The internet is an amazing thing. It keeps us in touch with friends and family who live far away, allows us to look up how to fix a toilet or identify poison oak with a couple of keystrokes, and keeps us well-stocked with silly videos to brighten up our day. However, the internet can also be a dangerous place. And this is especially important to recognize when you have children.
Kids today are raised with a native understanding of the internet and its associated technology. It’s neither danger nor blessing to these children; just a simple fact of life. And so, as parents, it’s important for us to educate our children and keep them alert to the dangers that they can come across online.
Many parents are unaware of the complex network that children and teens use to battle with each other right under the noses of adults. Cyberbullying is becoming more and more of a problem as we become more and more dependent on tech to enable relationships and communication. Cyberbullying is simply the use of any technological platform (such as email, social media, texting, comments on videos, etc.) in order to bully, threaten, embarrass, or control someone else. You can learn more about cyberbullying here. Here are some examples:
- Peers start a campaign to bully and degrade a classmate by posting negative comments on all his pictures, photos, or status updates on social media.
- A girl sends intimate photos to her boyfriend. After they break up, he threatens to share these photos with the whole school unless she gets back together with him.
- In order to haze the new kid, some children at school start a rumor that he’s gay and create a website or social media account with jokes or evidence of the rumor. Whether it’s truth or not, the new child feels ostracized and hated from that day forward, and he’s powerless to stop it.
- A complete stranger (usually we call these guys “trolls”) leaves threatening personal comments on the discussion thread of a video that an individual has posted on Instagram or YouTube.
At first, it might seem like cyberbullying is just a new platform for the same old song. However, it’s important to realize that the anonymity of the internet, and the ease of communication, makes these instances of bullying more prevalent than ever. In fact, the vast majority of high school students today have experienced cyberbullying in some form. And because our connection with the internet continues even after we leave school or social activities, the bullying can be relentless.
The explosion of the information age means that very few things are secret. Pictures of children posted online can easily be traced back to a geographical location. Parents seldom see who it is that their children are associating with online through gaming platforms, online chats, or discussions via email or social media. This means that your child can be lured into a vulnerable position by someone who isn’t what they claim to be in their online alias.
Threats to our children’s safety usually come in a form we’re not anticipating, and most often, the perpetrators of child abuse, or kidnapping, are people who are already close to and trusted by the family. However, it’s still important to set up precautions about your child’s security online.
In order to protect your child’s security online, follow these three baseline tips:
- Teach them about how important it is to protect personal information. Tell them to never, ever, give their full name, address, social security number, phone number, or any possible financial information online unless they clear it with you first.
- Disable geo-locating capabilities on your child’s phone or personal device. This means disabling their ability to check in on Facebook, or tag the location where a photo was taken on their Instagram. If your child needs to use their phone for driving directions, or in order to get an alert to you, then you can go in and ensure that only certain apps are accessing your location.
- Make sure your child understands that anyone can be anyone online. The person they’re chatting with online might not be who they say they are.
Pornography and explicit content
Most parents are horrified to learn how much their children have learned about sex (much of it misinformation, or dangerously skewed perspectives about sex) just from browsing online, or talking with their peers who have done so. Most of your child’s commonly-used apps, accounts, and sites have warnings set up to flag explicit or inappropriate content. However, there’s usually a delay to these things, and non-child-friendly content is pervasive and ever-propagating. It won’t just be pornography, either. Images of violence or self-harm can also be popularly shared among teens.
It’s important for parents to counter misinformation about sexual health that their children find online. Oftentimes, children are disturbed by things they find online, but unable to talk about it with a trusted adult. While you can take precautions to keep your children from stumbling across too much explicit content, it’s almost impossible to ensure that your child never sees something disturbing. And so, it’s important to have a dialogue about healthy sexuality, and open up a channel between the two of you where your child can bring up concerns and questions without feeling scared or ashamed.
Internet addiction and effects on mental health
This last category of harm that can come from the internet is harder to define. It’s not something that many parents are concerned about, but it’s becoming a growing problem among our youth. Addiction to gaming, gambling, pornography, and even social media attention is a real thing. It can affect the brain’s patterns and processes as powerfully as any illicit substance.
Even if internet use doesn’t cross into the realm of addiction, it has a close correlation with mental health. Many recent studies have found that higher levels of internet usage in kids coincide with higher levels of anxiety and depression, as well. Limiting your child’s technology use, encouraging them to have a well-balanced life, and being alert to any dangers of dependence can keep your child physically and mentally healthy.
What You Can Do
Fortunately, there are many things that you can do to guard your child from the potential dangers of internet use. While some of these precautions might feel like a punishment to your child, they can also be safety precautions that they’ll be grateful for in years to come.
- Turn off WiFi at night: Many problematic explorations and conversations occur at night. Additionally, excess use of online media at night easily leads to less sleep in children and teens, who need sleep the most. Set a specific hour when the WiFi goes off in your home, so that children aren’t tempted to continue playing games, chatting with friends, or falling down rabbit-holes on YouTube or Reddit. You may learn soon that both you and your children welcome the opportunity to unplug from the internet’s constant barrage.
- Have honest conversations with your children: Many of the dangers listed above came with accompanying guidance for talking with your children. You won’t always be able to be everywhere your child is… especially when the “where” we’re talking about is online. Therefore, you need to empower your child to recognize dangers, and let them know that they can come to you with their worries. Sometimes, children keep major dangers and warning signs secret from their parents for fear of judgement or punishment for minor errors. Let your children be aware of the true dangers, and open conversations spontaneously so that they don’t have to broach hard topics themselves.
- Let your children know you’re watching: Sometimes, just knowing that you’re engaged, concerned, and probably going to follow up on something deters children from engaging in risky behavior. It teaches them to be cautious about the information that they share online, or helps them to stay above-ground in their communications with friends and peers online.
- Set up parental controls: Parental controls might sound like punishment, or something that parents do when they don’t trust their children, but they can also be what prevents your child from seeing an ad or popup that they didn’t want to. Many potentially dangerous things online are aggressive in their marketing campaigns. You can think of it like preventing tobacco companies to advertise to your underage child. Keep your parental controls updated.