Even if teens know more about technology than you do, you can still teach them how to stay safe on the Internet.
And you should impart these lessons — early and often. They are important not only for your soon-to-be adult’s personal well-being, but also for her future educational and occupational success. Knowing how to be a good digital citizen and how to navigate the online world safely are essential 21st-century skills.
Below are eight tips to help your teen attain worldwide Web wisdom.
1. Seek out information.
Before you can start a conversation about your child's online life, you will need to do your own research. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a basic technology website, complete with text, audio, and video presentations, to help parents sort through the basics of everything from social media to computer viruses. The FBI provides additional information, primarily about more serious Internet safety risks.
You can also seek out information from people in your community. Talk to other parents you know about how they’ve learned about their children’s use of technology, or reach out to administrators at your child’s school to learn about the technology used in class.
2. Maintain an open dialogue with your child.
To initiate a conversation, let your child know that you are interested in learning about her use of social media. You can share how you use these sites to set an example for her. (And set a good example by posting only what you would want future employers — and the world — to see.) Discuss the privacy features of each social media platform or other technology application with your child so you both know with whom she is sharing information: friends, acquaintances, or the general public. As a rule of thumb, though, you and your child should not post anything that you wouldn’t be amenable to seeing widely distributed, even beyond your circle of friends or acquaintances.
NetSmartz explains that parents should try to launch a conversation by asking questions of — as opposed to lecturing — a child. One way to get started is to ask open-ended questions about what your child is up to, and how she views social media. You can ask about the kinds of posts she enjoys reading as well as posts that have made her uncomfortable. Gauge her opinions on how social media is used and the topics discussed there, and share your own, too (using your activity as an example).
3. Continue to set age-appropriate limits for adolescents.
The AAP recommends continuing to monitor teens by placing your family’s computer in common areas of your house instead of allowing your child to have a computer permanently in her bedroom. It also suggests “friending” your child on social media sites to help monitor usage; but be respectful, and ask your child how she would prefer you interact with her profile. Being friends with your child on social media sites will also provide her with ready access to the positive example you set on your own profile.
As for monitoring your child’s use of technology, the AAP suggests that parents consistently check their children’s texts, computer histories, and emails to get a sense of what they are saying and to whom they are speaking. (Another alternative is to reserve the right to check your children’s digital activities — but to do so infrequently, sporadically, or never.) If you decide to go this route, refrain from being secretive about these checks. You can explain to your child that digital outlets are inherently not private, since her messages could be shared with anyone, and suggest that she tell her friends about the checks so it lessens the chances of her receiving inappropriate or embarrassing messages.
Remind your child to not to share personal information — such as your address, phone number, or credit card number — without a your consent. The AAP suggests that children ages 11–14 can still benefit from Internet-filtering and reporting tools, but older teenagers should have virtually no limitations placed on Internet content. Instead, the organization recommends that parents teach teens the skills to curate content themselves, explaining how to identify safe and appropriate sites. (These will be crucial skills for conducting college-level research — as well as living independently.)
No matter how you monitor your child’s use of technology, remember to maintain an open dialogue. You can’t follow your child around every minute on the Internet. That’s why talking about potential dangers is the primary way to help teach your child avoid risky Internet behaviors.
4. Don’t forget to talk about phones.
Even if your child’s friends all have cellphones, it’s important to consider whether your child needs a phone and is mature enough to handle the responsibility. Smartphones are mini-computers with apps that can do almost anything that a computer can. Even when you’re monitoring your child’s computer in a common space, it can be very difficult to monitor cellphone activities in real time.
With this in mind, set rules for when your adolescent can and can’t use the phone, and what apps and websites are appropriate. NetSmartz suggests that you monitor your child’s use of the phone, from her history of messages and Internet sites to the amount of data and types of apps she uses. Some phones may have security settings, so be sure to ask a sales clerk questions about this possibility before purchasing a phone. You can always return to this person later if you have additional questions.
When you are discussing phones, AAP suggests that parents address the risks of multitasking while using a cell. Anything that requires a child’s full attention, like driving, taking care of a child, walking, or biking, should not be done while using a cellphone or earphones. Also, be sure that you and your child both know about the rules your child's school has about cellphone use.
Finally, discuss the risks of sending texts and other communications. These messages can be forwarded and shared with anyone. Explain that once a text is sent, it is out of your child’s control, permanently.
5. Have a discussion about cyberbullying.
KidsHealth defines cyberbullying as “the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person.” The site explains that half of teens report some form of cyber-abuse, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
Cyberbullying can also have serious academic consequences for students. Punishments for bullying someone online or over text can include suspension, expulsion, or even criminal prosecution.
Use KidsHealth’s examples to teach your child which behaviors constitute cyberbullying so she can report it or avoid it herself:
- Mean or cruel communications via cyberspace
- Impersonating someone for the purpose of harassing or bullying
- Posting someone’s else’s personal videos and pictures without permission
It may be difficult to know if your child is being cyberbullied, since kids often don’t report it because they are ashamed or they fear loss of computer access. KidsHealth notes that warnings of cyberbullying may include secretiveness or sudden loss of interest in the Internet, social withdrawal, dropping grades, or any major change in behavior or mood.
Encourage your child to talk about the problem, and if she does, let her know that you are glad she came to you. Then, seek assistance from school authority figures like a principal, guidance counselor, or teacher after discussing the plan with your child. Instruct your child not to respond to cyberbullying, but to save the evidence in case it’s needed later.
KidsHealth also advises parents to look into blocking a bully from certain devices, as well as limiting your child’s access to online media for a while after a bullying incident. Let the feelings of embarrassment ebb, and allow a bully to get bored from lack of response.
6. Be sure to address sexting.
The AAP defines sexting as “sending a text message with pictures of children or teens that are inappropriate, naked, or engaged in sex acts.” Talk about sexting to your child in an age-appropriate way as soon as she gets a cellphone. Explain that there are serious consequences to sexting. These include suspension, a note on a person’s permanent record, difficulties getting into college or finding a job, and criminal punishment.
Peer pressure contributes heavily to sexting. The AAP suggests that having an adult who collects adolescents’ cellphones during social gatherings may reduce sexting.
7. Discuss the dangers of computer sex offenders.
According to the FBI, some computer sex offenders engage in sexual communication and traffic pornographic images. Others victimize young people simply through “chatting” about their interests and gradually introduce sexual topics to adolescents who may be naturally curious about these subjects. Either group of offenders may seek face-to-face contact with the victims at some point. Offenders fit every physical profile and vary in age.
The FBI explains that parents should be especially mindful of teens who spend large amounts of time online during the night, since this is when predators frequent chat rooms the most. They further encourage parents to look for the following warning signs:
- Pornography on your child’s computer
- Nighttime calls from long-distance or toll-free numbers on your child’s phone
- Packages or gifts from unknown sources (these may be from a cyberstalker)
- Hiding of a screen or phone as soon as an adult enters the room
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Use of someone else’s online account, as this may have been provided by the offender
Monitoring chat rooms is the best way to prevent engagement with predators because that is where they usually make their initial connections.
The FBI says to contact them and the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children under any of the following conditions:
- Your child or anyone in the household has received child pornography;
- Your child has been sexually solicited by someone who knows that your child is under 18 years of age;
- Your child has received sexually explicit images from someone who knows your child is under the age of 18.
If your child has this kind of traumatic experience, be sure to remind her that she is not to blame as the victim of a computer sex crime, and that no one deserves or brings these kinds of abusive situations onto herself.
8. Maintain a balanced approach to technology.
Life, for both teens and adults, can be steeped in the use of technology. While your child may be using social media to forge connections with others or learn about her passions, it’s important to encourage her to be present and to balance the time she spends online and offline. Establish family rules about when and where to use phones and computers, and set a positive example for your child by following these rules yourself.
Learning to balance screen time between homework and leisure is ultimately a child’s responsibility. It’s growing more difficult to maintain this balance as teachers are including more online assignments in their curricula. As children learn to juggle multiple contexts for using technology, this is another good reason to keep the computer in a community location.
To ensure kids spend enough time away from the screen, plan daily extracurricular activities, social engagements, or outside breaks. If your child is old enough, let her make her own screen-free plans.
You can find out about the computer policies at your child's school by asking a question on its Noodle profile. Follow this link to learn more about local schools near you.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved from the American Academy of Pediatrics website.
Federal Bureau of Investigation A Parents Guide to Internet Safety. Retrieved from the Federal Bureau of Investigation A Parents Guide to Internet Safety website.
Healthy Children. Retrieved from the Healthy Children website.
KidsHealth. Retrieved from the Kids Health website.
NetSmartz. Retrieved from the Net Smartz website.