Tech talk: How to keep the conversation going when they’re online
Talking to your kids about how they use technology is your way to protect them from online dangers. Here’s how one parent navigates tough tech talks.
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How many connected devices are in your home right now? Start adding them up—smartphones, tablets, gaming systems, smart speakers, smartwatches, everything connected to the internet. It’s probably a little more than 20. In fact, today’s homes have an average of 22 connected devices, according to a recent study.
Now imagine that the safety solutions you regularly rely on—content filters, parental controls and screen time limits—suddenly vanish. Would you feel confident in your child’s ability to navigate the internet by themselves?
I’m a parent of five sons and the founder of Parents Aware, which helps parents navigate the tricky parts of a tech-connected life. I find that most parents want their kids to enjoy the benefits of technology. But many worry about what their kids are doing online—especially what they don’t see. They want to keep their kids safe.
My answer is always the same: Talk openly and honestly with them about the technology they use. Start as soon as children have access to smart devices. Be intentional about what you say, ask for their input and make the conversation ongoing.
But what does that conversation sound like?
Start the tech talk early and keep the conversation going.
Parents can be the best tech safety feature kids can have. At some point, every child will face a potentially dangerous situation online. And when that happens, they need to know what to do and where to turn for help. Filters and parental controls serve an important purpose, but they can’t teach kids how to safely navigate away from dangerous situations. That’s a parent’s role.
According to a worldwide survey, parents spend a total of less than one hour talking to their kids about online safety and security. We can do so much better. The real work—the heavy lifting of tech safety and the place where it all comes together—is in your real-life, daily conversations.
Here’s the best part: You don’t need to be tech-savvy for effective discussion. Instead, start with where your child is in their digital development and what devices they use.
A few things to consider:
Your child’s age
What to talk about when they first get the device
How to keep the conversation going
Ages 3 – 5
The tech they use: For more than 40% of families of parents with kids ages two to eight say their families use a smart speaker.
What to talk about when they first get the device: Talk about how these devices work. Children should know that smart speakers listen to your conversations. It’s how the speaker knows to respond to verbal commands. Point out that the device has microphones built in, and show them where the mute button is to turn off the microphones. Explain that muting the device when you’re not using it is for privacy.
Keep the conversation going: Explain the safety benefit of using smart speakers in common areas of the home. Reinforce that technology can be enjoyed as a family. Model using the speaker for very specific tasks, and remind children of all ages that parents are always the best and safest source of information. Let children know you can research answers together with the support of smart technology.
Ages 6 – 8
The tech they use: At this age some kids are getting smartwatches. For these kids, the smartwatch will serve as the introduction to devices they take everywhere they go, from school to friends’ houses.
It’s so much fun getting that first call or message from your children. And there’s the reassurance of knowing where they are through the GPS tracker. In fact, this is a perfect place to start the conversation.
What to talk about when they first get the device: Kids should know that the smartwatch on their wrist tracks their every move. Some models have video cameras, voice-responsive commands and activity trackers. Point out these features on the device and help kids understand what they do.
Keep the conversation going: Talk intentionally about who gets added to their contact list and why. What is your definition of a “safe contact”? What is appropriate to send to friends in text, video and phone messages? Even with these precautions, children need to know that any device can be hacked. Suspicious or inappropriate messages are red flags and should always be discussed together. And make it a daily habit to inquire about text messages along with asking about their day at school or play date.
Ages 9 – 12
The tech they use: Smartphones (if you think your child is ready) and tablets.
What to talk about when they first get the device: Start with basic boundaries: Who. What. Where. When.
Who has access to the phone and its password? You and your child.
What gets put on the phone? Start with the basics, talk, text and a few games. Additional features can be added gradually.
Where is the phone to be used? Agree that phones and other devices stay out of the bedroom.
When is the phone to be used? Discuss phone etiquette and expectations around the dinner table and in other social situations.
Keep the conversation going: Even without a browser installed, there are many ways your child could access the internet via their smartphone. That means conversations about pornography and other inappropriate content are now critical.
Ages 13 – 18
The tech they use: Brace yourself—we have entered the teen years. This can be a scary time for parents as you work to balance tech safety with teen autonomy. Some days it can feel as if your teen is shutting you out. Rest assured they need your help and they actually want it—but they need your conversations to evolve. The more input they can give on how to use tech safely, the more they will feel respected and part of the decision-making process.
What to talk about when they first get the device: Social media is important to most teens and often serves as an essential link to their social lives. So listen to their requests carefully, then help them decide which service best suits their needs. Start with a single account. As you review the pros and cons together, try to look for as many positives as negatives as you can to be thoughtful.
Keep the conversation going: Have frank conversations about cyberbullying, catfishing, sextortion and more. Approach these sensitive topics with concern rather than accusations. Teens are more likely to open up when they feel understood and respected.
If you ever feel the need to dial back the tech for a while because of poor choices, let teens know that it comes from a place of love and that you are ready to help them get back on track. You never want your teen to hold on to a dangerous secret just so they can protect their access to technology.
Making tech safety a natural part of the tech experience
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that digital safety is a conversation better suited for older kids. The reality is that young children have access to smart devices. Talking to them early on sets the groundwork for more sophisticated conversations that occur during the teen years.
The general rule is to start the conversation early so that digital safety becomes a natural part of our kids’ experience with technology. Maybe you’ve never thought of it like this before, but you are one of the best tech safety features of your home. You are the only safety feature that can adapt to the situation and mentor your kids to safely navigate their digital world.
So, what conversation will you start today?