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Laptop with online safety tips on screenTo be safe from online aggression, cyberbullying, and other digital harm, young people need tech skills, social-emotional safety skills – and caring adults involved in their online lives.

Though many kids are more skilled and more confident with gaming, social media, and other technology than their adults, strong tech skills on their own are not enough to keep anyone safe online. People need the full range of core social-emotional safety skills – as well as lots of experience using them in many different online situations – to take charge of their safety in digital spaces.

Even teens are safer with caring adults involved in their online lives, because social-emotional development extends through the teen years. This is why so many parents avoid leaving their teens home alone for many days and nights – even if they spend many hours on their own each day, even if they act responsibly most of the time, even if they have a job, and even if they protect and care for younger kids.

Regular, reliable, respectful guidance from caring adults provides the support and protection youth need and deserve while they develop skills for independence – in person and online. This includes getting more practice staying in charge of their own words and actions no matter how they’re feeling – and getting more experience recognizing and avoiding trouble.

Here are ten Kidpower recommendations for adults to protect young people online while also preparing them with age-appropriate skills for safe, positive online lives:

1. Limit screen time – both “when” and “how much”. Limiting screen time is a type of boundary-setting to support physical and emotional well-being. It includes deciding how much time a young person can be online as well as what times of day or night they can be online. Limiting screen time makes space for sleep, exercise, play, in-person communication, and other real-world activities. It also reduces the risk of harm that can grow from online activity becoming more all-consuming, upsetting, or distracting.

Adults with very young children might decide screen time limits on their own; those with teens might decide on limits after lots of conversation together. No matter how you decide on the limits that are best for your family, make them clear, uphold them consistently, and revisit them regularly as your kids grow.

2. Set boundaries about physical spaces for online activity. Until young people have the skills to be safe online, set boundaries so that their online activity happens in a shared space with the adult supervision your child needs. Talk together about different situations so that each person has a shared understanding of the boundaries.

For example, young people might need to work in a private space when they are in a distance learning class so that each student can focus on their lessons. Their adults might be in a different space. When class ends, the kids move back to a shared physical space with more adult supervision before starting other online activities like gaming, social media, and even doing online research for school projects. The five steps described in How To Prepare Children For More Independence also are relevant for supporting growing independence online.

3. Teach young people that online communication gives a false illusion of privacy and connection. Even adults have a hard time remembering at all times that we really do not know so many of the people we communicate with online. Review and practice your family’s Stranger Safety rules and habits – and, practice applying them online. Ask your kids, “Would you hand out flyers with your personal information to strangers on a sidewalk?… Of course not. Being with people online is the same as being with them on a sidewalk – they 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.” Watch and discuss Kidpower Shorts Episode 3, “Online Privacy”.

4. Teach kids to think first before posting or sharing anything online, since anything could become public. It is almost never a safe choice to post, text, or share words, images, or videos that you would not want everyone in the world to see. Even friends might misuse photos, videos, or messages. Tell youth, “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.”

The reason we say this is almost never safe is that, in rare and very serious safety situations, sharing something personal online might be the safest choice available to someone. For example, online health providers – such as suicide prevention and LGBTQIA+ affirming groups – may be the safest place for a young person to turn to for help. Many reputable agencies provide potentially life-saving support by text, and this has become even more common since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, assessing the quality of an online resource is difficult even for adults, and there is still a possibility that these communications can become public in some way.

Young people are safer turning to trusted adults who know them in real life, rather than to online resources, if getting help from known adults is a safe option. By being strong, caring adult leaders to the best of our ability every day, we can make it less likely for young people to turn in desperation to online sources for help.

5. Teach kids digital citizenship skills so that they learn to be safe and respectful online. Share and discuss the Kidpower Safety and Respect Message: We each have the right to be treated with safety and respect and the responsibility to act safely and respectfully towards ourselves and others. This is true everywhere we go, online and in person, at all ages. Make sure they know that using technology is a privilege, not a right, and that cyberbullying or other online aggression is against your values. Have clear rules and consequences for misuses of technology that are harmful to others or risky for themselves. Watch Kidpower Shorts Episode 2: Digital Citizenship and use the Kidpower Digital Citizenship and Safety Agreement to create an agreement about what is and is not allowed in your family.

6. Teach youth to check first with you before changing their plan about online activities – including before sharing personal information about themselves, friends, family members, or others online, such as by filling out a survey, creating an account, joining a group or game, sharing a photo or video, etc. Personal information includes names, account names, addresses, phone numbers, passwords, workplaces, bank card numbers, photos and videos – and much more. Tell young people that if they are not sure if something is personal information, their job is to assume that it is personal and do NOT share it until they check first with their adults. Talking with adults over time will help youth build the skill to assess what types of information are personal.

7. Be explicit about when young people must ALWAYS get your permission. For example, they need to get your permission first before accepting gifts or offers from anyone online; before communicating with new people online, including through games and social media; before moving a text-based conversation to voice, and before adding video to a voice conversation; before sharing photos or videos; before making a plan to meet someone in person if they don’t already know them well in real life, whether they met that person online or in person.

8. Teach kids what to do if they notice sexual, threatening, or violent words, behavior, images, or videos – or any behavior that makes them uncomfortable. Together, practice turning your faces away; practice closing, leaving, or pocketing the device; practice how to find an adult who can help; practice persisting to interrupt adults to tell what happened. Tell younger kids, “If you read or see something that looks weird, strange, or scary, get away from the computer and tell me right away.”

9. Teach young people to protect their hardware and their accounts from being hacked or compromised. This includes teaching them safe ways to store passwords as well as teaching them to check with you before opening or replying to messages that seem unexpected or unusual in any way; before opening attachments and clicking on links in messages; before replying to ‘special offers’; and before replying to messages saying that there is something wrong with their account and asking them to click on a link to ‘fix’ the problem.

10. Learn what your digital platforms – including the ones used in distance learning – do and do not offer that can help users be safe. You don’t need to become an expert about all kinds of platforms – and, to keep your child safe, you do need to learn about the platforms and services they are using or want to use. Learn what policies and practices your internet and mobile service providers have for protecting youth. Learn about the policies and practices connected with the apps, social media accounts, single-player and multi-player video games youth and adults in your family might be interested in using. Talk to experienced users of that platform so you can learn how to prevent youth from making accidental purchases or from accidentally making information public. Learn about the platforms your childs’ teachers expect them to use to participate in online classes and to collaborate with peers on projects. For all of these types of spaces, learn how to report cyberbullying, sexual approaches to young people, and other unsafe activities.

Finally, set a good example by limiting your own time online and making it a priority to spend time offline 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.

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Published: March 8, 2012   |   Last Updated: January 20, 2021

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; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.