Although talking with our kids about online safety can seem daunting, our children desperately seek and need our advice, guidance, and support as they connect and experience life in the new virtual world.  Start this conversation today.  Remember: don’t pull the plug or throw out their smartphone if you find out that they are doing something online that you do not approve of.  First, be real with yourself, did you clearly communicate your standards and expectations for online behavior?  Did you clearly lay out penalties to bad online behavior?  Often, parents who overreact or pull the plug will shut the door on dialoguing with their teens.

Encourage your kids to talk to you if they do encounter any problems online, and to try and cultivate trust to establish open lines of communication.  When you find yourself wondering why your child spends six hours on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in front of the computer, ask them what they are doing online and who they are communicating with.  Always remember that teens have grown to rely on technology to communicate with their friends, to gossip, to research, to talk, to create and to connect.  So be clear, honest, and set boundaries just as you do in their offline life.

Here are four positive conversation starters to try today:

  1. What are some things you do to keep yourself safe online?  What are some other things that you could do to stay safe online?  It’s great to start with the positives.  Most teens think they are acting safely and responsibly online (although they usually aren’t exhibiting great judgment!).  Although young people routinely apply common-sense principles and rules taught at home and school to avoid harmful situations in the physical world, they often don’t apply these same rules in the online world.  Teens and children do not make the connection that the same precautionary measures must be applied to both the physical and cyber world, and research has demonstrated that the prefrontal cortex of the brain—the portion used for reasoning and decision making—is not fully developed until early-to-mid twenties.  Hopefully, you and your teen will learn a little more about online safety as you all talk about what they can do better online.
  2. Do you and your friends ever talk about online safety?  Some teens talk to their friends when they encounter stuff that makes them uncomfortable.  Some teens have even encouraged their friends to take down pictures that might draw the wrong kind of attention; encourage your child to watch their friends’ backs in the online world.
  3. What can I do to help keep you safe online?  You as the parent or caregiver are the first line of defense to protect your children from online dangers.  Even just asking your child how you can help them while you talk about some of the dangers can open the door to conversations down the road and tells your child that you want to support them in the online world.
  4. Where are your favorite places to go online?  What sort of things can you do there?  Many of us do not understand why our children want to spend so much time online; asking your children to talk to you about why they like certain sites will help you understand why the online world has become so important for our kids.  Ask your children to show you their favorite sites; ask them how they work and then explore them on your own to see the sort of content your children are taking in.

Check out our parent resources for more information about protecting your kids online, and stay tuned for more conversation starters this month.