People now have access to nearly unlimited content through their digital devices. Technology offers more opportunities than ever to learn about any topic you can think of—from news and events to how-to videos, health care information, games, and much more. Software, apps, and other downloadable tools offer the chance to create, collaborate, and connect with others with few, if any, boundaries. But with opportunity comes risk—especially for kids and teens. Find out how you can stay aware of the risks—and take steps to reduce their impact so the kids in your life can stay safe online.
Online risks for teens and children
Start by considering the different types of digital hazards teens and kids face:
- Conduct: Not everyone behaves themselves online. Whether through posts on social media, direct messages, or personas, the people on the other end of apps and websites might encourage your kid or boost your teen’s self-esteem. But cyber bullying and “sexting” (sending or receiving sexual content like nude images, or sexually explicit messages) are real risks for kids and teens, by both strangers and people they know. Another online “contact” hazard to be aware of is people collecting and misusing your child’s personal information.
- Content: There’s a ton of great information and entertainment online. Unfortunately, there’s also plenty of content that’s not age appropriate for children and teens, or at a level of acceptable quality. Inappropriate or potentially damaging content might include pornographic or violent images, discriminatory language, or even computer viruses. Poor quality content includes incorrect, false, and misleading information from unreliable sources. (This includes content sent by friends who don’t realize they’ve sent something questionable.)
- Contact: Online platforms allow people with bad intentions to harass kids and teens or pretend to be someone else. For example, someone might share (or “push”) inappropriate content. Dangerous adults might reach out online to gain trust and possibly even try to meet up in person. Risky contact also includes situations when someone gets access to data or is able to track online activities without the user knowing it.
- Commercial: Exposure to online advertising and marketing is hard to escape. Advertising is certainly not new, but it’s more hidden and much more difficult to identify and avoid than it used to be. Many kids and teens have no idea their movements online are tracked by bots and search engines and sold to businesses hoping to cash in. Commercial risks can also include hidden in-app purchases and online scams.
- Context: Despite warnings from adults, kids and teens don’t often understand the potential harm of their online device misuse or overuse. It’s important they understand the context of how, when, and for what purposes they can use their devices. Too much sedentary screen time and overattachment to devices can have a significant impact on kids’ social, physical, and emotional health.
Strategies to keep teens and kids safe online
Once kids get a taste of using digital media, it’s not easy to keep them from it. In this era of virtual learning, social media, and texting, your kids’ devices are in many ways critical to their academic and social development. Online information and tools also can help support their learning, exploration, and growth. The best way to prepare your kids for the dangers they might face online (and help avoid some of these risks) is to talk with them about online safety early and often. Consider a few basic strategies to keep your children on track when they’re online.
- Focus on communication: Use age-appropriate language to talk with your kids about privacy and how to protect their personal information online. Let them know the dangers of scams and the risks of viruses on their devices. And talk to your teens about sexting and cyberbullying. Acknowledge and validate their social environment, and let them know what to do if they feel unsafe. Maintain open communication so your kids and teens know they can come to you if an incident occurs.
- Set boundaries that fit their (and your) needs: For young kids, set limits around the content they can access. Keep their screen time focused on communication (like video calls with family) and content focused on learning. Keeping your teens safe is not just about limiting, eliminating, or controlling their access to digital media. In many cases, that simply might not be possible or even helpful. What you can do is explore with your teens where content comes from, what types of activities their devices should be used for, and how much is too much. It’s fine to monitor their use, especially if that allows a little more freedom for them to explore.
- Be clear and flexible when it comes to rules. If you do decide to set some rules around device use (for example, no phones during dinner, or after 8pm), make sure you communicate your expectations clearly. Ideally, your older kids and teens will help you come up with the rules, but even if they don’t, it’s important everyone knows what the boundaries are up front. And stay open and flexible to adjusting the rules as your kids grow and as their needs change.
- Use your resources: Your kids teachers, school, and health care providers will likely have policies and resources to help support your child’s digital safety—and suggestions for safe and age-appropriate apps and websites your kids might like. Get to know what’s out there, and start opening the lines of communication with other adults in your community so you have backup if you need it.