6 Ways to Keep Your Kid Safe Online – And None of Them are “Take Away all Media.”
Guiding kids through the media world is a brand new challenge for parents. We can’t look to our own parents for advice. Everything we know about kids and technology is coming from real time, on the ground experience. And it’s a little terrifying.
There is so much information out there on internet safety, and the rules are always changing. But after digging into this topic I’ve noticed the one thing experts agree on:
Kids need parents to oversee their technology use. Desperately.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a highly involved or hands-off parent. Kids need us involved in their media use.
Even if you have an amazing kid who has shown they make (mostly) good choices, treats others with respect, and says no to unsafe people and situations, you need to closely monitor your kid’s internet life.
This is especially hard for me. I’m a “learn from your own mistakes” kind of parent. I don’t oversee my kids’ homework, I don’t get involved in sibling disputes right away, and I’d like to let my kids just learn what’s smart and not smart online after I give them a few pointers.
But I can’t leave my kids alone in the social media jungle. The stakes are higher than a failed test or misunderstanding with a sister.
There are things out there that kids can’t unsee. There are images they cannot unsend. There are texts they send that cannot be deleted.
Sadly, Simply Cutting off Media Access is Not the Answer
My gut reaction is to just deny my kids’ media use as long as possible, but Dr. Haley Zimmer, a pediatrician with University of Michigan Health-West, advises against this.
“It’s unrealistic to expect teens to be completely off-line in this day and age,” says Dr. Zimmer.
“Actually, some data shows that anxiety/depression are more prevalent in kids getting too much and too little media time. (Think isolation from peers if they have no access to social media).”
I saw this firsthand. We didn’t let our daughter have any social media access or cell phone for years after other kids were starting. And that whole time she struggled to find friends.
But the moment she got an iPad to FaceTime, and we bought a subscription to a streaming service where she could watch the same shows as her classmates, she suddenly found a crew of bff’s who are constantly spending time together.
They bike to each other’s homes, hang out in town, and yeah, watch their favorite shows together.
Technology gave my daughter access to the amazing people in her grade that “get” her.
6 Best Practices for Helping Kids be Safe Online
To give kids the best chance at internet safety is to let them experience it, but with a lot of guard rails.
Our teen has a cell phone now, but it came with a three page contract full of expectations for respectful, wise internet use. She knows the family rules, and is carefully learning the dangers (and thrills!) of media use.
Dr. Zimmer has six things to keep in mind as you help your child learn safe technology use.
1. Keep all Devices with Internet Access in a Public Space in the Home, Not Their Bedroom
Kids shouldn’t be watching anything you wouldn’t like, and making them watch their shows when you’re within view helps them from straying into questionable content.
Computers, tablets, iPods, cell phones – they should all be enjoyed in shared family space. If the noise gets too crazy, let them use headphones, but always make sure their devices are easily visible to you.
2. Use Parental Controls to Prevent Access to Inappropriate Sites.
Parental controls are various tools used to monitor and/or limit a kids’ access to media.
Unfortunately, figuring out how to enforce parental controls is dubious. The rules change with every device and platform. Common Sense Media is a good place to start.
3. Know the Social Media Sites Your Kid is Using.
“Be familiar with the social media sites your kid is using,” advises Dr. Zimmer, “and consider setting up your own account and friending your kid so you can monitor what is being shared.”
If your kid doesn’t want you watching them on that app, then they can’t use that platform.
We use Apple devices, so our kids cannot download any apps without parent authorization.
There have been many times when our kids have asked for an app that we decided was not a good fit for our family. We were able to talk to them about the why and help them find other apps that would be more appropriate.
All technology brands (Android, Apple, etc) will have options like this, which will help you know where your kid is going when they’re online.
4. Have a Curfew for Phones and Devices.
Having curfews ensures your kids are getting proper sleep, but it also establishes a routine for them that they hopefully carry into adulthood. None of us need to be on screens till midnight, right?
Every night my daughter needs to have her iPad and phone in my room, within my eyesight, by a certain time. If she’s even one minute late, she loses the device the next day. It’s a bit of a hassle for me to remember this every. single. night., but if I forget, she will sneak that device will 1 AM every time. (She has zero self control.)
5. Teach Your Kid That Anything They Post on the Internet is FOREVER.
This one scared my fifth grader. I told her that every word she types, and every photo she sends, is on the internet permanently and can be found at anytime.
She thought that if she deleted a text to a friend that it disappeared from everywhere. Nope. This kid can often overreact to things, so she’s learning not to just type the first thing that comes to mind and hit “send.”
We also tell our kids that words can hurt people forever, and anything they text can be shared with their entire school. Complaining about a difficult kid from math class? He could see your text. And he might have things going on his life that you don’t know about.
6. Discuss Safety Issues like Cyberbullying and Sexting
Kids going on the internet are going from the safety of their home and community into the wide world of everything. Kids have no idea what humans are capable of and that there are real life bad guys out there. Even among their own “friends.”
Have age appropriate conversations with your kids about cyberbullying, sexting and sexual predators.
Teach them to never give out personal information online or share private photos. Teach them to fiercely protect their privacy online.
Our fifth grader loves making silly TikToks for her friends. Her account is private and there are only approved people who can see her account. But the other day she made a video on our front porch and our address was visible in the background.
After she innocently posted it, we explained how that’s not wise. Even if her account is private, someone could still potentially share it with others, or it could be made public some day. She took it down and now is more considerate of what can be seen in her videos.
Signs Your Kids is Having a Problem with Media – And What to Do
Media, when explored safely, is super fun. You can make friends with like interests, you can explore a world of hobbies, and laugh at the best movies.
Hopefully, this is your child’s experience. However, some kids can get off track and they need your help to get them back on. Keeping an eye on your child’s mood is a big indicator that they could be having a problem with media.
Withdrawing from you or the family is the number one sign of a problem, according to Dr. Zimmer. Watch for kids who are isolating or becoming secretive about their internet or media use.
Mood or behavior changes can be a red flag for bullying. (If this the issues is cyberbullying, take action with your child’s school, and other parents of kids involved. Show your kids to not accept cyberbullying).
Dr. Zimmer says the easiest way to find out what’s going on is to talk to your kids. Level with them – don’t threaten to take everything away if they admit to the problem area. Often it’s a particular site or platform that’s causing trouble, and not everything they’re interacting with online.
Find the trouble app, and delete it. I’m willing to bet they’ll feel a big sense of relief the moment it disappears from their device.
Never Stop Talking to Your Kids About Internet Safety
The internet can be an amazing place, can’t it? I’ve laughed so hard at Instagram reels, cried at insightful Tiktoks and connected with friends on Marco Polo that I’ve not seen in years. I want my kids to have the same positive experience.
If we teach our kids smart guidelines when they’re young, they can take it with them into adulthood and hopefully find the beauty of the Internet more than the dark side. And if they do encounter trouble, they’ll know who to turn to for help.
University of Michigan Health – West
Multiple locations across West Michigan.