How To Talk About The Internet With Your Kid

While most of us didn't begin using computers until we were preteens, and probably didn't have our own laptop or cell phone until we were teens, kids today are accessing technology much earlier. App makers are even designing games for toddlers on tablets, and some have argued that since kids today will grow up more connected than any previous generation, honing their technological skills early will be necessary to their success. That being said, kids have to be protected from some of the more dangerous elements of life online. Here's how you should help your kid with internet risks, because it's not too early to start.

The internet has expanded our horizons by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, and it's kind of intense to think about the fact that kids born today won't be able to imagine a world without it. While there's a wealth of practical applications to enhance our lives through technology, it comes with risks. And for kids and teens, knowing how to manage those risks can be difficult. It's the job of parents and adults to help young people navigate the web safely, and to know what to do if the encounter situations that could be unsafe.

This isn't always an easy feat, as research has found: a recent study from the University of Central Florida found that perceptions of online risks vary wildly between kids and their parents — and that even though kids do want their parents to help them stay safe online, they're too afraid of punishment for unsafe behavior to ask for help. For parents, that means when it comes to having conversations with kids about online safety, striking the right tone is important.

Most of the kids in the study were older, if not into their teens. But kids much younger are already using phones and tablets. And once kids start school, they're guaranteed to be using tech on a daily basis. Starting conversations about web safety before kids start regularly accessing the web is one way to make sure that the channels of discussion stay open as they grow up, and that the right tone is set to encourage an honest and responsible dialogue about internet usage and expectations.

When it comes to internet risks, the "worst fear" for young people versus their parents are different, too: while parents are typically most concerned that their child will fall victim to online predators, young people are often worried about cyberbulling, which is often coming from their peers. More than half of kids under the age of 13 have online profiles, including Facebook (which has a 13 and over age requirement to sign up), according to CBS News.

In today's world it would be next to impossible to keep a kid offline completely, especially if they have internet access for school. While schools and parents often have "safety filters" that prevent kids from accessing certain types of websites, often including social media, if kids have tablets and smartphones, they can still access those sites if they're on a public Wi-Fi network, or at a friend's house who doesn't have the same constraints.

It may be futile for parents to try to prevent access to the internet and social media entirely, but the sooner they begin talking to their kids about how to use the internet, the more prepared everyone will be when it becomes a part of their daily lives. Some key points to discuss with kids to introduce them to a life online might be:

  • Explaining the potential for cyberbullying and make sure kids understand to not respond and immediately report the interaction to a trusted adult.
  • Setting clear expectations and boundaries about what the internet can be used for (homework assignments, emailing with relatives who live far away, etc.) and what is not allowed (social media accounts until they are a certain age, online shopping, gaming with others, etc.)
  • Teaching good search engine skills to mitigate the risk of stumbling across something that isn't age-appropriate.
  • Showing examples of what an unsafe, unsecured website might look like, teaching strong password creation skills, and frequently reiterating the importance of not sharing personal information.

Even adults who have been using the internet for years still goof now and then, especially because things like phishing scams have evolved and can often be hard to identify. The most important thing for parents and kids is to maintain an open line of communication about the internet. Parents should be wary of overreacting or intimidating their kids about their online behaviors, but should foster regular conversations about how the whole family uses the internet for work, school, and fun. If kids feel comfortable discussing the internet with parents, they're more likely to speak up if something seems unusual, frightening, or risky.