It is essential to be aware of the common threats children face online in order to keep them safe. Common forms of internet safety include: monitoring apps, limiting usage, and discussions relating to strangers. While necessary, those efforts fail to include what studies show work best to protect children; teaching children at a young age about:
- Healthy, age-appropriate relationships
- Helping them practice refusal skills, impulse management, and emotion control
- Encouraging them to help their friends make safe and kind choices
You can learn more about that on our Protecting Your Child page.
Four Basics of Internet Safety
The idea of privacy is understood differently by children who have grown up with access to the internet. They are encouraged to share personal information, and to expressing themselves. This can be fun and helpful in fostering friendships, sparking their own creativity and sense of self. However, not all information is appropriate to be shared, and can leave them vulnerable. Before allowing children access to the internet, discuss what information should not be shared online:
- Addresses (home or school)
- Locations (includes status updates or geo-tagging)
- School Name
- Phone number(s)
It is important that your children are aware of why they should not be sharing this information. Posting this information leaves them open to risk of having their identities stolen, becoming a victim of an online scam or having their online accounts hacked. Encourage them not to click on pop-ups or enter to win prizes without coming to you for approval. It is also important to discuss privacy settings on any social media or gaming sites. Encourage your child to adjust the settings so that only people they have selected can see what they post or privately message them.
Online, children are exposed to, and/or contribute to content that is inappropriate and harmful to their well-being. This can include excessive violence, hate speech, risky or illegal behaviors, and sexually explicit material.
To protect children from unnecessary exposure to inappropriate content, learn more about the capabilities of the devices that you are giving your children. For example, a gaming console could have Wi-Fi and allows chatting with people from all over the world while playing a game.
It is essential to utilize filtering software, parental controls, and any other built-in safety features available on devices your children use. Contact your internet service provider to see what options they offer. You can visit PC Mag Review for a list of recommended software to limit your child’s exposure to content that does not benefit them.
Preparing a Response
At the end of the day, filters and controls can fail, and children can face a screen filled with content you never wanted them to see. It is important to be prepared before that happens. Have discussions with your child about some of the content they may see – nudity, vulgar language, bullying, and talk about how they can respond. Let them know they can hit the back button, turn off the screen, or go get an adult. As they are more independent, they should know how to report inappropriate content within the platform they are using or to the professionals at the Cybertipline.
Unfortunately, children are not just exposed to inappropriate content but are often contributing it. It’s essential to be clear when communicating expectations for your child’s behavior. Most caregivers have a habit of discussing expectations when their child goes to school or a friend’s house – those same conversations need to be applied to their online world: where they can go, for how long, and how they should behave.
Most frequently, teens are solicited by peers on social media networks they already utilize. There are two primary problems we see in this area: sexting and sextortion.
Sexting is sending or receiving sexually explicit messages and nude or partially nude images via mobile devices. This can be done through texts or any other messaging or social media apps. Most of the time teens don’t refer to this activity as sexting, but simply sending “pics” or sending “nudes”. In the State of Texas, teens who send or receive visual material of a minor engaging in sexual conduct are committing a misdemeanor.
Research shows about 12 percent of teens have sent, and 19 percent have received a sexually explicit image. Teens may find it difficult to say no if somebody asks them to send an explicit image, especially if that person is persistent. There is often fear of being on the receiving end of negative stereotypes. Teens admit they sext to flirt, joke around, boost their self-esteem, or because others are doing it.
Risks of sending an explicit image are damage to their reputation or getting them in trouble with the law.
Sexting can be addressed while discussing the basics of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships with your child. Children need to know they have the right to define their own personal boundaries and it’s not okay for someone to make them feel uncomfortable or to pressure them into doing things that they don’t want to do. Healthy boundaries and firm refusal techniques are lifelong skills that should be modeled and discussed on an ongoing basis.
Sextortion involves threats to expose a sexual image. Perpetrators are often current, former, or would-be romantic or sexual partners attempting to harass, embarrass, or control victims. Embarrassment, shame, and self-blame keep many victims silent and resistant to seeking help.
Sextortion primarily takes place on social media and messaging apps but spans technology with communication frequently hopping from one platform to another. There are several resources available to people experiencing sextortion:
To report cases that involve child sexual exploitation (age 17 and younger):
Cyberbullying is defined as bullying that takes place over digital devices such as cell phones, computers, and tablets. This includes but is not limited to:
- Posting hateful, hurtful, or embarrassing comments, pictures, or videos
- Spreading rumors
- Creating a mean or hurtful webpage or social media profile
- Pretending to be someone else in order to post personal or false information about someone
- Encouraging self-harm
When it comes to cyberbullying, there are three main players: the child doing the bullying, the child experiencing the bullying, and the child standing by watching it happen. The issue of cyberbullying should be addressed with the understanding that your child may be any one of the three.
Children more likely to bully others:
- Those who are well connected
- Have social power
- Overly concerned with their popularity
- Like to be in charge of others
- Children who are isolated
- Struggle with low self-esteem
- Lack involvement and social-emotional awareness
- Are easily frustrated and act out with aggression
- View violence in a positive way
- Have less parental involvement or turbulent home life
- Think badly of others
- Have difficulty with authority and rule following
- Have friends that bully others
Children that are more likely to be bullied:
- Are perceived as different from their peers (i.e. over or under-weight, out-of-style clothes, new to school, LGBTQ, disabled, etc.)
- Have few friends or are considered unpopular
- Do not get along well with others, possibly provoking or antagonizing others for attention
- Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
- Are depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem, or recently shifted to these moods.
If your child is being bullied, they might be scared to ask for help because they think it’ll make the bullying worse. If your child is the bystander to bullying (seeing bullying happen and not doing anything about it). It’s good to have discussions with your child about what their role is in these situations even if they aren’t the provoker or recipient of the bullying. Replay these scenarios with your child:
- How could they stand up for the child being bullied?
- Who could they tell about the situation?
- If they were in the victim’s shoes, what would they want someone to do for them?
Cyberbullying is most frequently addressed at home and in school. Every scenario can play out differently. It is important to discuss expectations of behavior with your child and consequences for failing to meet them. It is equally important to offer yourself as an ongoing resource that will be there to help them navigate these situations.
The CyberTipline provides the ability to report online (and via toll-free telephone) instances of online enticement of children for sexual acts, child sexual molestation, child pornography, child sex tourism, child sex trafficking, unsolicited obscene materials sent to a child, misleading domain names, and misleading words or digital images on the Internet.