Emily Buckley, editor in chief
ONE OF THE current generations of parents’ greatest worries is rightfully that of the dangers lurking online. Predators don’t have to be in the same room, city, or even country to harm your child. Sadly, we, as parents, have to be aware and vigilant in more and different ways than ever before.
According to the New York Times, some virtual connections escalate to sexual abuse surprisingly quickly. Offenders will knowingly contact children, often posing as another kid or by attempting to create a romantic relationship. They build trust and sometimes send graphic images to desensitize the child. Before long, the offender is eliciting graphic pictures and using threats to extort the child. Many professionals believe it is not if a child will be contacted by a criminal online, but when.
According to a 2016 Justice Department report, sextortion was identified as “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.”
It’s a double-edged sword. While it is full of dangers, the internet also offers endless opportunities to research, learn, play, and socialize. We can’t hide our children from it forever, and so it is our job to teach them to make responsible choices once they do go online.
In addition to using parent filters and software to monitor and limit access, we should be creating a mindset that teaches our children to keep themselves safe, too. With that in mind, here are three tips — the ABCs of internet safety — you may want to consider:
No two kids are the same — even those raised in the same household by the same parents. They have different interests, inclinations, maturity levels, and needs. Consider what kind of guidance each of your children needs and treat them as individuals, guiding them and setting boundaries that make sense for them.
“As your [child] gets older, they’re going to be far more likely to find ways around any parental controls that you put on there,” Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, said. “Your goal, then, is to make sure that by that point, they don’t need them anymore anyway.”
Before giving your child a device or online privileges, consider whether they are mature enough to handle an interaction with a stranger and if you are comfortable teaching them how to recognize someone with bad intentions and how to handle these situations.
The Family Online Safety Institute suggests, “If you’re not comfortable having this conversation with your children, then they are not ready for the online world, and that’s OK.”
Another suggestion is that when you do decide to give your child a smartphone or tablet, you should help them through the setup process. Ensure they know how to create a strong password and that you have established ground rules.
“Make sure they know that they should always talk to a trusted adult about any online situations which make them feel uncomfortable, even if they are not directly involved,” The Family Online Safety Institute says.
Be an example
As is the case for most behaviors, kids are far more likely to do what we do before they do what we say. Is it hard for your kids to get your attention because you are often too busy or distracted on your phone or laptop? Are we constantly pulling out our phones at restaurants, in lines, or even at church? If this describes your behavior, don’t worry, but use this as an opportunity to do better and model appropriate times and places to use technology. Additionally, show your kids the kinds of photos you share online, and respect their feelings by taking down any they may consider embarrassing.
Let them know you are there to help them when they run into trouble or make a mistake, maybe even tell them about times you have run into inappropriate content online and how you handled the situation. Help your children understand that anyone can behave badly online, and many people do. This is the reality of the digital world.
Involve your kids in establishing rules for the whole family (parents included). Agree to where devices can and cannot be used (behind closed doors, for example), times when devices will be put away or turned off, and what things are and are not appropriate to share online. The Family Online Safety Institute has a great resource on their website to help get you started.
There are many parental controls that can help you monitor and limit what your kids are doing online (i.e., Net Nanny, Circle with Disney), but if you aren’t also talking to your kids about why those filters are in place, they may still be in danger.
With open lines of communication, if and when your kids run into trouble — whether it’s through cyberbullying, harassment, or coming across a disturbing image or video — you’ll be the person they come to for help, rather than them looking further on the internet for help from an untrusted source or from a peer who is still maturing