The internet and mobile devices have improved communication tremendously. Yet, danger lurks, and parents should monitor their child’s internet and mobile device use. It helps for parents to know and use the same technology. Cyber safety covers multiple topics, including browsing the internet, gaming, apps, texting, and social media. Teach your child appropriate use at school, at home (including friends’ homes), and the consequences of misuse.
Path to safe use
Internet browsing: Understanding the technology your kids will be using is important. If you are not comfortable with your knowledge of the internet, your local libraries may offer free classes, or ask your child’s school librarian for help.
Log onto the internet with your child to discuss safety rules and why they are important. Start by using your internet provider’s parent-control settings to block access to inappropriate websites. Install computer software that restricts the sharing of personal information, and keep the computer in a common area of your home (such as a family room). If you are not comfortable with your level of knowledge about the internet,
Share a family email account, and create a screen name that doesn’t reveal your child’s name, gender, or location. Be aware of your child’s use of library computers, friends’ laptops, tablets, and mobile phones, and monitor their activity as best you can. Disable the computer function that allows websites to remember your information (this is called cookies). Internet browsers offer “incognito search windows” that allow you to search in secrecy, and they w ill not save search history. However, requests or purchases made from an incognito window can be traced. Internet web filters do continue to work even if your child is using an incognito window. Using this type of secret search function is not a safe way for your child to search the internet.
Tell your child which websites and apps are appropriate (based on the child’s age and stage of development). Your child should never talk to strangers online. That includes not talking to players they don’t know in online games. Your child should never give out personal information (their name or those of family members), phone numbers, address, passwords, or location. Monitor bank accounts and phone records (yours and theirs).
Social media: Talk to your teen about which social media sites are acceptable. Some experts recommend allowing your teen to use mainstream social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. However, avoid using social media sites such as Whisper, Snapchat, Kik, AskFM, and others that promote anonymous gossip, bullying, and sharing of inappropriate photos. Social media sites may change over time. Be aware of new and popular sites. Monitor your child’s posts by becoming a follower and asking for the password. Turn on the privacy settings for each site.
Social media sites allow followers to privately message one another. Have your child introduce you to a new social media “friend” or “follower” (if possible) and insist that he or she gets your permission to add them.
Gaming: Gaming without the exchange of money, financial information, or communication with strangers is generally safe. Check your child’s websites and apps to see if his or her games promote conversations with strangers or require the use of a credit card or financial information.
Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying differs from traditional bullying. It occurs online, often anonymously, through social media sites and messaging, texts, or email. It spreads quickly to big groups and can occur at all times of the day and night.
Teach your child to:
- Use appropriate language, not participate in gossip, and treat others with kindness and respect while online.
- Ignore or do not respond to texts, posts, or messages from others who are rude and displaying bully behavior. Tell them not to forward online gossip to others.
- Block bullies or offensive contacts from your child’s phone.
- Seek advice from a trusted adult when they feel threatened or bullied. Make sure you and the other adults believe your child.
- Understand they did nothing to encourage it.
- Learn appropriate ways to handle it.
- Tell you about the bullying so you can report it to the school and local law enforcement.
- Work with a counselor to overcome the negative effects of being bullied.
Strangers and predators: Online strangers and predators are just as dangerous as those you meet face-to-face. Online strangers hide their identities from teens.
Teach your child not to talk with people they don’t already know. Tell them never to meet with someone they don’t know and have met through the internet or a text message. Have your child choose screen names that don’t reveal their names, contact information, or gender. Tell them not to communicate with someone they don’t know, and remind them not to do anything inappropriate while Skyping or Facetiming with friends.
Photos and videos: Tell your child not to take or send inappropriate photos or videos of themselves or others (such as those where he or she may be naked or participating in sexual activity, or in any other inappropriate situation). Photos and videos do live on websites and social media forever, even after they have been deleted. A good rule of thumb is to remind your child not to post photos they wouldn’t want you, as their parents, to see.
App downloads: All of the same advice applies to the security, privacy, purchases, and parent monitoring for apps. Apps are usually accessible on mobile phones and other mobile devices, such as tablets. Some apps are free (which means your child might download them without your knowledge) and some are fee-based. There are many good educational and entertainment apps available to kids and teens.
Chat rooms and group texts: This is a great place to connect with others with shared interests. Make sure the chat room or group text topic is a safe, healthy topic approved by you. Participate in those chat rooms with your child, read his or her group texts, and allow your child to join only those chat rooms or group texts that are associated with trusted sources. Sources include your child’s classroom, school-sponsored clubs and athletic teams.
Things to consider about cyber safety
- Inappropriate photos and videos can be distributed to a large audience in a matter of seconds. It exposes your child to strangers, predators, and cyberbullying.
- Sharing personal information is dangerous. Even when it’s shared with friends, it can fall into the wrong hands.
- Downloading inappropriate websites and apps, or joining inappropriate social media sites can lead to communication with strangers. Many pedophiles disguise themselves as teenagers.
- Cyberbullying can affect your child’s emotional well being. This can lead to your child skipping school, withdrawing from people and things they once liked, doing poorly in school, having anxiety or depression, and having thoughts of suicide. It can negatively impact your child’s overall mood, appetite, behavior, and sleep.
Nothing is 100% effective, but limiting your child’s time on the internet and taking these proactive steps can help reduce the threat. Remember to check with your school, other parents, and your family’s after-school care program to see what rules and protection they have in place for internet safety.
Questions for your doctor
- How do I know if my child could be a victim of cyberbullying?
- How many hours a day is okay for my child to spend on the computer/internet?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.