safety is a critical parenting skill to learn. You already set boundaries for most areas of your children’s everyday lives — it is important to do so for cyberspace, too. We hope this guide helps you to do just that.
Setting Online Boundaries for Your Family
Anything that is not age-appropriate – games, social media, apps, videos, websites – puts children at risk for online abuse, cyberbullying, contact with predators, and encountering disturbing content that exceeds their level of social and emotional maturity. Think of the rules you set as promoting general safety and health – like wearing seatbelts and washing hands.
Invite your child to help create the rules about what they can do online, how often, and with whom. Approaching the conversation collaboratively will give kids a sense of ownership, and thus a stake in the outcome. At the same time, ask your kids to invite you to join them sometimes, even if a few hours of Super Mario, Minecraft, Roblox, Plants vs. Zombie, or Pokémon just isn’t your thing. It’s just as important for you to know what they are doing online as it is off.
Consider making a family media agreement to outline the rules simply, and state any rewards and punishments. Include rules for all of the games, platforms, and websites your children visit. For Instagram and Snapchat, for example, set a minimum age of 13. It is important to stress to kids that rules, even if we don’t always fully understand them, keep us safe, ensure fairness, and allow for cooperation. Download our free, customizable Social Media & Mobile Phone Contract to get started. (Note that the age that each app says is “appropriate” is set by the developer and not by scientific standards or government oversight with one exception: US law forbids an online platform from collecting data from children under the age of 13 without parental permission, which is why most apps set an age limit of at least 12.)
Tips to Manage Your Kids’ Online Safety
Here are a few specific actions to consider as a parent or caregiver to ensure your kids’ online safety:
- For tweens, consider monitoring texts, gaming chats, posts, internet history, etc., until they are older and you feel confident that they can be safely online without supervision. For teens, you might only need to read their texts and posts if you suspect they are taking risks online. Frame it in terms of safety: It’s like driving a car. Someday they will be old enough to drive on their own, but only after they prove to be a safe, competent driver. Always be honest with your kids about this policy. Don’t sneak or lie. That will surely backfire.
- Update privacy settings, apps, programs, and anti-virus software on all devices. For younger kids, consider installing parental controls.
- Talk to kids about never sharing personal information online (e.g., name, school, address, town, age, and passwords). If they slip up, tell them to speak with you right away. But don’t be angry. Kids lapse, just as you did at that age.
- It also is important to teach them how to navigate online communications. Point out to kids that people who seem friendly might not really be so – and that some ‘kids’ online are in fact adults. If your child doesn’t know the other person, they should not text, DM, friend, or Facetime with them. Stress that it is extremely dangerous to agree to meet someone they met online in person without your involvement. For tweens, extend this to online communication with anyone you have not met.
- Create a space where your kids know they can come to you anytime someone online says that they want to talk with them more often, requests photos, offers to send gifts, asks if they have a boyfriend/girlfriend, or wants to keep the chat a secret. If you suspect an adult is trying to meet your child or engage them in any sexual behavior, call the police and the nearest FBI field office.
- Talk to teens about sextortion. A common ploy is for cyber-criminals to impersonate an alluring young man or woman in the hopes of enticing teens to undress in front of a webcam. They then threaten to post the images unless they receive money or more intimate videos. If this happens to your child, it is best to not shame or blame them, but to offer love and comfort – and immediately contact the police and FBI.
- Teach your kiddo about good digital citizenship. Suggest a code of conduct for online behavior that stresses kindness, courtesy, and respect and avoids sexist, homophobic, racist, bigoted, or mean posts. Teach “pause before you post” or “take care before you share.” Before they press “send,” suggest that your kids ask themselves, ‘How would I feel if someone shared this about me?’ Teach your kids to check in with their own mood before sharing online. If they are feeling angry, upset, or frustrated, perhaps it’s not a good time to post.
- Remind them that the internet is forever. Images especially have an online life of their own. Before posting, too, your kids should ask, ‘Do I want my name associated with this? Even next month?’ Once they hit “send,” they can’t take it back.
- Talk to your kids about cyberbullying. Tell them that it’s never okay to encourage, applaud, or engage in cyberbullying. They should also not impersonate other people, take photos of their body parts without their permission, or say untruthful things about them. Stress the importance of never making an online threat to anyone, any place, or any school —even in jest. That’s a serious crime. Check out the Cyberbullying Research Center for more info.
- Talk to kids about being critical thinkers and remind them that not everything they see online is real or true. People like to exaggerate what is fun and beautiful about their lives to gain popularity. Teach them to be reasonably skeptical about online boasts, much as you probably do about television commercials. Tell them that you understand the pressure to post things online to gain likes, validation, and feelings of belonging. Nobody wants to feel excluded, but you want to help them stay true to who they really are.
- Encourage your children to express themselves online, not what others want them to post. Discuss how they can resist the temptation to follow the crowd by reposting and liking what others post by first critically thinking. For assistance, read the Culture Reframed blog on how to talk to young people about what happened on social media during the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial. What’s trending is often harmful to others – and to them! Online actions often have consequences IRL (“in real life”). Young people have died after trying the “choking challenge” or “blackout challenge” on YouTube and TikTok. Videos, blogs, websites, and social media posts encourage kids to be anorexic (pro-ana) or bulimic. Many sites are designed to recruit young people to ‘incel,’ trolling, and extremist sub-cultures.
- Watch for signs that something is not right with your kids and their online behavior, such as: hiding their screen, sudden withdrawal from social media or other platforms they once enjoyed, appearing angry or distressed after reading messages or posts, evasiveness about their online activities, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, headaches, stomach aches, withdrawal, decline in school work, not wanting to go to school or socialize with peers, obsession with their online popularity, and talking about self-harm.
- Social media, gaming, and online spaces can be fun, creative outlets and ways to connect with others. Work with your kids to combine activities they enjoy offline with their online behavior. For younger kids, try to encourage them to use apps, websites, and programs that encourage creative and active play, movement, and outdoor activities. But also schedule in time to unplug —for your kiddos and you, too! Remember, your kids are watching you. If they need to stay off social media to do their homework, then you should go offline, too.
- Turn digital missteps into proactive next steps. If you catch your kids violating a rule, try not to yell, freak out, catastrophize, blame or shame. You want to be the person your kids come to when it comes to online dilemmas so you can talk with them about what happened, how they felt, how to be accountable, and learn from any mistakes made. Be cautious about taking away devices as a form of punishment. That might make it difficult for them to do schoolwork, socialize with friends who model good behavior, or cause resentment.
- Last, there is the subject of online porn. Like it or not, you must speak to your kids about this, too. Culture Reframed has free online resources to help you navigate what to do and how to discuss the issue with young people. The first and most important step in helping your child build resilience and resistance to this predatory industry is to stay calm. Don’t panic. Take a deep breath. Make a conscious effort not to scold, blame, guilt, frighten, or shame your kid. It’s important to appear comfortable talking about porn – and sexuality. We can guide you through this with our free Programs for Parents. We even offer conversation scripts to guide you through these much-needed conversations!
- The most important tip in the us-AND-them approach: Be the person your kids can speak with about anything.