How to talk with kids about inappropriate content online
Ongoing conversation with your kids is still the most effective strategy against inappropriate content online. But what does that conversation sound like in a tech household?
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My niece was sitting with her 5-year-old son when he mistyped something in the search field and it turned up some pornographic images that my niece described as the worst she’d ever seen. She was distraught, but her son said, “No, Mommy, it’s OK. You taught me what to do.”
My niece had been teaching her son to “look away and tell” any time he saw something online that their family considers inappropriate. If 5 years old sounds too young, new studies show that children as young as 7 can regularly be exposed to inappropriate content online. Fortunately, there are practical, preventive and fortifying measures to help parents prepare, and I’ve been helping families do that since 2016.
As the parent of five boys, I started the Parents Aware organization and the Media Savvy Moms podcast. The aim is to help families prepare for these types of conversations. Here, I’ll share the strategies I used with my own family, as well as with other families to have these important tech talks.
The information in this guide is ideal for families who are already engaged in ongoing discussions with their kids about what kind of photos, pictures and videos are appropriate for their family. It’s also intended to help parents better understand what kind of conversations can happen around inappropriate content and tech. It’s through this kind of open, honest connection that we can help our kids safely navigate the world online.
What is inappropriate content online, and where is it hiding?
It can be on any device that’s connected to the internet.
The biggest frustration is that we can’t predict when and where kids will stumble on inappropriate content. Parents are often shocked to learn that pornography is accessible through some of the most child-frequented online platforms.
For example, my kids and I were playing an age-appropriate video game together. I didn’t think it even had access to the internet and while we were waiting for our villages to be built, we got a notification to watch “how to play” videos with a direct link to YouTube. It’s not the content in the game that’s problematic, it’s the unexpected access to the internet that can circumvent parental controls.
Rather than give an exhaustive list of the places where kids might stumble upon inappropriate content, it’s better to empower them with information on how to respond when they do encounter it.
How to talk to your kids about inappropriate content online
Like many parents, I used to think that bringing up sensitive topics had to be done at just the right time and in just the right way. However, I’ve learned over the years that it’s far better for our children, and much easier on us, to start these important conversations early.
We can layer them bit by bit in age-appropriate ways using the correct language and terminology. This shows our kids that we are prepared to talk, that our home is a safe place to ask questions, and that nothing is too awkward or embarrassing to bring up.
With that in mind, pornography can be explained as pictures, videos or cartoons that expose parts of the body we normally keep private. It’s not an all-encompassing definition, but it is a start. And that’s exactly what we’re after: simple ways to put the conversation on the table. The more you talk, the easier it will be. Here are some age-appropriate conversation guidelines.
Children this age should not be left alone with any device that’s connected to the internet or has a camera—even when it’s something as simple as watching drawing videos or cartoons.
Parents can also check the built-in parental controls on their devices as a safeguard against questionable content.
In my own research and experience with families, children this age are being exposed to inappropriate content online. This is when kids start to spend more time away from home with friends, at school or on playdates. It can be intimidating to bring up the topic of media safety with other parents. But I have found that families often share similar concerns. This makes having these conversations easier.
Some kids have food allergies. Some kids have nightmares when they watch scary movies. And some parents talk with other parents before a playdate or sleepover to make sure those needs are communicated. The media safety conversation can happen in that same space.
For example: “We have a family rule that kids at this age are only allowed to be on the internet when an adult is present. Is that a policy at your house?”
Many kids get their first phone around this age. Each new device that comes into the house is an opportunity to review your family’s media plan. I always encourage parents to get their kids involved in that plan.
It can start with a few self-reflective questions: “How can my media use align with my hopes, dreams and values? Does what I am doing today align with where I want to go?” Using the red, yellow and green light as a metaphor to stop, pause or go, consider the following:
Green light—Doing homework, talking with Grandma, or looking up videos about making something. Anything that reinforces those stated goals fall into this category.
Yellow light—Does the time you spend on a certain activity online take up most of the day? For example, when friends come over, can you put it down and spend time with them? Do you have trouble turning off the tech when asked?
Red light—Anything that doesn’t align with those hopes, dreams and values, and your families’ tech boundaries. Shut it down right away. Tell a trusted adult for added safety.
When kids enter the teen years, you still have some influence, but peer influence is a big deal. At this age, kids are becoming more autonomous online. If they want to find something, they’ll find it. So they need to know there’s a safe place at home where they can ask important questions. Often, kids are afraid that if they do, they’ll get in trouble and lose their tech. Their fear of losing access to the phone can override their desire to talk about what’s going on.
I know stories about young women who have confided in friends, but not a parent, when they felt pressured to text intimate photos to someone at school.
That’s why we need to put these difficult conversations on the table. Kids are faced with difficult scenarios. It’s not fair to have them navigate these things on their own—to solve big adult problems without having someone they can talk to.
To make space for these conversations, consider the following:
Make ongoing connection a priority. Once a week or once a month, let them choose an activity, or a place to eat for lunch, or spend time talking together about something that interests them. The idea is to build a space for ongoing connection so it’s easier to talk about the tougher things.
Consider alternatives to taking the phone away as punishment. When boundaries get crossed, ask your teen to help you come up with some consequences instead of simply taking the phone away. Their solutions might surprise you. Another approach is to ask, “Would it be helpful to you if we set stronger tech boundaries together?”
Take the pressure off. If you’re just starting out, shoulder-to-shoulder conversations are best. Teenagers tend to open up more when the conversation feels more casual. So think of natural ways to avoid eye contact. Whether you’re riding in a car or making the family dinner together, these are ideal times to bring up challenging topics.
How to manage your child’s access to inappropriate content
The goal of these conversations is to raise critical consumers of technology. When the focus remains on blocking content, kids simply are not learning how to make decisions on their own. Eventually, they will find ways around filters and parental controls. Family safety meetings can become a regular part of your tech routine—and another low-pressure way to talk about online safety together.
What to do if your child is exposed to inappropriate content online
With ongoing conversations about what defines inappropriate content for your family, kids can have the language to say something when they get an explicit text message or request for an intimate photo. Unsettling, yes. But it’s an important teaching moment.
Praise your child for coming to you.
Remind them that this is an opportunity to reinforce their own internal filters.
Then take a deep breath, pause, and ask your child or teen what questions they may have or if there is more they need from you.
How to report inappropriate content online
If you or your child discovers inappropriate content of any kind on a social media platform or other space where it is prohibited, report it. The mechanics of reporting inappropriate content vary, but virtually all major platforms encourage users to report material that violates the platform’s guidelines.
However, never forward any sexual content that involves minors, even in an attempt to report it. Doing so is against federal law and it perpetuates the abuse of victims. For a detailed explanation and instructions on how to report child sexual abuse material (CSAM), read this article from Thorn.
You can do this
Sometimes I hear people say, “Kids don’t want their parents to talk to them about sensitive topics.” That’s simply not true. That sentiment implies we don’t know how to approach these conversations with our children. But we can work on that.
Looking back, if I could be a new parent again, afforded a do-over, I would place a greater priority on talking to my children about inappropriate content earlier. Of course, it is never too late. My children are older, and frankly, because I now have the courage to be open and honest with them, our conversations are much better. We laugh more, and the trust between us has grown. These conversations have the potential to strengthen parent-child relationships and can bring you and your child closer together.
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