Guide to Teaching Children About Online Safety at Every Age

Every Parents Must Read About Children Online Safety

A Comprehensive Guide to Teaching Children About Online Safety at Every Age

This article is part of our “Big Talks” series, which aims to assist parents in navigating important conversations with their children. It addresses one of the most common concerns among parents: the internet, an unavoidable aspect of our children’s lives. As they grow from curious toddlers attempting to snatch our phones to teenagers whose social lives primarily revolve around the online realm, we have a limited window of time to educate them about navigating the online world with utmost safety.

To offer guidance on this matter, I sought insights from Devorah Heitner, the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” and the upcoming book “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.” Throughout this article, I will share valuable resources tailored to each specific age group.

Teaching preschoolers about online safety

Even before children reach the age of texting friends, posting on social media, or engaging in online gaming, it is crucial to establish a foundation of healthy technology use. Devorah Heitner emphasizes the significance of being mindful of our own tech habits, particularly in the presence of preschoolers. At this stage, children are observant and aware of our constant use of technology. They notice us capturing their moments through pictures and videos on our phones, witness our endless scrolling while they play in the bathtub, and may even bring us our phones when left unattended in another room because they recognize the device’s importance to us.

Devorah Heitner emphasizes the significance of acknowledging the extent to which we model our own digital behaviors and connections, particularly during the early years. It is essential to be mindful not only of what we are modeling but also of what we might unintentionally omit. Parents who grew up in the 30s or older may recall the era of family landline phones, where everyone communicated in a more publicly audible manner compared to today’s private digital interactions. Without even realizing it, our parents served as role models, instilling in us fundamental norms and etiquette for phone usage and communication.

According to Heitner, there is a notable difference in how kids today acquire communication skills compared to previous generations who gained them through osmosis. Due to this shift, she recommends that parents proactively instill proper communication manners from an early age. This includes teaching children the importance of saying “hello” at the beginning of a call and “goodbye” when ending it (without wandering off midway). Additionally, parents can explain why it’s inappropriate to call someone too late or too early and discuss the different scenarios where calling, texting, or using video chat might be more appropriate. Heitner emphasizes that the age of 4 or 5 is not too young to start imparting these valuable lessons.

Establishing healthy tech-use habits and nurturing effective communication skills at an early stage, even before children have their own smart devices, lays a strong foundation for their future interactions with apps, games, and online chats. By instilling these values from the beginning, parents can empower their children with the necessary skills to navigate the digital landscape responsibly when the time comes.

Teaching kids ages 5-8 about online safety

During the early elementary years, children often gain more independence in terms of watching videos, playing games, and communicating with friends and family members online. Devorah Heitner suggests that one of the first lessons to emphasize at this age is that if they encounter anything online that is disturbing or frightening, they should immediately come to their parents—and, importantly, reassure them that they won’t be reprimanded for doing so.

“We must ensure that we don’t discourage children from reporting such incidents,” Heitner explains. “Therefore, it is crucial to make it very clear that they will not get into trouble but instead should inform us.”

While discussing online content is essential, it is also important to address the three other “C’s” of online safety, as highlighted by the Australian parenting website Raising Children:

Contact risks: It is crucial to educate children about the dangers of interacting with individuals they don’t know, including adults pretending to be children, while online. Children should understand the potential risks associated with sharing personal information with strangers, providing contact details in response to pop-up messages, or agreeing to meet someone they have only encountered online. By discussing these scenarios and emphasizing the importance of caution and skepticism, parents can help protect their children from contact risks in the digital realm.

Conduct risks: It is important to teach children about responsible behavior online and the potential consequences of their actions, as well as how to handle situations where they may become victims of harmful behavior. Conduct risks involve children engaging in actions that could harm others or being subjected to such behavior themselves. Examples include destroying a game or creation made by a friend or sibling, or unintentionally making in-app purchases. By discussing appropriate conduct, empathy, and digital etiquette, parents can help children navigate the online world with respect for others and avoid potential conduct risks.

Contract risks: It is crucial to educate children about the potential dangers of agreeing to unfair contracts, terms, or conditions that they may not fully comprehend. These risks involve children inadvertently consenting to unfavorable agreements that can have negative consequences. For instance, children might click on a button that permits a business to send them inappropriate marketing messages or collect their personal or family data. Additionally, using toys, apps, or devices with weak internet security can leave children vulnerable to identity theft or fraud. By discussing the importance of reading and understanding terms and conditions, as well as emphasizing the significance of privacy and security, parents can empower their children to make informed decisions and protect themselves from contract risks in the online environment.

Establishing rules and guidelines for children’s online activities right from the start is crucial, rather than waiting for negative incidents to occur. A proactive approach can be initiated by creating a family media plan together. Emphasize to children the significance of safeguarding their private information, such as their full name and address, from individuals they have not met in person. By consistently reinforcing this message, children will develop an understanding of the importance of online privacy and taking precautions when interacting with strangers online.

Heitner advises parents, particularly during the early elementary years and into the tween years, to establish an expectation that there will be a waiting period for any new app or game requested by their child. This waiting period allows parents the opportunity to research and evaluate the app or game to determine its appropriateness for their child. By taking this proactive approach, parents can ensure that the digital content their child engages with aligns with their values and promotes a safe and positive online experience.

Heitner emphasizes that unless parents are already familiar with a specific app, their child should not expect an automatic approval. By establishing this approach, children develop a habit of understanding that there will be a training period or restricted usage when exploring new apps or games. This allows parents to assess their child’s interaction with the technology and gradually grant more freedom once they feel confident that their child is using it appropriately and within understood boundaries. This approach ensures that parents have a comprehensive understanding of the app’s capabilities and that their child is engaging with it responsibly before granting more unrestricted access.

Teaching tweens about online safety

As your child enters the 9- to 12-year-old age range, you should ideally have already engaged in numerous discussions regarding the four C’s of online safety (content, contact, conduct, and contract). These conversations should continue and become even more crucial, particularly as you approach the decision of purchasing their first smartphone. At this stage, children often have their own devices and greater independence in using the internet, making ongoing conversations about online safety increasingly important. They are more likely to encounter sexually explicit, violent, or otherwise harmful content, making it essential to address ways to protect themselves.

Raising Children recommends discussing methods to restrict the content they can access, such as utilizing safe search settings on web browsers. These conversations help children understand the importance of managing their online experiences responsibly and taking proactive measures to maintain a safe and age-appropriate digital environment.

Around fifth or sixth grade, many children express a desire to engage in texting with friends and family members, either using their own phone or a shared device like an iPad. It is crucial during this phase to have conversations about potential scenarios they might encounter and how to navigate them effectively. To encourage critical thinking about texting, Heitner suggests engaging children by asking questions such as:

What would you do if someone you don’t know sends you a text message?
How would you handle a situation where someone is pressuring you to share personal information through texts?
What steps would you take if you receive a hurtful or mean message?
How do you think you should respond if someone is constantly texting you and making you uncomfortable?

By posing these types of questions, parents can promote thoughtful reflection and empower their children to make informed decisions and respond appropriately to various texting situations.

Heitner strongly advises that tweens begin by using texting before diving into social media apps. She suggests that kids should ideally have a minimum of six months to a year of texting experience before venturing into platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, or any other more public accounts.

“Texting is its own realm of challenges,” Heitner explains. “I want kids to become comfortable with texting before they engage with more public platforms.”

Furthermore, it is crucial to establish ground rules for device use prior to giving them their first phone. It is essential to have these rules in place beforehand, rather than discovering them using their phones late at night without any guidelines. Setting boundaries like a “no devices in your room at bedtime” rule helps create a healthy balance and ensures a positive and responsible use of technology.

Teaching teens about online safety

During the teenage years, adolescents typically engage in a significant amount of online communication with their friends. Unlike our own parents who often served as intermediaries when friends called the house phone, we have less insight into our kids’ regular communication, as Devorah Heitner points out.

To bridge this gap, it is crucial to check in with our teenagers about their online interactions and how they are progressing. Heitner suggests asking questions such as who they are communicating with and how those conversations are going. Additionally, it is important to discuss their ability to assert boundaries, such as saying no if someone requests a nude picture. Equally important is ensuring that they understand that receiving an unsolicited nude picture is not just an annoyance but a reportable problem. By having open conversations, parents can help their teenagers navigate these challenging situations, promote healthy communication, and empower them to make informed decisions online.

Heitner emphasizes that when considering online safety for teenagers, the focus should be on emotional and mental health safety. She highlights the importance of addressing aspects such as location-sharing, which may trigger negative emotions when seeing friends engage in activities without them. It’s essential for teenagers to self-reflect and self-regulate their experiences with specific apps and people to prioritize their well-being.

Furthermore, discussing how app algorithms present new content to them is crucial. Additionally, exploring the sources from which they obtain trustworthy information is essential. Heitner points out that certain content, like diet-related material, can be toxic and unsafe for kids. Encouraging teenagers to be skeptical and critical thinkers, particularly on platforms like Reddit and Quora that may contain misinformation, is important. It is vital to guide teenagers towards developing media literacy skills without making them feel naive or deceived, fostering a sense of empowerment and discernment in their online experiences.

Indeed, it is crucial to have conversations with teenagers about the nature of their interactions, especially when it involves communicating with unfamiliar individuals, particularly on platforms like Discord.

Heitner emphasizes the importance of delving deeper into this topic to ensure that teenagers are not engaging in extensive communication with unknown adults or potentially harmful peers. While Discord can be a space where kids meet strangers and form communities, it is essential to approach it with caution. Heitner highlights the need for a cautious approach when interacting with strangers online. It’s worth noting that she is not entirely opposed to teenagers connecting with people they don’t know for various reasons. However, she emphasizes that strangers should be approached differently than individuals they have met in person at school or during extracurricular activities. By discussing these nuances, parents can help teenagers navigate online interactions safely and responsibly.