How do I help my child stay safe online?

By: Elizabeth Milovidov

Safety and responsibility tips for children (and parents) from a digital parenting coach, e-safety consultant, lawyer, and mom.

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As a mom of an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, I, like most parents today, am completely immersed in the online world—from remote learning to remote working and everything in between. The past few months have demonstrated that my job as a digital guardian is to make sure that my children understand not only what online safety is, but also how to act responsibly as well.

Case in point: My 11-year-old wanted to open the chat settings on his device so he could talk with his friends. My initial response was “Nope. Not happening. You can play with your friends online and use the home phone to talk.” (I thought this was clever and creative, after all, I grew up chatting on a home phone.)

My son wouldn’t let it go. “Come on, Mom. All the other kids are playing.” So, I decided to walk him through the reasons why not. We picked up his device, logged onto the game and opened the settings. As we looked at the game together, we were able to see the exact options available: only chat with friends, only message friends, etc.

My son triumphantly said, “See Mom? I only want to chat with my known friends, and everything else is disabled.”

My son successfully advocated his case, and I allowed him to chat with his friends. I also used the conversation as a teaching moment for him regarding being responsible online, and I thanked him for showing me his world. Teaching moments in the digital world go both ways between parents and kids.

Fortunately, we have occasions, such as International Missing Children’s Day on May 25 and National Internet Safety Month in June to remind us of the importance of raising awareness about online safety. And Verizon partners with organizations like National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help keep our children safe online. This year, with additional online activities and connections, it is crucial that we recognize that many people, including our children and young people, are just trying to cope with their day-to-day situations. Fortunately, many of us are able to stay connected because of internet access, social media, and gaming platforms and devices.

“Smartphones are the new security blankets for kids,” writes Jordan Shapiro, who studies how technology impacts childhood. Right now, smartphones, gaming consoles, smart TVs and tablets are the tools that are helping children cope with the pandemic.

I am a firm believer in the positive online opportunities that exist, and I am ready to search for the good and even great things children are doing online, such as being creative, advocating for change, sharing interests with friends, using innovative strategies in gameplay and more. I also believe that the phenomenal increase in online activities we are witnessing and experiencing will have some effect on our health, our development, or our overall well-being.

The pandemic will not last forever, but the digital aftereffects may be felt for a while. And in this case, online safety for children is so much more than just child safety. It also means offering children the tools and skills to use technology and the internet responsibly and ensuring their digital well-being when they’re online.

Critical thinking online

You are your child’s first and most important teacher. So, thinking critically and being able to analyze an online situation is a key skill for children and parents. The following prompts are designed to help you think more critically about safe online behavior, and these prompts can be applied to purchasing devices, downloading a game or an app, or even viewing YouTube or Netflix. The idea is to ask a series of questions to determine what will be beneficial for your family.

Here are ideas to get you started:

  • Who can this device, game or social media post harm, injure or insult?

  • Where can I go to learn more about safety settings on our digital devices? 

  • When should I ask for help regarding the digital and online safety of my children? 

  • Why does my child like YouTube/Instagram/Snapchat so much?

Once you have answered these questions—related to your scenario—you can decide what’s best for your family. Like my example with my son, we were able to examine the issue and provide parameters going forward.

Responsible online safety

One of the greatest skills that parents can provide their children with is the ability to be responsible online: the ability to act wisely when parents aren’t peeking over their shoulder. In other words, responsible children should be able to identify risky situations, to find solutions to digital dilemmas, to act as an upstander (when it’s safe to do so), to respect differences online (but respectfully challenge others) and to know how to block or report incidents to their parents or a trusted adult. Here are a few tips to that can help your family:

  • Engage in open and transparent conversations where they can share what is happening online and you will listen and provide support.

  • Commend your child for bringing an online situation to your attention and try to find a solution together.

  • Remind your child that anything posted, shared, forwarded, commented on, etc., can remain online forever.

  • For your younger children, remind them of the Grandma Rule: Would Grandma be happy if she saw you behaving this way?

Communities online

And finally, children aren’t the only ones who can connect and network online. Parents and caregivers should create their own digital parenting communities, where they talk with other parents and caregivers. Be sure to ask other parents what games and movies their children like and what apps and social media platforms their children use (and at what age). Compare notes and share resources and best practices.

After all, it really does take a digital parenting community to raise a digital child.

Examples of digital parenting communities for you to engage with, ask questions and learn best practices are listed below:

If you need tips on using media in healthy and mindful ways for the family, check out Ask the Mediatrician. This blog and podcast from Dr. Michael Rich and his team of experts at Harvard University’s Center on Media and Child Health are great resources—and you can even send in your own questions.

The Family Lowdown started as a Facebook group early in the pandemic lockdown for parents looking for share ideas and stay sane. If you need proven parenting ideas—not theories—that will work in real life, check out this private group. It’s a global hub of innovation, creativity and support to make family time, and everything in between, as great as it can be.

If you’re looking for what teachers are saying about online resources, join the Facebook group of teachers on Amazing Educational Resources. This community shares the good, bad and ugly about the many teacher resources on the internet.

It’s not possible to know everything all the time, but awareness is everything. This Digital Parenting Community brings together a mix of everything: parents, educators, child online experts, psychologists and more, where they share ideas and strategies as we parent in the digital age.

If you like a little more research-based advice in the mix, try The Happiness Lab. Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos shares the latest scientific research and inspiring stories that will forever alter the way you think about happiness.

And finally, here! Parenting in a Digital World will continue to provide articles, expert opinions and blog posts dealing with all aspects of parenting in today’s digital world.

Bonus: There’s even a line of kid-friendly, parent-approved tablets and watches that are designed to help kids learn and have while keeping their safety in mind.

Watch how Verizon is partnering with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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