June is Internet Safety Month but in all honesty, online safety is a topic that needs to be discussed throughout the year. Starting the conversation when kids are young ensures that you will be able to openly communicate when the topics get harder as your child becomes older. The challenges are also changing. While statistics show that parents are monitoring what their kids are doing online, mobile devices present a new set of challenges. Smartphones, game consoles and tablets allow easy access to the internet on devices that are trickier to monitor since their size makes it easy for them to be used more covertly in bedrooms or in corners of the house.
But what should you talk about and when? Cox Communication’s Take Charge! initiative urges parents to talk to kids regularly about what they do online. Their research shows that kids whose parents talk to them about internet safety are less likely to engage in risky behavior while online but it’s important to keep the discussion age appropriate.
Using my knowledge about kids and technology and being inspired by the Take Charge! resources, I put together a handy guide about some topics you should discuss at different ages:
- There are a wealth of learning opportunities available for young children including educational website and interactive apps. If your toddler is using a computer, tablet, or smartphone to access content, be sure that you have screened the content first. Cox also recommends that devices are used in an easy-to-supervise location.
- If you feel like your battling with your toddler about screen time, take a look at how you’re using your devices in your home. Chances are your child has noticed how often you’re on your smartphone, laptop, or tablet and is emulating you. Provide concrete examples and model the behavior that you expect so they will become responsible digital citizens when they get older.
- Food for thought for parents: Your child is growing at a rapid rate and while friends and relatives love keeping up with their growth via photos, Common Sense Media has a great article called Is It Safe to Post Photos of Your Kids about how GPS data from your smartphone raises safety and privacy issues.
- Talk about screen time limits and the importance of a healthy media diet. Since preschoolers often need concrete examples, discuss how balancing screen time, time playing outside, and time spent reading is just as important as making sure you eat a balanced diet. Also discuss that screens include television, computer, tablets, gaming systems, and smartphones and figure out how much cumulative screen time is right for your child and family.
- Children of this age can also be tempted by tricky in-app purchases. Screen apps that your child wants to play, show them where they may be tempted to tap for in-app purchases, and discuss why they should always check with you before tapping before handing them your smartphone to play a new game.
- Food for thought for parents: Model digital wellness. My Making a Digital Break article on Safely.com explores why we might want to start unplugging to start to regain a balance to forge precious connections with our loved ones.
- Kindergarten through second graders now go online for homework purposes but this doesn’t always mean that you should automatically trust the things that the school recommends. Sit down with your child and explore a site that was suggested by a teacher so you can be involved in their learning and get a sense of how these sites are being used to reinforce classroom learning at home. Also keep an eye out for chat features on private educational sites that allow kids in the class to talk online. If chat features are present, take some time to talk about how it’s important to be nice online as well as in person.
- Establish trust. According to Cox Take Charge!, “Your kids need to know they won’t get in trouble if they tell you or another trusted adult if anything suspicious, mean, or scary happens.”
- Food for thought about parents: The kid world is full of instances when peers are mean to each other. While kindergartners may not be ready to hear about cyberbullying quite yet, you can lay the groundwork for the future by talking about the importance of being nice to others and being a good friend since these are important concepts to build upon for that later conversation.
- According to this PSA available on the Take Charge! site, 1/3 of tweens admit to being dishonest with parents about their online behavior. Make sure those lines of communication are open so you can talk about the fun stuff as well as the more difficult topics that begin to come up at this age both about digital behavior and in real life concerns.
- Set limits on the amount of time kids spend online suing mobile devices and where they can use them. I’d recommend having a conversation with your tween about what is agreeable instead of throwing down the gauntlet. Coming to an agreement together and demonstrating that you’re willing to compromise may be humbling but continues to build trust with your child.
- Survey results from Cox and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children demonstrated that 42% of tweens have received messages from people they’ve never met. Now is the time to begin the conversation about not talking to strangers online, especially through gaming platforms. Teach them to recognize signs of grooming and reinforce that they won’t be in trouble if they come to you if anything suspicious, mean or scary happens.
- Food for thought for parents: Chances are if your tween doesn’t already have a cell phone, they will want one soon. It’s important to be ready to have a conversation about the risks, rewards, and privileges of having such a device. Parents’ Guide to Smart Phone Safety is helpful since it outlines risks and provides 5 ways to be smarter than the smartphone. Start exploring mobile phone contracts between parents and kids to find the right one for your family. I’d recommend Safely’s Mobile Phone Contract for Parents and Kids or the customizable device contracts from Common Sense Media.
- You’ve worked to lay the groundwork of trust and open lines of communication and while it’s hard to relinquish control, it’s important to trust your teen to a certain degree but to still have conversations about their online reputation, the content being shared online and through their smartphones, and the dangers of texting and driving.
- Discuss the importance of taking charge of your online reputation. Teens can be impulsive but it’s important for them to try to think about how what they post today can affect them long into the future. Cox’s Tips to Take Charge! of Your Online Reputation is a handy guide with 6 tips for parents including explaining that nothing is ever private and what they say online can come back to haunt them in more ways than they may know. Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, also recommends having kids Google themselves to see what comes up.
- Continue the conversations. Just because your teen may know more than you doesn’t mean that you should stop talking to them. Cox urges parents to “open the lines of communication about online material with children by discussing what content they are allowed to access and making sure they are comfortable coming to a parent or trusted adult to talk about inappropriate content sent to them online.”
- Food for thought for parents: If you’re intimidated by the fact that your child knows more than you, ask them to teach you. It’s a humbling experience that is incredibly empowering for your kids. Chances are they’ll give you a fabulous tutorial and you will have given them an ego boost that will do wonders for your relationship.