How to Talk to Your Kids About Digital Safety
[Special thanks to FamilySafetyResource.org for sponsoring and providing this informative guest post]
Sometimes it seems like the more our children grow, the more of a challenge it is to keep them safe. Today’s digital age has presented a host of issues, from selfies to sexting to cyberbullying, that previous generations of parents never even had to think of, let alone address with their children. What’s more is that negative online experiences and encounters in childhood have the potential to create a lifetime of mental health and self-esteem issues in our children, such as perpetuating body issues, unhealthy relationships with sexuality, and much more.
What We Can Do
So as parents, what can we do? Denying our kids’ access to the internet or trying to monitor their every move may work in the short term, but even this can only go so far. Connected devices are everywhere, and our children are growing up as “digital natives,” soaking up technology like a sponge.
To best protect our kids in the digital world, we need to teach them how to protect themselves. That means talking with them about the tough situations online and teach them how they can navigate the digital world safely. This is not an easy or small conversation, but it doesn’t have to be an awkward or forced moment, and you can naturally approach the topic to ensure that your child feels comfortable in coming to you as these issues arise. Keep reading to gain a true understanding of not only why this is important, but also how to confidently start the conversation with your kiddo.
Why Digital Safety Issues Can’t Be Ignored
In a world of selfies, social media profiles, and sharing content with as little as the tap of a finger, it’s all too easy to have an “ignorance is bliss” attitude about your kids’ involvement in social media. However, this topic is too important to be ignored and the reality must be faced: failure to deliberately involve yourself in your child’s online life could put them at risk.
In early 2016, the media was rocked by the stabbing of 13-year-old Virginia teen, Nicole Lovell. David Eisenhauer, who was at the time a freshman at Virginia Tech, maintained a relationship with the middle schooler that was initiated online, ultimately killing her because she threatened to expose their relationship to law enforcement. Clearly, this relationship shouldn’t have ever existed, and it was all made possible through the extensive and bewildering connections that kids can so easily form behind the mask of the internet.
Another scary reality associated with kids’ digital presence is the fact that our phones are constantly reporting data about us that we may not want others to know. This includes location services that your child may be unknowingly sharing with potential predators. Additionally, it’s important to remember that abusers will go to great and sophisticated lengths to interact with targets.
While child predators are a scary reality, the far more common threat for kids online is bullying. Cyberbullying can happen in a myriad of ways: sending mean messages to someone’s phone, email accounts, or social media profiles; someone publicly sharing hurtful messages directed at someone to harm or embarrass them; hacking into someone’s account and sending damaging messages; or even sexting with someone and then spreading provocative rumors or photos.
The i-SAFE Foundation reports that more than half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, while approximately the same number of respondents have engaged in cyberbullying. Similarly, more than one in three young people have been subject to cyber-threats, and more than a quarter of adolescents and teens have been repeatedly bullied through a digital medium. Alarmingly, well over half of these adolescents report that they do not tell their parents about these experiences.
The effects of cyberbullying on a young person are monumental. It can cause depression, anxiety, and may even lead to suicidal thoughts or actions. Because these effects have the potential to be so profoundly damaging to our children, we as parents have the responsibility to start a dialogue with our kids about digital safety and issues, ensuring that they feel comfortable coming to us in the event of a problem.
Facilitating the conversation
Next, let’s discuss how you can effectively facilitate frequent conversations with your kids about social media, cyberbullying, and their digital safety overall:
Set ground rules
Your kids won’t possess a solid understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate within their online behavior unless you talk to them about it and set clear boundaries. For instance, explain to your kiddos that they should never disclose personal information about themselves, such as their full name, address, birthdate, or school information, or extracurricular schedule to anyone on the web. That means that they should never post pictures of them in school or team branded apparel, as this could give away information surrounding their location or interests. They should also never agree to meet someone that they’ve spoken with virtually in a face-to-face meeting, even if the individual claims to be a friend.
You will also want to make your children aware of the steps you are taking to protect them online. While it’s tempting to “snoop” on their devices, getting caught in the act can cause a breech of trust, making it less likely that they will proactively come to you in the event of a problem. Let your kids know if you’re going to be regularly checking their accounts, chats, and profiles, be open about parental controls you set on their devices and why you’re doing it, and sit down and walk through each app that your children are using so that you have an understanding of the capabilities of each.
Always share your goals behind these rules, restrictions, and actions with your kids, so that they know you are doing it to keep them safe rather than to just be nosey.
Talking about Tough issues
It’s not always comfortable to talk to your kids openly about issues such as cyberbullying or sexting, but no matter how awkward or uncomfortable you feel, you must do it. It’s easy to think, “my child wouldn’t do that,” but sadly, you may very well be mistaken (Time reported in 2014 that 54 percent of teens surveyed admitted to sending or receiving a sext, which is an astonishing number).
Unfortunately, the idea of sexting is normalized for adolescents, making it even more important for parents to tackle the issue. As you talk to your teens about sexting, first reassure them that it’s not their fault if they’ve been sent an unsolicited sexually explicit message. Also, let them know that anything they tell you won’t get them in trouble, and that you’re facilitating the conversation simply to help them stay healthy, happy, and safe.
Next, fully explain to your children the dangers and risks for communicating with others in a sexually explicit was. Emphasize that many states have laws against this type of communication involving minors. Also, drive home the point that anything shared online cannot be recalled, leaving the potential for it to be spread with others and attracting unwanted attention.
You should also have conversations surrounding the topic of cyberbullying with your kids. As we mentioned above, many children don’t independently go to their parents when it’s happening. That means it’ll take some prompting from you, and throughout these conversations, you will want to speak to your child as if they’re an adult, placing both of you on an even playing field to make them feel more comfortable.
You also want to assure them that your conversation is confidential and that you respect their privacy. Building trust is key to a positive parent-child relationship, especially when it comes to the heavy stuff. Finally, display empathy! You want your child to always feel supported, loved, and understood. Let them know that you’ll work through things together, as feelings of isolation and confusion are the worst things for your child to feel through any ordeal or issue.
Use the Right Resources
Luckily, there are valuable resources available to help you tackle these tough yet paramount issues with your kids. Do your research online, learn best practices, glean advice from doctors or school counselors, and take advantage of sites like Family Safety Resource. The experts behind this site understand the importance of a balance between our kids reaping the benefits of technology and keeping them safe, and they help families reach that sweet spot.
Their Child Safe Kit is another fantastic resource that provides several guides for parents that point out the ways technology intersects with kid’s daily lives at all ages and stages of development. It’s an all-encompassing resource that helps families keep their children safe mentally, emotionally, and physically; don’t miss it!
At the end of the day, being open and honest with your children about online safety can help you to work together to ensure their safety and happiness. Being a good parent is a tough job, but a rewarding one at that. As you try your best to teach them about being technologically smart individuals, you will help them grow into wise and safe adults.
Dynamic self & relationship expert Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW loves to make a difference for women. She owns Wasatch Family Therapy and regularly contributes to KSL TV's Studio 5, and her advice has been featured nationally including Wall Street Journal, Parenting, Fox News, and others. Connect on Facebook & Twitter. Her book The Burnout Cure and The Assertiveness Guide for Women are available now.