Sometimes when I’m giving Internet safety presentations to parents, I ask them whether they have had conversations with their sons or daughters about online safety.  More often than not, they nod their head “yes”.  They want me to know they are “good” parents, and they watch out for their children.  When I begin to dig and highlight the very real dangers that kids face these days online, it becomes more and more apparent that these parents have done little to protect their kids online and the conversations that they’ve had have been few and far between.  

Recently, I was talking with a mom about some issues that had come up with her son, and I asked her whether she thought he might have become caught up in online pornography.  She shook her head “no”, and explained to me that she once asked her son if he had ever seen pornography and he told her he had not.  She had asked her sixteen-year-old son one time if he had ever looked at pornography, and she trusted his word. 

I once heard a saying form Dr. Sharon Cooper that I’ve used ever since: “Parents: you should trust, but verify.”  It might sound a little funny, but it’s an approach I recommend to every parent I work with.  Have conversations with your kids about online safety, about their life and about their struggles, but back up those conversations by using parental controls, filters, accountability software and also your own common sense.  If you notice an increase in spam, start having pornography pop-ups and explicit ads come through your browser, and if you discover that your computer’s history had been erased, it’s pretty likely that your son or daughter has been looking at pornography or visiting web pages they should have avoided (even if your son or daughter tells you they have not).   Parental controls, filters and accountability software can notify you if anyone in your home or using one of your devices accesses inappropriate content; it’s a great way to enforce your home rules and check up on your kids’ online activities.

Far too often, the parents that I talk with are worried about upsetting their kids and invading their privacy, but it’s up to you as their parents to do everything in your power to protect them—from dangers inside the home, outside the home and those they can access in the palm of their hand.  This doesn’t mean you should always suspect the worst or act like the secret police around your children, but it does mean watching out for warning signs, teachable moments, using parental controls and digging a little deeper in conversation when appropriate. 

Remember also that if you do discover that your son or daughter has been viewing bad sites online or going to pornography sites online try your best to remain calm, assess the extent of the problem and take the necessary steps to better protect them going forward.  Kids are often already feeling ashamed, which is often why they (and all of us) lie or try to cover up their actions.  Try not to add to this shame; explain why pornography is harmful and why you are going to—as a family—take steps to keep it out of your home and our of your child’s life.  Don’t bury your head in the sand when it comes to this issue.