The Internet can be an incredible learning tool for your children, starting at a very young age. There are, however, safety concerns that need to be addressed. It’s important that your kids know how to make responsible decisions to protect themselves from cyber bullying, online predators and exposure to age-inappropriate material. Also, teaching online privacy—of both their information and yours—is imperative. But when and how do you start the conversation? And what do you even talk about? We got in touch with some cyber-savvy experts for advice on how to ensure your children are equipped to make informed, safe decisions every time they are online, whether they are five or 15.
Start teaching early
According to Larry Magid, CEO of ConnectSafely.org, it’s almost never too early. “I would start the conversation before they are allowed to use any connected device. Certainly by age four if they have access to a tablet or any other device.”
Augusta Nissly, program coordinator of Good Digital Parenting, part of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), agrees. “When they are younger, it is likely that they will be using one of your devices, so make time to sit down with them while they use the device and start conversations while you are online together.”
Ensure the discussion is ongoing
Both Magid and Nissly make it clear that it’s not a one-time talk. The most important thing is to maintain open communication.
FOSI suggests Three Teachable Moments as key entry points for parents to strike up a discussion about online safety: when kids receive their first phone, when they turn 13 (according to FOSI, many social media platforms do not permit users under the age of 13) and when they get their driver’s license (sparked by cautions against texting and driving). But there should be many conversations happening in between.
Keep it casual and comfortable
It’s important to have a conversation with your kids. Ask questions, be engaged and talk to them about what they are interested in online.
“Find a convenient and calm time—not while you’re rushed,” advises Magid. “Ask them about their favorite sites. Ask them to help you understand how to use some app that they know. Never lecture, and try not to be judgmental.”
Adds Nissly: “Parents need to establish a sense of trust and let their child know that if they ever come across anything they are not sure of or uncomfortable with online, they need to tell a parent, and the parent has to agree not to get upset.”
Talk about everything
Once you’ve established an open environment to discuss online safety, you should have many opportunities to bring up dangers and concerns, since there’s a wide range of topics to cover.
“Some of your conversations can be about why you choose not to click on something, how to avoid making in-app purchases or how to choose what to respond to,” says Nissly. “Talk to them about their digital reputation and their self-esteem, why it wouldn’t be okay to post certain things about themselves and how to spot when something has been photoshopped and isn’t realistic. Teach them what information is shareable with others and what information—such as home address, phone number and passwords—is not shareable.”
Nissly also says that parents and guardians should ensure that the difference between friends and followers is understood, and to clarify who they should interact with and who they should avoid. “Focus on digital citizenship and cyber ethics,” she says. “How you are expected to act offline is the same as you should be acting online. Parents should get kids thinking about their digital footprint from an early age and remind them about not over-sharing.”
Don’t depend on your kids to tell you how a new social media platform works. Make it a part of what you talk about.
“Investigate, join the social media site yourself, download the apps, read blogs, talk to other parents, Google terms related to the app or program,” says Nissly. “My favorite option is to ask your child to show you how something works, take an interest in what they are doing online and build out the conversation from there. Don’t be afraid to let your child teach you about technology.”
Magid even suggests asking them about how they protect their privacy. “Maybe you can learn something about protecting your own.”
Parents, how do you keep your children safe online? Share your tried and tested tips with us in the comments below.
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