June is Internet Safety Month. In fact, every month should be. Teaching kids about internet safety is often somethings parents overlook. As digital natives, kids often know more about how smartphones, tablets, and computers work than their parents. Many kids have been using individual technology tools since they were very young, so why start now?
My work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) puts me in contact with people who have first hand experience with “the wrong side” of the internet. On the other side of that screen, none of us really know who’s there. As adults we may feel that we’re able to ferret out the creepers. But kids don’t often have these same senses.
I was talking with a colleague about kids and online predators, and he was explaining to me that he felt kids who didn’t take risks off-line likely weren’t taking risks online. And for the most part that’s true. However, I shared with him that many kids are vulnerable and that provides the opportunity for predators to do what they do best – convince an otherwise savvy teen or tween to do something they normally wouldn’t do. This is how young girls become prey for human trafficking rings.
It’s never too late to talk to your kids about online safety. And while there are times when it is too early, chances are our tweens and teens could use a refresher about online safety. Being prepared for “the safety talk” is important. There are so many topics that need to be covered, so you have to know which ones you want to discuss so you’re not overwhelmed and neither are the kids.
6 Tips for Having “The Talk” About Online Safety
1. Get the facts but don’t overdo it – Being educated on the various topics is important. However, when it comes to online safety there are many considerations. From texting to short video, email, social networks, predators, file sharing, bullying, inappropriate content, and much more it can be overwhelming for both parents and kids. Take time to learn about the key concerns so you can share them in a casual conversation so “the talk’ isn’t a 3-hour dissertation. Resources like Netsmartz, from NCMEC, offer in-depth resources for parents to help parents with topics we may not feel very comfortable talking about. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean you child is clueless too. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and give up because it’s too much information. You don’t have to get your Ph.D. in online safety. Know enough to have a meaningful conversation and not have to result to “because I said so”.
2. Dedicate time but also talk openly – I remember being a kids and being lectured to. It didn’t take too long for the off switch to click and cause everyone to sound like the teacher on Charlie Brown specials. Talking to our kids without distraction – which means them and US, too – shows them the importance of the conversation. At the same time, this isn’t an inquisition. The key to teaching our kids about online safety is to help them identify questionable circumstances and if they’re not sure what to do they know they can come to us.
3. Establish rules for tech use – This is often the most difficult part. Teens, and some tweens, are connected to their smartphones 24/7. They expect privacy and don’t often like that “the parents” are watching. But regardless of the age, if kids know that they are being monitored they may be less likely to do something to raise their parent’s concern. Also, if kids know they’re devices will be monitored if they are afraid to approach mom or dad they may be waiting for us to say something first. Monitoring isn’t snooping, it’s protecting them. Asking about their feelings is part of parenting. Kids need to learn, but this isn’t Lord of the Flies. Like math or spelling, understanding the nuances of how technology really works takes time. Most important, you or another safe adult should be connected with your child on their social networks. This isn’t about spying. More like being a digital chaperone.
4. Spend time online with your child – Be willing to spend time searching the internet and discussing issues as they come up. Share parts of your social networks with your kids so they know these are public platforms and not secretive. Use apps and games together so you know how they work, but also so the kids know you’re engaged and know how things work. Use this time together to read about terms of service, check out what their friends are doing, saying, and posting. Again, this isn’t about being friends. This is a critical step for kids to know we’re there for them and we are using the same programs. It’s important for our kids to understand that what they do online isn’t private despite the fact that they may not share their devices with others.
5. Teach them how to make good choices – as with other aspects of growing up there is a learning curve. For some they ramp up quickly, but for others it takes longer. It’s easy to feel anonymous online and engage as if you are, not realizing you aren’t. Unlike face to face conversations which, often, are fleeting, the trail we leave when we’re online or engaged in any type of mobile activity or communication can be far-reaching. It’s important for our kids to understand that what they do online isn’t private and often the consequences of making a mistake in something we do online or on a social network can be devastating.
6. Stay on top of how kids are using tech. You may think your child is just listening to music with that cool iPod you got ‘em for their last birthday. In reality, they’ve downloaded apps and can text, use social networks, real-time chat, play games, and engage with their friends all while you’re thinking they’re just loving the latest Justin Timberlake release. Kids use their devices differently than we do. We watch YouTube so we can figure out how to fix the toilet or see someone being a fool. Kids use it to learn how to use drugs, watch soft-core porn, engage in risky behaviors without getting caught, and other questionable things.
It’s a fact that kids are using technology and getting online at a very early age. It’s not easy being the police when it comes to our kids using tech. But now’s not the time to take a hands-off approach to parenting. Doesn’t matter how much you trust your child. It’s all the freaks out there we’re really worried about.
I’ve been talking to BabyGirl about online and tech-use safety issues for quite some time. While she has a certain degree of freedom, she knows we monitor how she uses her devices. There are times we’ve had to do the “scared straight” program because her curiosity gets the best of her rather than just asking us. But that’s what kids do. They explore and want to learn on their own. And for the most part that’s OK. Having rules, though, aren’t about punishing. Rules are boundaries, and kids need them to be successful. And that includes setting boundaries on their tech.
Have you had “the talk” about online safety with your kids? How did it go?