How to Keep Your Pre-Teen Safe on the Internet

Unlike pre-teens today, you may not have had the wonderful World Wide Web (and all of its intricacies) to contend with when you were growing up.

The Internet’s benefits are constantly evolving, but with it, so are its potential drawbacks. Ninety-three percent of 12- and 13-year-olds have access to the Internet, and of them, 82 percent use social media. So how can you make sure your pre-teen is safe while surfing online?

How Teens Use the Internet

The Internet offers opportunities for social, informational, and commercial exchanges. For social purposes, teens use the Internet to communicate with their friends. According to the Pew Research Center:

Ninety-four percent of teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 use Facebook, 26 percent use Twitter, and 11 percent use Instagram.

Many pre-teens use the Internet for academic purposes. That can include conducting research or accessing online learning management systems, where students access or submit assignments and communicate with teachers or classmates. Pre-teens also use the Internet for entertainment purposes: to play games, look at images or videos (and comment on them), or read about celebrities.

Top Internet Safety Challenges

As the Washington State Office of the Attorney General reminds us, “Internet safety isn’t about a bunch of rules telling you ‘never do this.’”

Here are the top ways the Internet can be potentially harmful, and how you can prevent each issue:

Privacy

Pre-teens (and many adults) do not recognize or understand the value of their information. Businesses value demographic information and information about pre-teens’ thoughts and interests, which companies can collect via free surveys or as part of registration on sites.

Of 12- and 13-year-olds, 94 percent have posted a photo or video of themselves, 76 percent their school name, 23 percent their cell phone number, and 53 percent their email address, and these trends seem to be increasing.

The solution: Talk with your child. Thirty-seven percent of 12- and 13-year olds are already “somewhat” or “very concerned” about 3rd party access to their information. Sit with your child during any registration process and review the terms and conditions. Ask, “Why do they need this information?” and “How will they use this information?” Model safe Internet practices, and discuss the value of one’s personal information.

Cyberbullying

Despite all of the advantages of being able to socialize online, the Internet is also a place where social interactions can turn cruel. Cyberbullying occurs partly because online interactions can be anonymous, but even when you are communicating with a known identity, teens may say things they wouldn’t in face-to-face interactions. “The screen does change things; it makes jumping on impulses easier,” notes Rebecca Duvall, a librarian and instructor of media literacy at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School.

The solution: It’s a comforting fact that 80 percent of teens have said they have defended a friend who they felt was treated unfairly online. To be safe, it’s a good idea to encourage your pre-teen to socialize with people (s)he knows. Remind him/her that similar standards apply online as offline: you shouldn’t stand for rude or gossipy interactions. Ms. Duvall also stressed the importance of making time to unplug.

Questionable Downloads

Pre-teens download potentially harmful files or programs onto your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

The solution: Once again, open discussions are key. Make sure to be clear about what downloads are okay and what may be potentially harmful. For example, it’s always okay to download something from an online academic manager or a school’s website, but most other sites may not be as trustworthy. Have your pre-teen get your OK first.

Internet Shopping

The Internet is a commercial marketplace. Explicit advertising and social marketing may take both a literal and mental toll on pre-teens; your children may leave sites wanting to buy, buy, buy!

The solution: Help your child question the advertising to which they’re exposed. Encourage them to think about what is the ad actually saying? What does the ad want them to do? Stepping away from the screen is another good way to avoid getting caught up in wanting to purchase products that are being marketed to them online.

Inappropriate Content

The Internet can certainly be a safe place, but unfortunately, it may also make your children feel uncomfortable. They may be asked to share personal information, photographs, or even thoughts on sexual subjects.

The solution: This is a great opportunity to have a genuine discussion with your child. Just as you would discuss making wise choices in real life (such as the advice, “Don’t talk to strangers!”), the same approach can apply for online interactions. Encourage them to communicate with those they know, and if they’re unsure of something, to ask an adult. Red flags include strangers soliciting pictures, personal information, and — particularly — real-life visits.

Want to Read More?

Duvall recommends these resources on the topic:

  • Common Sense Media blog (a recent article on the myths and truths of Internet safety is particularly relevant)
  • It’s Complicated by danah boyd. It’s available for free on her website! It’s aimed more at teen social media use, but relevant for parents of pre-teens, too! It’s academic, but also relatable.

For both teens and adults, I also like:

  • The Washington State Office of the Attorney General’s Teen Site explains potential dangers and offers safety recommendations.
  • NSTeens has videos, games, and other resources for teens themselves.
  • Onguard Online is another site aimed at teens, which explains potential dangers and also has interactive activities like quizzes and letters.

Sources:

boyd, d. (2014). It’s Complicated. New Haven: Yale University Press. Retrieved from danah.org.

R. Duvall, personal communication, June 9, 2014.

Federal Trade Commission. Living Life Online. Retrieved from On Guard Online.

Jones, L. & Finkelhor, D. (2011). Increasing Youth Safety and Responsible Behavior Online: Putting in Place Programs that Work, A FOSI Discussion Paper. Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC). Retrieved from University of New Hampshire.

Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Duggan, M., Cortesi, S., & Gasser, U. (March 13, 2013). Teens and Technology 2013. Pew Research Internet Project. Retrieved from Pew Research.

Mitchell, K.J., Jones, L., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J. (February 2014). Trends in Unwanted Online Experiences and Sexting. Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC). Retrieved from University of New Hampshire.

National Crime Prevention Council. Stopping Cyberbullying Before it Starts. Retrieved from National Crime Prevention Council.

Purcell, K. (July 10, 2013). 10 Things to Know About How Teens Use Technology. Pew Research Internet Project. Retrieved from Pew Research.

Washington State Office of the Attorney General. (2008). Teens. Retrieved from Washington State Office of the Attorney General.