Yes, you can keep your kids safer online. Here are 5 easy ways.

Today’s kids are among the first people in history to grow up with near constant access to the internet. From “Hey Siri, tell me a joke” to Spotify family accounts, TikTok to the web-based learning tools they login to every day in class, Gen Z and their Gen Alpha little siblings are learning to navigate the net at the same time they’re learning to walk, talk, read, and ride their bikes.

According to a 2020 PEW Research survey on screen time and digital devices:

  • nearly one-in-five parents say their child under 12 has their own smartphone;
  • 80% of parents report that their kids under 11 regularly watch videos on YouTube;
  • 73% of parents confirm that their children ages 9–11 have everyday access to a laptop or desktop computer.

Maybe it’s not too surprising that two-thirds of those same parents also say it’s harder to parent today than it has ever been before.

Because alongside the benefits of online connection—social bonding, remote learning, equity, convenience, and skill building, just to name a few—comes an overwhelming list of new vulnerabilities and risks. Recent years have seen a record-breaking number of online enticement incidents. With lockdowns and closures driving our lives online more than ever, NCMEC’s CyberTipline collected over 21.7 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation in 2020 alone.

The danger is real, and it’s obviously important for parents and caregivers to take an active role in our kids’ internet safety. But for a lot of us, keeping up with the ever-changing lineup of apps, games, and social media sites that populate our kids’ online lives can be daunting. Without the ability to supervise our kids 24/7, it’s hard to know where to begin to keep them safe.

In honor of Safer Internet Day, we spoke with Executive Director Elida Murray of the Adams County Children’s Advocacy Center in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In addition to leading the CAC—which provides specialized forensic interviews, medical exams, and support services for children who have experienced abuse—Elida is an internet safety educator. To help us conquer “overwhelm” in this area, Elida has offered to share five simple steps parents and caregivers can take to help their kids cultivate safe internet habits.

1. Treat the online world just like the real world

The games and social spaces your kids hang out in online might seem like the great unknown, especially to less tech-savvy parents. Elida suggests that a simple mindset shift might be an important first step to cultivating internet safety. “It might seem simple, but one of the key things we teach caregivers is to establish a mindset that allows them to view their child’s online interaction the same way they view in-person interaction. We would never dream of letting our kids go out into the world unsupervised. We’d ask where they were going, when they’d be home, who they’d be with, what they’d be doing. And we should treat letting them go online exactly the same way.

2. Login, follow, and play along

Now that you’ve taken a tour of the neighborhood, it’s time to get to know the neighbors! Many parents believe that setting parental controls is enough to keep online dangers at bay. But think of built-in and independent monitoring apps like a single police officer patrolling your child’s internet neighborhood. While extremely helpful, it’s impossible for them to catch every instance of subtle grooming, bullying, and peer-to-peer pressure that might take place.

Take the time to go where your child goes online. Create your own accounts, check out the games they play, follow them (and their friends!) on social media.

When you understand the rules, rhythms, and limits of an online community, you’ll be more equipped to help your child make good decisions for themselves, instead of hoping the parental controls will do the work for them.

3. Teach beginning internet users what’s not okay to share

Practice remembering the difference between Personal Identifiable Information (PII) and information that’s okay to share online. To help little ones learn the difference by explaining that PII is information that belongs just to them—their full name, address, phone number, school name, and school address. While it might be okay to share your favorite animal online (lots of people love whales!), it’s never okay to share the information that belongs just to you.

Practice questions that might be asked by a peer in an online game: What’s your favorite color?—okay to answer! Where do you live?—nope, that’s PII! It’s also a good idea to help kids practice ways to say no when they are asked for information they shouldn’t share, and remind them that any time anyone asks them something that doesn’t feel right, they should tell you or another trusted adult right away.

While it’s important to teach your youngest internet users about PII, don’t forget to remind tweens and teens of these boundaries, too, especially when it comes to sharing photos or videos.

4. Create a family internet safety agreement

“Instead of just saying ‘No, you aren’t allowed’ or punishing kids for unsafe behavior, I recommend being proactive by creating an Internet Safety Contract with your child, ideally when they first start using their devices.” Elida stresses that the terms of your contract should be specific, and to set aside time to go over them in detail with your child and answer any questions they might have. You might want to develop your own contract together as a family—here’s a guide to help.

Whether you use a template or create your own, print a hard copy of the agreement, have everyone sign, and keep it somewhere within view. Seeing your contract every day will help keep boundaries clear.

“Most interactions kids have online are positive,” Elida reminds parents. “The majority of kids say social media strengthens their relationships, and playing online games can refine cognitive, emotional, and social skills.” An Internet Safety Contract that everyone in the family understands and adheres to can help protect those positive experiences while minimizing negative ones.

5. Talk to your kids (and by talk, we mean listen)

When Elida and her husband, a local police officer, give internet safety presentations, they talk a lot about talking. “But when I say talking,” she clarifies, “I really mean listening. Just like in the real world, kids who don’t get the care and attention they need at home are ideal candidates for online predators. And it’s important to remember that what happens online, from the pressure to perform TikTok challenges to avatar-to-avatar bullying, is very real to kids. The emotions, the fears—it’s all a very real part of their world.”

It may be, then, that the best way to teach your children safe internet practices is to listen to their lived experience online. Remind kids that they can always come to you if they encounter anything inappropriate, unsafe, or scary online, and that they will never be punished for telling you the truth, or blamed for accidentally stumbling on content they shouldn’t see. Make sure they know they have an open line of communication with an adult they can trust. Because the bottom line is simple: Kids who feel heard are safer kids.

Curiosity is a powerful tool for parents and caregivers. It’s your choice to get curious and stay curious about your child’s online world—from following them on social media to letting them teach you how to play. And your choice might be the key to keeping them out of an unsafe situation. You don’t need to amass a TikTok following or become a serious gamer to start asking meaningful questions about where your child is going online, what they’re doing there, and why they love it.

And those questions can make all the difference.

Want to keep learning about internet safety? Here are a few additional resources we love:

  • Register now for a free, virtual workshop with Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center on Wednesday, March 9th from 6-8pm. This session will focus on how to keep kids and teens safe from online exploitation. Topics will include: social media use, cyber safety, healthy relationships, stigmas and generational norms.
  • NetSmartz has a wonderful collection of resources, including two seasons of an animated internet safety series for kids 10 and under, peer-to-peer support guides, and presentations to help spark conversations for all ages.
  • While parental controls can’t do the whole job, a good one is certainly helpful. If you’re shopping around, Bark offers multiple tools to keep tabs on your child’s messaging, social media, search history, and more. The service costs $5/month for basic or $14.99 for premium, and does include a free trial.

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