Teaching Your Children to Stay Safe and Responsible Online

The awkward truth is that if you have children, the chances are good that they’re more technologically savvy than you. Clueless parents fumbling with tools and concepts they don’t understand makes for good comedy, but in real life, not understanding all the risks your children are exposed online to is not an option.

These days, children are exposed to the Internet from the moment they're old enough to even think about it, and where you might have waited until college to get a cellphone, your children may be spending hours each day glued to social media sites on their smartphones and tablets.

First, understand what you’re dealing with

To put it bluntly, many parents just have no idea. They don’t understand the games their children play, how Reddit works or what half the apps on their kids’ phones do. This can lead to an attitude of resignation or one where parents assume the worst of the online world and deny access completely.

Start with knowing exactly which sites your child visits, when and how often. Become curious about how they use their phones and which social networking sites they frequent. And if you’re dealing with teenagers, assume they have already been exposed to pornography.

Realize that you cannot shield your child from everything

Online bullying is real. Threatening behavior and stalking on platforms like Twitter is real. Disturbing content is easily available. Predators exist. When it comes to online safety, your instinct may be to cut out all sources of this danger from your child’s life completely, but this is a losing battle that ends in endless resentment and awkward kids growing up into underdeveloped adults.

Instead, equip your child with life skills they can use to navigate a complex and increasingly connected world.

Ask your children to reflect critically on everything they encounter online. Learning to behave effectively and maturely online is a skill your child will need to develop like any other. Try modeling responsible online behavior yourself.

Teaching Children to Stay Safe Online
Stay engaged with your kids to better understand how they're using the Internet.

But you are still their parent!

Teenage brains are still developing. Your child may still be working out how to control their own impulses, how to maintain a healthy self-identity and how to manage their time. It's your job to help them do this. Well before your child starts using the Internet for anything, make sure they understand the practical facts:

  • Teach them that what is created and shared on the Internet doesn’t ever really go away
  • Teach them that they are responsible for their behavior, even if they’re anonymous – would they say what they’re saying online to their grandma?
  • Get your kids in the habit of never, ever sharing real personal information online – this is worryingly easy to do on something like Facebook or Tumblr. Have a chat about smart privacy settings. Remember, if your child is under 13, they actually may not be legally allowed to sign up anyway.
  • It’s uncomfortable, but discuss the dangers of “sexting” or sending explicit images to others. This is one lesson you don’t want your child to learn the hard way.
  • Screen the computer games your children play – the age restrictions are there for a reason.
  • Monitor your child. Put realistic boundaries on time spent online or gaming – one smart mother gives the WiFi password of the day to her children as a reward for completing all their chores.
  • Raise a happy child with a robust sense of self-esteem. Isolated and unhappy children are easier to prey on and more likely to get addicted to online games or toxic online communities.
  • If your child is old enough, make sure you’re teaching them about viruses, illegal file sharing, what information to trust online and even how to shop safely online.
  • Offer different perspectives. It’s another uncomfortable conversation, but let your kids know that online porn is not “real.” Kids are curious – they will seek out information no matter what you do, so you may as well make sure they have access to quality information as well. Consider truly educational books or alternative sites to answer questions they may have about sex.