6 Steps to Keep Kids Safe Online
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, parents were already worried about their children spending time online. They often asked me how to keep kids safe in the digital space. Now these concerns have skyrocketed, as our children are often plugged in all-day to study, play, and connect with family and friends. Digital platforms provide us so many positive opportunities – but they can have a darker side. How do we protect our kids?
Tips about online child abuse sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) have increased over 90% since before the COVID-19 pandemic. To understand the risk, and to get ideas about how we can protect our children, I reached out to Dr. Tricia Tayama M.D., a Kaiser Permanente pediatrician and child abuse specialist.
She agrees kids are spending much more time online – and digital platforms can be used for both positive and negative purposes. She explained, “
“We can’t simply block one app and assume we’ve reduced the risk.” Instead, “Our children need to be knowledgeable about how to recognize risks online and empowered to speak up.”
Protecting our kids starts with education. We need to educate even young children about healthy boundaries in virtual and in-person relationships, because bullying and abuse can start at very young ages. For example, when teaching children about what body parts are private, parents should say that no one should take or send pictures of those parts. Similarly, let kids know that it’s not ok for grown-ups to have “secrets” with children, whether in-person or online.
Dr. Tayama offered these 6 tips to create a safer digital experience for your family:
Talk early and often with children about the risks of online activity. Children need to be able to recognize risks online and feel empowered to speak up about them. Be upfront about what they should look out for, so kids can recognize any red flags before they turn into a bigger problem.
Set clear rules your kids can follow. The NCMEC explains that online predators may engage and entice children by creating connections using compliments (“likes” and discussing “shared” interests) and pretending to be younger. Understanding this can guide the rules you give your children:
- Don’t share your full name or address, or send pictures or money, to people you don’t know online.
- Never agree to meet an online “friend” in real life.
Teach your kids to tell you right away if anyone they encounter online:
- Offers incentives such as gift cards, lodging, transportation, food, alcohol, or drugs.
- Engages in sexual conversation.
- Asks for or sends sexually explicit images.
Get plugged in with your child. My favorite advice to parents who are childproofing their home for toddlers is to “get down on your hands and knees and see what they see.”
The same advice can apply to digital safety. Log on regularly with your kids to get a first-hand view of their online world. This gives you opportunities to see what brings them joy, where they need more education or safeguards, and how to integrate personal values into their online lives. Ask to learn and play video games with them. I’ve done this with my teens. I’m terrible – but they enjoy my genuine interest and the comic relief!
Avoid judgement of your child. Online predators gain power when kids are afraid to tell their parents what’s happening and keep their activities secret. Encourage your kids to talk with you about everything they’re doing online – including and especially if anything they see or experience makes them uncomfortable. Let kids know you won’t be angry or blame them for what they show you.
Make time to unplug together. Parents are also spending more time than ever online. Make sure your kids see you taking digital breaks. Better yet – spend this offline time together with your kids playing, cooking, or heading out for a walk.
Resources for Parents
Interactive content for parents, teachers, and others to share with children including the video series for children 10 and younger, “Into the Cloud.”
American Academy of Pediatrics
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