Young people are spending more time online than ever before. In fact, teens in the U.S. may be spending more than 7 hours online each day – outside of schoolwork – and tweens nearly five hours.
While there are major benefits for kids and teens' use of the internet, including learning, social connection and self-expression, there are also inherent risks, especially with so much time devoted to screens. Just as we don't allow teens behind the wheel of the car without understanding the risks of the road and the power of making informed choices, internet safety is a conversation all parents and kids should have.
What Is Internet Safety?
For young people, internet safety refers to how and where kids and teens spend time on the internet – from virtual learning for school and using searching engines, to connecting with friends and creating content on social media. Youth online safety includes understanding the implications of how kids present themselves and interact with others digitally (sharing thoughts, photos, videos and connecting with others), as well as what information they consume and its potential risks.
Unfortunately the online world brings many risks to child safety, from cyberbullying and low self-esteem to the potential for interactions with online sexual predators and exposure to obscene materials. While the internet may feel far away from real life or inconsequential, interactions and content shared can live on in ways that might put young people's safety and success in harm's way. Thus, it is important to establish internet safety with the young people in your life, as well as be able to recognize the warning signs of online safety risks.
Here’s what you can do to help keep the young people in your life safe from harm:
Six Internet Safety Tips for Kids and Families
Here are six ways you can prepare your kid to spend time online so that they can recognize online safety risks themselves and make informed decisions.
Educate young people about online safety. First and foremost, when young people begin engaging with the internet, it’s time to facilitate age-appropriate education about online safety. Topics might include privacy, digital consent and boundary violations, cyberbullying and digital citizenship. They should learn what areas of the internet are appropriate for them to visit, understand the risks, and consider who they want to be online. Some online safety programs include:
- NetSmartz and KidSmartz are online safety programs from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) that help youth become aware of online risks and prevent victimization by making safer choices on- and offline.
- Common Sense Education’s Digital Citizenship lessons help youth understand how to use technology responsibly.
- Boys & Girls Clubs of America's MyFuture virtual learning platform has Digital Literacy activities that are free to all youth, not just Club members, and help young people build skills in online safety, as part of building foundational technology skills.
Create safe spaces for conversation. Provide physically and emotionally safe environments for your child to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and worries about what they're interacting with online, whether it's something unusual a friend posted, a link they should not have clicked or a stranger messaging them. This means always making space to talk and not being pushy (which might make them more likely to be secretive), and being consistent with non-judgmental and non-punitive reactions regardless of what you’re told. By keeping lines of communication open and letting your child know that they have supportive people who care about them, you’ll create the consistency of a safe environment where they will be more likely to come to you when something feels "off" during their time online.
Enable technology safety features and establish your technology “code of conduct.” Many online services and platforms include tools, such as content filters/blockers, parental controls or other safety features that limit young people’s access to potentially harmful people or content on the Internet. Depending on the age of your kid or teen, you may also want to discuss your “code of conduct” for using technology, and any expectations of parental supervision, access or monitoring to devices and programs. Just like adults, young people value their privacy, so being open about expectations and involvement is key here, and a critical part of establishing that safe environment for conversations. And remember that school-issued technology devices should have the same rules as personal devices.
Always be cautious of App location settings. With young people spending more and more time on their phones and on apps, one of the biggest threats when using apps is location services technology. Most every app has the option to turn on location services, and furthermore many have an additional feature called “precise location.” Precise location is helpful for apps like Uber when your driver is trying to find you. To ensure your child’s safety, always check the location services on any apps they are using. To turn off precise location, open the Settings app, scroll to the end of the page where your apps are listed, tap into an app, select “Location,” find the Precise Location section, then switch the toggle off.
Know the warning signs. When a young person is a victim of online bullying, harassment or sexual exploitation, it can be a traumatic event that impacts them and potentially their family, sometimes for many years. But there is hope and help. Having open lines of communications with young people and being able to spot warning signs early can help stop online safety risks before they progress. So even if you’ve laid a strong foundation of online safety, be sure to know the warning signs so you can step in as soon as possible.
Make your child aware of the risks of interacting with people online (and in person). In the online world, your child will very likely come across people they don’t know. Predators may act like a friend or loved one or like another child (a tactic known as online enticement) to initiate contact. From an early age, be clear that not everyone on the internet is who they claim to be, and that it is very easy to lie and pretend online. You can affirm this by making it into a sort of “what if” series of questions and answers: “what if someone you don’t know in real life starts talking to you online?” By creating opportunities for conversation around online behavior, you can give your children the tools they need to protect themselves if a predator does attempt to reach out to them.
What Are Internet Safety Warning Signs?
According to stopitnow.org, the following are warning signs that a young person may display if they are affected by online sexual abuse, but these behaviors are also prevalent across many online safety risks.
Here’s what to look for in your kid or teen:
- Isolating Themselves – a young person may start spending more time online, be secretive about their use of technology, hide their devices or screens from others, or become possessive of their technology.
- Social Changes – a young person may spend more time away from home, be vague about new friends and social interactions, or be hesitant to be alone with a particular person.
- Emotional Changes – a young person may display sudden changes or behavior or mood swings, engage in self-harm, or show signs of anger or irritation.
Although young people may be spending more time online, we can work alongside them to minimize risks to online safety. Through open communication, supervision, prevention education and strong technology policies, we can provide the guidance and support needed to keep young people safe on the internet.
If you or someone you know has suspicions of child online sexual exploitation, report suspicions to Child Protective Services and the police. You can also contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline 24 hours a day at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). NCMEC can provide assistance to victims and families, including referrals to counseling, community resources, legal support, and help removing illegal images from online. Visit BGCA’s Parent and Caregiver Safety Resources for more information about keeping your child safe.
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