The busy parent’s guide to talking to your kids about internet safety
It’s not easy to talk with tweens and teens about internet safety. Here’s how to easily take the essential first step and simply start the conversation.
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The hardest part of hard conversations? Often, it’s simply getting started.
I’ve written about technology for 20 years. I know my way around router settings, social platforms and how to set up a smart home. And I’ve been a parent for 14 years. I talk with my kids; stay involved in their extracurricular activities; pay attention to who they hang out with and try to set realistic, age-appropriate boundaries for what they can and can’t do.
So with this combined experience, I should know exactly how to talk to kids about internet safety, right?
Like you, I’m busy. I think a lot about internet safety, but at the end of the day, the best intentions don’t always translate into action. When my kids come home and jump online after school, I’m often unaware of what sites they’re visiting, who they’re talking to or whether they’re using my credit card information to purchase apps and subscriptions.
And like so many other tweens and teens, they’re immersed in tech. One by one, we’ve caved to requests for smartwatches, phones, laptops, a game console and a VR headset. “Everyone has them,” they say. “It’s how we stay in touch!” Which is true.
To make things more difficult, my kids (like yours, I’m sure) believe they know more about the internet than I do. After all, they grew up in a digital world. I didn’t. So they’re not always inclined to listen to guidance.
But they’re still kids. They don’t know that an unfamiliar voice in an online multiplayer game may not be in it for the game. They’ll downplay the risks of social media challenges. They’ll look at inappropriate material because their friends are doing it. They’ll share personal information online even when they know the dangers of doing so.
As parents, we can proactively set boundaries and expectations for healthy online behaviors. And we can explain the real risks presented by online activity and how to avoid them.
This is why conversations with parents play such an important role.
So how can you, as a parent, help drive a safer and a better internet, where everyone, including kids, is empowered to use technology responsibly, respectfully, critically and creatively?
How can you open the door to having important conversations about inappropriate online content and other dangers online? Don’t put it off any longer. Here’s how to begin.
Start now. Yes, now. It’s not rocket science, it doesn’t have to take hours of preparation. And conversations about internet safety don’t have to be formal interrogations. Over breakfast or on the way to school, ask your kids a simple question or two: What social platforms are they and their friends using? Who’s sharing stuff they shouldn’t be sharing? What are the social media challenges everyone’s talking about?
Listen to what your tween or teen says. Asking questions means listening to answers – really listening and demonstrating empathy. Here’s a workplace trick that will simultaneously show you care and ensure you understand what your kids are saying: Repeat their answers in the form of questions. For example, “You’re frustrated that your friends have TikTok and you don’t. Is that what you’re saying?”
Try to understand the bigger picture. Simple questions and answers lay the groundwork for deeper understanding and conversations. For example, once you know which social channels your teen favors, you can read up on the pros and cons of each. Once you learn that your tween spends time on Roblox because it’s where classmates connect after school, you can better appreciate that while most of your childhood interactions probably happened in person, that’s not the way it works for most kids today.
Dig deeper. Armed with this initial information and context, you can ask more focused questions about using the internet safely. Do strangers ever join the chats in your online games? Are friends pushing them to do things they don’t want to do?
Keep an open mind. What looks like a superficial waste of time to a parent might be far more nuanced. I worried about how much time my younger son spent immersed in an online flight simulator until he said, “Dad, let me show you what I’m doing.” Turns out that he isn’t just playing a game—he’s collaborating with friends, learning about the physics of flight. And I’m pretty sure he can now cold-start a Boeing 737 if the need ever arises. (Remember what I said about listening? You might find that sometimes it’s your kids who initiate the conversations.)
Talk to other parents. If you’ve set a goal of talking to your kids about internet safety, tell other parents. More specifically, tell other parents who are already having successful conversations with their kids: A recent study shows that people tend to be more committed to their goals after they share them with someone whose opinions they respect.
For more information, check out an array of parent guides and other family program resources provided by the organization Safer Internet Day. You’ll find helpful backgrounders about social media platforms, devices, and more. And check back here too. Verizon's Parenting in a Digital World Portal publishes articles from a diverse set of authors with expertise across the digital safety spectrum.
Just keep talking. Because the best protection you have against the dangers lurking online is talking with your kids.
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Talking about internet safety
- Start now, even if you’re just asking basic questions about your kids’ online activities. Once you start, the conversations get easier.
- Show empathy. The more you keep an open mind, the more your kid will open up to you.
- Listen for the context. What looks like a simple video game might be a virtual gathering place for school friends.
- Talk to other parents. You’re not in this alone.
For more, explore the Safer Internet Day resource gallery. Find information sheets on conversation starters and even games, which are available in a variety of languages and for a variety of age groups.