These days, it’s not so much about if kids are going to use the internet, but when and how. It was only a few years ago, in 2013, that 57 percent of kids from ages 3 to 17 were using the internet at home. Fast-forward just a few years later, and the online influence is taking over: Today, 1 in 5 kids from ages 8 to 11 and 7 in 10 children from ages 12 to 15 have a social media profile. And it almost goes without saying that just about every teenager goes online daily.
This digital saturation isn’t necessarily a bad thing — internet-connected kids are learning a skill, which some call a “cultural language,” that they’re going to use for career and communication for the rest of their lives. Technology is also something kids are guaranteed to encounter in the classroom, though in-school computer use has not been proven to improve test score. Since technology isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it’s our job as parents to help guide our kids through the often treacherous waters of the World Wide Web. Having an open and frank discussion about potential dangers is essential for the safety of your child.
1. Personal information must remain private at all times — no exceptions
Information like your child’s real name, age, address, phone number, school name and location should never be shared. Taking it a step further, Jarrett Arthur — co-founder of Jarrett & Jennie Self-Defense, as featured on Ellen, Forbes and The New York Times — cautions, “Before becoming online friends with someone you don’t know in person, take the time to research them. Always look for mutual friends you may share, and consider running their profile picture through a reverse image search in Google to see if they’re falsifying information or photos.”
Arthur also urges teens to not share their whereabouts publicly, like avoiding using check-ins and location times on posts and even turning off location settings on apps or setting them to function only when the app is in use, for example. The real issue here is for teens to avoid posting info that could be easily used to locate them. Another biggie? Not sharing class schedules.
2. Think twice about posting and texting pictures
It’s a given that children, and especially teens, are going to post pictures to social media, with the popularity of photo-sharing sites like Snapchat and Instagram booming. But along with this surge in insta-images comes the rise of the sexting scandal, where nude pictures of teenagers have been circulated among friends at school and have even gone viral in some cases.
“There are rules and regulations of being online, just as there are in the real world. ‘Stranger danger,’ etiquette, manners and decency all apply in the digital world too. And most importantly, whatever they put online, stays online,” Jeana Lee Tahnk, Top Tech Mom and family tech expert, explains.
3. Practice basic security precautions — plus a few extras
Every kid should understand the standard internet rules for passwords and screen names, aka internet 101. Using a different moniker will allow your children to maintain anonymity and protect them from having an online acquaintance track them down in real life. Website and email passwords should not be shared with anyone except parents. This can prevent hacking or other problems.
To increase security even further, Bill Horne, moderator of The Telecom Digest, advises, “Turn on encryption on your Wi-Fi. Wireless connections to the internet are too convenient, so they should be only for adults to use. Make sure the password is not easy to guess, and disable any ‘Automagic’ access buttons on your Wi-Fi access point that would allow children to connect new devices without knowing the password.” Horne also nixes using an “all-in-one” cable modem with a Wi-Fi access point that has the Wi-Fi password printed on it.
As kids grow older and reach college age, a respect for internet security still needs to be practiced and encouraged, Ed Han, co-founder of safelink.io, says. “An often overlooked and misunderstood risk that college students take … is to automatically think that digital communication is safe because the recipient is a known person. And it turns out, the other party often assumes the same despite more experience.” Parents and kids sending sensitive docs — like a tax return that may contain a Social Security number — back and forth is a big no-no.
4. Never accept a face-to-face meeting with someone you met online
Let your children know that they are never to meet with someone in person that they met on the internet. This is one of the most dangerous things a child can do. “Online safety is a new concern for parents who did not grow up with internet or social media,” Cara Maksimow, therapist and coach at Maximize Wellness Counseling & Coaching, says. But when it comes to good, old-fashioned “stranger danger,” opening up the lines of communication with kids may be enough. Maksimow advises talking with kids about who they are meeting online, and reinforcing that it’s not safe to physically meet strangers they talked with through the internet.”
5. People online lie
Not everyone online is who they say they are. People on the internet can pretend to be something or someone they are not to lure unsuspecting victims. Besides posing a safety concern, the smoke and mirrors of the internet can also have an emotional impact, Maksimow says. “Another factor of online safety that parents want to be aware of is social comparisons that can affect self-confidence and self-image. So many kids communicate through texting or social media platforms that they think they are ‘connecting’ with others when they are [in fact] more and more isolated. Not only do they have difficulty with face-to-face conversations due to a lack of experience, but they also use these platforms to gauge social norms and make comparisons.”
Kids who spend a lot of time on social media fall into that all-too-easy trap of comparing themselves to friends and even the celebrities they follow. As you might guess, this contributes to unhealthy and unrealistic assumptions of what kids should think and do IRL. “Poor self-image can be a result, making teens vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Keep an eye on social media, and talk with your kids about what they are seeing, following and doing online,” Maksimow says.
Next up: Report questionable activity