It is not uncommon for youth to accidentally stumble across, or be exposed intentionally or unintentionally by their peers, to sexually explicit images or videos online. A new study shows that one in five children between the ages of nine and 17 report having accidentally seen sexual material online through websites, pop-up videos and spam emails. Moreover one in nine say they have received unwanted sexual solicitations online.
Below, we provide some suggestions and resources to arm parents, educators and young people — to use the internet safely and responsibly.
1. Have discussions early and often
Start discussions about about online (and offline) safety and responsibility early and continue to have them regularly. Don’t wait for an issue to arise. Parents can have these discussions at home, and teachers can incorporate digital citizenship into the curriculum. This “two-gated approach” ensures all youth get the information they need to be safe online.
2. Monitoring and age-appropriate information
Media smarts (a not-for-profit organization for digital and media literacy) suggests that when children are under eight, parents should sit with or near them when they use the internet. Children aged eight to 13 should use the internet in common family areas and should be made aware of the potential dangers of the internet. Adapt messages about online risks as youth age and/or as the frequency of their internet use increases.
3. Stay current
Make an ongoing effort to stay up-to-date on your child’s media use, and the various apps and websites that kids are using and visiting. Your discussions will be most effective if they cater to the specific platforms that your children spend time on. Common Sense Media provides reviews of online games, apps and programs kids are currently using.
4. Set boundaries
Just as you set boundaries in their offline lives, set internet ground rules that are tailored to your child’s development and maturity. Have specific rules about which websites can be visited, which apps can be used and what can be shared online. Know who their friends are, online and offline. Remind kids that they should always talk to a trusted adult if they feel unsure, worried or confused.
5. Use controls and filters
Set filters to try to block adult content. You can also include parental controls on apps such as Netflix so that your child only views shows suitable for their age. There are also sites such as YouTube Kids, that try to ensure safer online experiences for kids.
6. Learn from your child
Today’s children have grown up with the internet. It is possible that they are more knowledgeable than you about certain websites and apps, and that’s OK. Take the opportunity to learn from them. This effort will show your interest, while also allowing you to identify potential risks associated with the platform in question.
7. Reflect on your own media use
Setting a positive example for your children is as important online as it is offline. Be mindful of your own internet use, as well as your online presence and profile. Children will notice and learn from your behaviours, so modelling digital citizenship and safe media usage is crucial. Initiate device-free family time to provide opportunities for connection and engagement with one another.
8. Be understanding
Not all children are distressed by what they see online, but if they do see something that makes them uncomfortable, they may feel embarrassed or distressed, which may make them reluctant to talk about it. Let kids know that you can’t help them if you don’t know what’s going on. When children do talk to you about their concerns, or a situation that happened, try to be understanding, supportive and empathic and assure them they did the right thing in bringing it to your attention.
9. Prevent risky behaviours
Kids will be kids, and you can’t feasibly monitor everything your child does online. This is especially the case for teens. It is important to build their “toolset” so that they can handle a variety of situations. Teach children to ask themselves the following before posting online: Is this illegal, harmful or hurtful in any way or does this put my personal information at risk?
10. Teach problem-solving skills
While preventing problems is a great first step, it is also important to provide suggestions for how to deal with a difficult situation or crisis when it arises. Here are some situations that kids and teens often encounter, and strategies for how to deal with them. In all situations, let kids know they can come to you to work through it together.