A Pew Research study about parenting in America found that outlook, worries, and aspirations were strongly linked to a family's financial situation. And while concerns varied depending on race, gender, and income levels, one of the transcendental concerns was safety, including everything from depression and anxiety to peer bullying and violence. Another key finding? Indeed, "81% of parents with children younger than 6 say that their young children watch videos or play games on an electronic device on a daily basis," which means there's a whole other avenue of safety to consider.
It should come as no surprise that parents' main concern is keeping their children safe from harm, but with the advent of the internet, there are even more bases to cover. Not only do parents need to warn teenagers not to eat Tide Pods, but there are also things like cyberbullying, explicit content, and a lack of face-to-face socialization to consider. How do you keep kids safe, smart, responsible, and productive online? Well, most of our fears and anxieties around keeping kids safe, especially online, are a lot more manageable than fearmongering news outlets would have us think.
In fact, when we reached out to Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor and media specialist from Common Sense Media, about internet safety for kids, she prefaced the conversation with an uplifting reminder: "It's important to keep in mind that, despite what it may seem like on the news, it's exceedingly rare for kids to be approached online by a predator, and most kids use the internet responsibly." To hear her detailed advice on how to effectively build trust, teach digital responsibility, and let go of some of your own worries along the way, read through her tips on internet safety for kids below.
Set Up Guidelines Ahead of Time
"The best way to ensure that your kids are safe online is to teach them how to use the internet responsibly and respectfully," Knorr says. This is because "you may not always be there to look over their shoulder or answer questions." If you "teach them a good set of guidelines and rules about what is acceptable for your family" ahead of time, they'll be equipped to handle any issues on their own before coming to you.
Of course, this will vary from family to family, but Knorr offers some good things to consider about internet safety for kids if you aren't sure where to start. For example, "talk about what information is okay to share and with what audience, and what is always off-limits, like your address, where you go to school, etc. Some of it is totally basic—don't talk to or friend anyone you don't know—but some can be harder for kids to grasp (like an adult that could be posing as a kid). And finally, even though it's not specifically about safety, you definitely want to think about how much time they spend online." Again, the rules and limits you set up are up to you, but try to keep track of screen time and make sure they're still getting a healthy amount of exercise and face-to-face socialization.
Building Trust and Respecting Boundaries
One of the hardest parts about parenting is striking the balance between respecting their privacy and boundaries while also parenting them. So how do you balance regulating and/or monitoring what kids are consuming and who they're engaging with online without snooping? Knorr says it's all about "creating a foundation of trust. The first step to creating this foundation of trust is to have a conversation about rules and expectations. The clearer you are as a family on what the rules are, the less chance there is for conflict later."
While "it's easy for parents to freak out and want to shut the whole thing down," especially given everything in the news, this can inhibit a child's growth. Specifically, Knorr says "kids don't develop the skills they need to discern what's okay and what's not okay online" if we don't let them learn on their own a little. "And just like everything in parenting, you can't be there all the time to regulate what they see or do, so you need to teach them how to make those decisions on their own."
Also, "you are totally within your rights as a parent to monitor what your kids do online, but we recommend being upfront about it," just like you'd want them to be upfront about communicating their concerns or mistakes with you. "One way to keep up with your kids online without violating their privacy is just to friend/follow them and make sure they are following you. Doing anything behind your kid's back is going to undermine the trust you've built with them. Also, teach by example by being forthright and sharing with your kids."
Teaching Them Digital Responsibility
When it comes to teaching your kids how to be responsible online, the general rule of thumb is to "start early and reinforce the lessons often," Knorr says. In terms of what specifically to teach them at home, check out Common Sense Media's K12 curriculum. It's "designed to teach kids digital citizenship, which is exactly that—how to be safe, smart, responsible, and productive online. We have great lists of safe search engines and kid-friendly social media sites so kids can have age-appropriate experiences online." Some of the basics include habits like setting "up accounts together and [talking] about how to make strong passwords and usernames that don't reveal personal information."
Another good general rule is to "remind kids that the same rules that you have in the real world apply online: Don't talk to strangers, don't tell people any of your personal information, be kind and respectful, etc. Teach them how to spot red flags, like someone you don't know asking you personal questions, and instruct them to always tell you or a trusted adult if they come across one." Personally, I was always taught to "just say know, not no," which meant that it was always best to make informed decisions.
Setting Up Parental Controls
Setting up parental controls is the not the only way to think about internet safety for kids, so it's okay if parents choose not to set up parental controls. But if you want to, Knorr says, "We usually recommend starting out with your computer and/or device's built-in parental controls." But "if you find that those aren't getting the job done, then you can look into some of the products out there."
Circle Home and Circle Go are great options for parents with younger children (the actual device is expensive, but the app is free). You can set up time limits for certain apps, restrict access to certain apps, and set bedtimes. Pocket Guardian is a good option for a half hands-on, half hands-off approach. When issues like bullying, sexting, or other explicit things arise, it won't show you the actual content. Instead, it just alerts you so you can open up the dialogue.
Of course, "no product will be the perfect solution. Kids are really good at finding hacks to get around the limitations, plus they could feel like you're spying on them. This could just end up with your kids being sneakier with their online lives and potentially not coming to you if a problem arises." In other words, sleuthing can seriously backfire.
Things Change as They Get Older
Keeping your child's age and maturity level in mind is also crucial. "We always say that parents know their kids best, so ultimately you will be the best judge of your kid's readiness." That being said, Knorr says that "13 is kind of the 'magic age' on the internet." Specifically, she explains that this is because "the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) no longer applies, and most social media sites require users to be at least 13. This in no way means that your kids have total freedom at 13; it's still totally up to your discretion. But this does tend to be the age when kids start wanting a little more independence."
One way to gauge whether or not they're ready for you to let go of the reigns more is "if your kid has proven to you that he or she respects and can follow the rules you have agreed to." Ask yourself, have they demonstrated that they are able to balance their online lives with real-life requirements like schoolwork, chores, and other activities? Have your conversations about their online lives been positive and productive or argumentative and defensive?
How to Deal With Bullying and Other Online Concerns
As Knorr emphasized earlier, it's important to "try to build trust and communication around social media and the internet so your kids will feel like they can come to you" when issues do arise. You can do this by telling "them you know that they will make mistakes and what's important is learning from them and doing better next time." Since "kids are curious, investigating risky stuff online is natural." Knorr explains that "unless they've done something that's put them in jeopardy—such as meeting someone in real life that they met online, which is a huge no-no—it's important to accept that teens will start exploring."
If your child has made a mistake or crossed a boundary, remember that "you want to communicate that your role is to help keep them safe, so review safety and privacy precautions," but try not to alienate them with unnecessarily harsh or judgemental disciplinary tactics. Of course, you know what your child responds to and what will shut them down, so try to be calm and use your best judgment. "You may need to deliver more serious consequences such as taking away their phone if anyone is in immediate danger. That's obviously most important, but once everything settles," talk about it.
On the other hand, if they run into explicit content, encounter someone suspicious online, or get cyberbullied by someone else, you have a few options, and it's always best to approach it case-by-case. Knorr says that "depending on the situation, [you] can figure out the best course of action, whether it's reporting inappropriate content to the platform, alerting school authorities, etc." Working together on a response is a great way to continue building trust and open communication. Knorr encourages parents to "get a sense of what your kid thinks and feels about what happened. Were they sad or scared? Why do they think what happened was wrong? What can we do to make sure that doesn't happen again?" And if they're just "looking at sex stuff," Knorr suggests you "get them some books on sexuality and puberty."
If you're looking for advice on how to teach real-life safety to your kids, here's what a therapist says about preparing your children for street harassment.