We parents raising children in the digital age are struggling to navigate an entire new world of parenting challenges once our children hit the pre-teen and teenager years. Not the least of these new challenges is creating parameters for safe exploration of the Web. While keeping young children safe from potentially dangerous strangers is as easy as monitoring their physical whereabouts, access to the Web, social media, and user-interaction video games opens up an entire world of social interaction that has the potential to be harmful while being difficult to monitor. Having the knowledge and tools necessary to help children navigate the Web safely is fundamental to parenting in the 21st century. Here are 5 tips to help you manage your child’s exposure to Web content and to encourage safe and positive screen time:
1. Talk With Kids About Internet Stranger Danger
It’s amazing how the impersonal nature of the Internet can disarm a child’s natural safety instincts. Unfortunately, social media has increasingly been used by predators to groom, locate, and abuse vulnerable youth. Numerous apps, which can be disguised on your child’s phone to avoid detection, enable teenagers to message, text, and even video call complete strangers. Additionally, user-interaction video games enable strangers to chat with each other, and can be used as a way to extract personal information from children.
Perhaps the best way to protect your child from the vast possibilities of online danger is simply to have meaningful conversations about what stranger danger looks like online. In addition to advising your child not to speak to anyone who is not a part of their pre-existing group of friends, it is advisable to give warning against specific types of harmful interactions, such as requests for personal information, location, or sexual remarks. For a list of online grooming techniques that you may want to discuss with your child, check here.
2. Dealing with Cyberbullying
An alarmingly high rate of teens have experienced cyberbullying. A study by McAfee in 2014 found that as many as 87 percent of teens have witnessed cyberbullying.
Be aware of which apps your child uses, set profiles to “private,” and instruct children to only accept friend requests from real-life friends who are already part of their friend circles. A healthy discussion of cyberbullying with your child should include what cyberbullying looks like, how to identify it, and how to respond. It is important for your child to understand that it is a serious issue, and something which should be reported to an adult. It may also be helpful if your child understands that cyberbullying can come from strangers, acquaintances, or friends. No matter the source, the response should always be the same: document, block, and report.
3. Content Blockers and Safe Modes
There are many digital resources available to parents to protect children from the vast amount of content which may be inappropriate for young children and minors. Parental control software can not only block which websites and apps your child can access, but many of them also enable parents to monitor their children’s web searches and activity. If you’re concerned about your child having unmonitored browsing time, this may be the best solution to protect your child from harmful content.
Additionally, some platforms like Youtube have “Safety Modes” to filter inappropriate content for children. Find out which sites your child uses, and discover what setting options you may be able to utilize to filter content. For lists of the best blockers and parental control software check here and here.
4. Maintain Open Communication
While we recommend a good content blocker, it should still be noted that blockers are not a perfect preventative measure. It is important to maintain positive, open communication with children about what content they may encounter on the web, and how to think critically about it. Psychologist Mary Alvord, PhD, encourages parents to discuss which sites and types of content are “off limits” during your child’s browsing time. If your child understands that you are a safe, non-judgemental space for them to share their experiences and encounters, they are more likely to ask you about things they came across that made them feel scared, confused, or uncomfortable.
Having open conversations with children about danger on the Internet can also be useful. Explaining the warning signs of “catfishing” or the dangers of “phishing,” may prevent harmful interactions with strangers as well as protect against identity theft.
5. Follow Your Instincts
If there is a moment in parenthood to embrace “being the bad guy,” Internet safety is probably it. Although we hope that respectful conversations with children about Internet safety will yield the best results, we also understand that teenagers crave independence and often perceive parental attempts to keep them safe as measures to control them. It can be hard to walk the line between allowing your child adequate freedom and also making decisions to protect them when you fear that they are not using their best judgement.
Our best advice is to follow your instincts and be their protector first and foremost. Psychologist Roxanne Pratt, M.S., encourages parents to allow their children to have access to screens with varying degrees of supervision contingent on the child’s age. She also encourages parents to commit to firm boundaries. After all, restricting app usage, or creating a screen time curfew, is not too different from not allowing your child to go to a sleepover with a family you don’t know. It may not make you popular with your child, but could protect them from traumatic life-altering events. As parents, this is our first job. So keep those lines of communication with your child open, and stay safe!