How I made the internet safer for my child (without becoming the “mean mom”)

My 9-year-old is about as extroverted as they come.

Since she’s been old enough to wave, every stranger is just a friend we haven’t met yet. She’d babble to grumpy-looking teen boys on the train, wooing them with chubby toddler fingers until she’d turned a sulking tough guy into a new playmate. On playgrounds, she would assemble a posse in minutes, returning for snacks after half-an-hour to report that she was now “besties forever” with six or seven kids and assign me the task of securing each of their parents’ contact info before we could go home for naptime. It’s nearly impossible to extract her from a birthday party, and if I’m not careful, a playdate with cousins can go on for a solid week before she’s even close to ready to come home.

My child loves people, and I love that about her. And it’s left me with a bit of a conundrum: how do I keep my kid safe and stranger-savvy without robbing her of her wide-eyed, open-armed love for others?

I’ve had to get creative as a parent. I’ve had to be extra careful to teach good and bad behaviors vs good and bad people, setting clear limits for where it is and isn’t okay to go without my knowing, and making sure to cultivate the language and open communication necessary for her to tell me if anyone ever tries to violate her boundaries in person. We’ve practiced ways to say no (she hates to let anyone down) and come up with our own codewords and secret signals to use when she needs my help.

It took a lot of talks, a lot of listening, and a lot of practice, but by the time she started elementary school, we had a plan I felt pretty good about. We had a routine. And our routine worked well for us.

And then, well…we innocently rang in the 2020 New Year. A few months later, all of those playdates and social spaces moved from the real world onto what was mostly unfamiliar territory for us: the internet.

Suddenly, instead of watching my child on the playground or sending her off to school, I was sitting next to her while she played Roblox and chatted with who-knows-who from who-knows-where.

Instead of hanging out in the living room while she watched a pre-approved movie with a buddy, I was at my desk working from home while her hangout time became Facetiming friends to watch YouTube together.

To keep her social circles from collapsing and keep up with classwork, we had to figure out a way for her to access text and video chat. Suddenly, almost overnight, she had an email address, a Messenger app, and a Zoom account. We were navigating a pandemic AND a whole new world of almost exclusively online communication. To call it overwhelming would be putting it mildly. We were underwater.

“To call it overwhelming would be putting it mildly. We were underwater.”

Just like my less-than-stellar swimmer self would do in the ocean, I defaulted to what I knew—the basics. I dog-paddled by setting parental controls everywhere I could and signing up for regular updates on her activities from our software provider. I treaded water with frequent quick talks about not sharing last names, addresses, phone numbers, or school info with people online. But when I got a notification that she was making online purchases at 1am from the friend’s house where she was having a sleepover, I knew that the basics weren’t going to be enough to keep us afloat. This online world was WAY too complex for my sweet 9-year-old to navigate on her own. She needed a guide. A parent.

She needed me.

Which is how, at 38-years-old, I became the proud owner of my very own Roblox account. I started to make a point of joining my kid in the game every time she played, just for a little while, to check in.

I nominated myself the official mom of Adopt Me (their preferred game at the time), watched the chats, learned the acronyms, even earned myself a good collection of colorful virtual pets. We set time and location boundaries for YouTube—whose parental controls notoriously fail to filter out violence, bullying, and other content I’d rather she not consume.

Maybe most importantly, I started really listening.

I let her tell me everything about her online world (information my chatty extrovert was overjoyed to share) and instead of half-paying attention, I listened to learn. I looked up the words I didn’t know. I made it my business to figure out what an ultra-neon-flying-evil-unicorn was (spoiler alert: it’s a super rare, advanced level, valuable Adopt Me pet). I played Among Us and incorporated the word “sus” into my vocabulary.

Instead of brushing off the internet as passive play time, I made a choice to treat the online world like I would anything else my child was passionate about: with my genuine, authentic interest.

We also started having conversations about what should happen when she inevitably DOES encounter something, or someone, inappropriate online. Can she tell me, or will she get in trouble or not be able to watch her favorite videos anymore? Should she close the browser/app window right away, or leave it open so I can see and explain what she saw?

What if she accidentally forgets our rules and shares personal information or photos in a chat? These are big questions, and honestly, I had no idea what the best answers were.

“What if she accidentally forgets our rules and shares personal information or photos in a chat?”

I’m grateful that we found out about the Family Internet Safety Plan. Having clear expectations set for BOTH of us, not just my child, helped our conversation about how to extrovert on the internet become more open and collaborative. It made our talks feel less like an interrogation of her online habits and more like we were crafting the rules of engagement for a game we wanted to win—together.

As we step into this next decade, which will include her preteen years, puberty, teendom, and eventual graduation into adulthood, we’re doing so with a new understanding of the way we do life online, with the help of a simple PDF that helped us navigate some complicated territory.

My 9-year-old is as extroverted as they come, and that’s something I hope will never change. I love the way she loves people, the way she looks for the new friend in every stranger, the way she sees the world as a place full of what’s possible, hopeful, and good. My hope is the tools I’ve been able to give her for navigating the internet in a safer, more aware, and more intentional way will help shield her from the very real and present dangers online and, by doing so, protect the innocent joy of the connections she finds there.

Because right now, that’s what the internet is for my kid—a great big playground full of people she wants to spend time with. 

And instead of hovering nervously on the sidelines hoping for the best, I’m playing alongside her with a new plan I feel pretty good about. After a rough couple years, we’ll take all the joy and connection we can get.

The risks are still real, the internet is still big, and I’m still not completely sure how to TikTok. As the world starts to open up again, we’re just beginning to rebalance our screentime vs. real in-person time. She wants to start a YouTube channel, and I have mixed feelings about how easily the words “like and subscribe” trip off her tongue. There are a thousand more conversations to have in our web-navigating future. Our Family Internet Safety Plan isn’t perfect. It’s a work in progress.

But it’s a perfect place to start.

Karyn Gilmore (she/her/mx) is a writer, musician, and lover-of-hard-questions. She lives with her partner, child, and too many cats in San Diego, CA.

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