When talking with parents about online safety, it seems as if everyone wants to know what button to push or what software to buy to ensure their child never sees porn, never talks to strangers online, and never posts provocative pictures. So let me say this from the get-go: there is nothing you or any other parent can do to guarantee your child will never do anything potentially dangerous online. There are, however, steps parents can take to drastically reduce the probability that a child will develop problematic internet behaviors.
In general, your goal should be to first focus on becoming a reduced-tech family. Putting more emphasis on the real world and less emphasis on the digital realm can help kids and teens put their value and energy into their real lives. It will lead to healthy use of the web—as a tool to connect with others and to learn about the world on an as-needed basis—instead of constantly trolling the cyber-sphere searching for the next thrill.
Here are ten steps to help you and your family establish rules and practices for online safety.
Many parents I speak with don’t know how to work apps, navigate a laptop, or turn on the Xbox. Many applications that parents may be concerned with contain parental control features. Search YouTube for videos on how to use these features. For example, search for “Xbox parental controls” if your child has an Xbox.
Spend some time getting comfortable with the technology your child is using. You can check out this App Guide for Parents to fill you in on all the latest apps and how they work.
Lastly, learn all about teens’ use of social media sites and other online behaviors. Hint: Facebook is old news.
Check the privacy and parental settings on all of your child’s devices—desktop computers, laptops, phones, tablets, game consoles—and use them. Super savvy teens can bypass these if they work hard enough, but younger kids can’t. And even older kids may be deterred or at least slowed down by them.
Parents will tell me that they talked to their child about the internet, so they don’t need to install monitoring software. Wrong! No matter how much you trust your child, it is essential to install software that can monitor computers and phones (examples include Bark and Qustodio).
Of course, there are ways for your child to get around these, so you need to continually check the devices and re-install the software as needed. Remember to be honest about your monitoring. Secretly recording a kid’s internet usage will likely do more harm to the relationship than good for the child.
It’s important for your kids to know that everything online is permanent. Everyone can see their likes and favorites as well as their comments on other photos, not to mention their own photos and videos.
This permanency makes it important to consider your online reputation. Teens can start building a positive reputation online using LinkedIn and keeping all other social media profiles completely private. Most people keep their Twitter and Instagram profiles public, and college admission committees will search for applicants online and see those profiles. Encourage teens not to post sexy or wild photos of themselves, or at least not as a profile pic.
Try to limit tech and screen time by providing windows of time for when it is allowed and when it is not. You can also try a tech curfew, such as no internet after 7 or 8 p.m. Some families have instituted rules banning tablet or phone usage from 5-7 p.m., after which they allow a 30-minute window for responding to emails, messages, and texts, before having all devices turned off again at 7:30.
There is also parental control software that can help enforce tech curfews. These programs can track time spent on Netflix, Facebook, and games.
If your child uses certain applications for schoolwork, such as Microsoft Word or Excel, you can track those as well, allowing you to monitor time spent on the computer doing recreational activities versus homework activities.
Also, be aware that your teens may be staying up all night on electronics while their parents think they’re asleep. If this is the case in your home, you might have to disable your wifi at night, or you may need to confiscate your child’s phone at bedtime.
It’s easy to sneak a peek at porn when at a friend’s house or even in your living room. But, it is hard to watch hours of porn every day or to chat with a pedophile online if the only available devices are in the living room or den.
So it’s a good idea to forbid laptops, tablets, or phones in bedrooms or bathrooms. They are not private devices, so they do not belong in private rooms. Try to have a “home” for all your devices, such as a basket or cabinet (and consider locking them away if need be). This sends the message that these devices don’t belong to your child—they belong to you, the parent, and you are allowing your child to use the device as long as it’s used responsibly.
One way to get your children to think about their online behavior is to have them sign a technology behavior contract agreeing to the digital-behavior rules you set and outlining consequences if the agreement is broken.
Teach your child that digital behavior should be thought of as public behavior. If you wouldn’t do something in public, “in real life,” you probably shouldn’t be doing it online. Surprisingly, I’ve found that little kids understand this better than big kids, who are more likely to rationalize their bad behavior.
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Your goal as a parent is to build autonomy within your child in almost every area: finances, emotions, social bonds, chores, and so much more. You want your child to be able to take care of himself or herself.
The same is true for his or her cyber-self. Trying to block or monitor everything or eliminate technology completely isn’t going to help your children regulate their digital behavior once they leave your home.
That said, kids under 14 don’t have the ability (developmentally) to regulate themselves, so blocking and monitoring as much as possible is essential. As they get older, you can expand their cyber freedom as they earn your trust.
This step is perhaps the most important one because it sends the message that your monitoring efforts aren’t about stifling your child’s privacy—they’re about protecting your kids. Respecting their privacy can include providing physical privacy (e.g., always knocking before entering their bedroom); giving them access to sexual health websites (you may have to manually allow these if you are filtering their web use); providing them with books about bodies and sexuality for them to read on their own; and allowing them to have private conversations with their friends on the phone and/or private time in-person. You also want to make clear that you are available for questions as well.
Now that you’ve carved out some time where everyone won’t be glued to their devices, fill in that time with fun activities. Model the behavior you want to see in your kids and the healthy attitude they should have toward technology and the internet.
Make your fun time together as creative and stress-free as possible to help ensure that they don’t shrug off the wonders of the real world and face-to-face relationships in favor of what they are missing online.
Megan Maas is a certified sexuality educator and doctoral candidate in Human Development & Family Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on adolescent sexual development online. Learn more at meganmaas.com