Words like online safety, the Internet, smart phones, googling, and “devices” are recent additions to our vocabulary. Because things keep changing, kids are often more techno-savvy than we adults, while lacking our life experience about how to recognize and avoid trouble.

When our first personal computer got connected online in 1994, my daughter found a chat-group for teens almost immediately. “Ah,” she said indignantly, “Someone is being rude. I’ll just tell him!” Speaking up just as she would in a face-to-face conversation, my daughter typed in, “That’s sexist. Stop it!”

Immediately, a request came to our email address from a different chat room user thanking my daughter for saying something and asking for a private conversation. I felt a little nervous. “You can say hello, but don’t give any personal information,” I advised. We didn’t realize that, by signing her note in the chat room with her unusual name, my daughter had already given out personal information! Within a few minutes of my daughter exploring what seemed to be an innocent place with me standing right next to her in our living room, explicit pornographic pictures started popping up onto our computer screen! Yikes!

Today we know that the Internet, smart phones, and  other technology are remarkable tools for gathering information, for sharing resources, for staying connected with friends and family, and for finding people who are share our interests. At the same time, this technology provides access to children and teens in ways that can be very anonymous and efficient, putting them at risk of harm from cyber-predators, pornography, cyberbullying, sexting, and other dangers. Although much more protection is now available electronically to prevent these problems, these software programs can become quickly out of date. In any case, a curious techno-savvy child will probably be able to figure out how to disable or work around whatever screening or monitoring devices you put into place.

The bottom line is that there is no substitute for staying connected personally with what is going on with our kids and for staying in good communication with them. We need to protect our kids until they can protect themselves – and to provide them with skills and knowledge so they can navigate both their electronic and real-world lives safely and wisely.

Here are ten Kidpower recommendations for parents, guardians, and other caring adults about how to protect the online safety of our children and teens.

  1. First of all, pediatricians now recommend that we set strong limits on the amount of “screen time” children have in front of a computer, mobile phone, gaming device, or television so that kids have enough time for sleep, active play, exercise, outings, and other real world social and educational activities.
  2. Until children are prepared to handle online independence safely and wisely, we need to insist that technology use will be in a shared space under our direct supervision that we do together rather than something they do alone in their bedroom. The five steps described in How To Prepare Children For More Independence  also are relevant for online activities.
  3. Teach children that using a computer or smart phone gives a false illusion of privacy and connection. It is hard to remember at all times that you really do not know who a person is that you are communicating with through the Internet. Ask your kids “Would you hand out flyers with your personal information to strangers walking down the street?… Of course not. We need to remember that the Internet is no different than the street – these are still strangers in a public area. In fact, because you can’t see them or know what their name really is for sure, you have even less information about who they might be online than you do in person.”
  4. Teach kids not to post online or text anything that they would not want the world to see. Young people need to be aware that even people they think of as friends might misuse their photos and messages. Tell them, “Once you put something online, you lose control over it.  No matter what guarantees are made, it is a mistake to post or text anything anywhere online that you would not want your parents, teachers, other friends, neighbors, or employers to see.”
  5. Help kids understand that their use of technology is a privilege, not a right and that cyberbullying or other electronic aggression is against your values. Have clear rules and consequences for misuses of technology that are harmful to others or risky for themselves. Promote the idea of being good digital citizens. Our Kidpower Digital Citizenship and Safety Agreement provides a useful tool for making a clear contract with your kids. See also,
  6. Teach children to  check first with you before changing their plan about online activities – including before they put any personal information online by filling out a survey, registering on a Web site, joining a chat group, texting a photo, etc. Personal information includes their photos, where they live, where they go to school, their name, their telephone number, your name, your place of work, the names of their friends or family or teacher, sports team, neighbors, city, or school.
  7. Be explicit that you expect children and youth to get your permission before they accept gifts from, have a telephone conversation with, or make a plan to meet someone they don’t already know well, whether they met that person online or anywhere else.
  8. In order to protect children from exposure to sexual images and language, tell children clearly that, the second that someone starts to initiate sexual or threatening talk or that a website starts to show something sexual or graphically violent, children need to stop the contact and let you know. You can tell a younger child, “If you read or see something that looks weird, strange, or scary, get away from the computer and tell me right away.”
  9. To prevent your computer and online privacy from being compromised, have a rule that young people are to check with you before opening or replying to any kind of spam and before opening any kind of attachments.
  10. Ask your Internet and mobile phone providers about their policies and practices for protecting children and how to report cyberbullying, sexual approaches to children, and other unsafe activities.
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Finally, set a good example by limiting your own electronic use in favor of time spent with your kids. Remember that the skills for staying safe online are the same as the skills for staying safe in the real world. The best way to protect young people from online dangers is also the best way to help protect them from other dangers – no matter how busy or stressed you are, be a positive person who makes time to talk. You want children to tell you what they are doing and to ask you about anything that seems confusing or odd to them. Notice when they act stressed, withdrawn, or secretive. Make the time to listen and pay attention to the children and teens  in your life. See KIdpower Strategies For Safety Online – And Everywhere Else

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these social safety skills and strategies, please visit our online Library (free community membership) and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

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Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.

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