We all want to protect our children from the scary things that can happen online, but how do we do that without terrifying them?
Parenting is all about finding that delicate balance of providing your kids with important information that they need to protect themselves from harm, while also making sure that you don’t give them too much information which may scare them.
This can be extremely difficult when sensitive topics come up. We have seen this most recently with the Covid-19 outbreak. Many parents were concerned that over-emphasizing handwashing and keeping their kids off of school would lead to their kids feeling anxious or scared. However, in saying that, parents have a responsibility to keep their children safe, and the better-informed kids are the better choices they can make; it’s a tricky line to walk.
When it comes to online safety and social media, this line gets even trickier. Your kids may see the online world simply as somewhere that they can watch funny videos and play games. As they get a bit older, social media becomes a place where they can post photos and talk to their friends.
In both of these perceptions of the world wide web, there still exists a dark and dangerous underworld of grooming, sextortion, inappropriate content and cyberbullying.
It is massively important that our kids are aware of these issues, but these are the last things on earth that we want children to be thinking and worrying about at a time when they should be enjoying their lives.
There is a way to have open and honest discussions about these topics with kids and teenagers in an age-appropriate, but informative way. Here are our top tips:
1. First, work on your relationship.
If you don’t have an open and honest relationship with your child to begin with, it might get their guard up when you abruptly have a conversation about what they’re doing online and how they should be protecting themselves.
Practice talking to your teen about different things, asking for their opinions on topics and listening in a non-judgemental way. Make it a normal part of your daily routine to talk about what they have seen and done online.
Then, when you want to have a discussion about something a bit more difficult, they will hopefully be more receptive and listen to you.
2. Ask open-ended questions.
You might hear this a lot, but it can have really great results. Before you broach a topic, ask your children what they think about it first. Ask questions that they can’t say “yes” or “no” to – ones that they really have to think and provide an answer for. Use ‘How…?’ and ‘Why…?’ over ‘Do you thing/agree…?’ and ask them to explain or describe things.
This will allow them to elaborate and give you a stronger idea of their level of knowledge on the subject already, which will help you to plan what you’d like to say to them and how you’d like to say it.
3. Build on safety knowledge they may already have.
Depending on their age, your child might already know about body safety. Body safety teaches kids about trusting their gut in situations, never holding "body secrets" - what touches are okay and not okay, etc.
Let them know that body safety is important online too – that they should never take a picture of their bodies and send it to anyone/post it online, no one should ask for a picture of their bodies, and that their bodies are theirs and nobody else’s. Equally, we would not think of sending them out without knowing how to cross the road safely, or ride a bike responsibly.
By building on what they already know, you’ll be able to have a frame of reference when talking about online safety – it is a vital part of the bigger picture of staying safe in today’s world.
4. For older kids, chat more openly.
You may think your teen or tween is way too young to talk about sexting, nudes and online dating, but this may not be the case. Plus, they will be much better off getting unbiased, fact-based information from you than hearing it from someone on the playground.
If you know of something bad that happened to someone online through sexting and nudes, relay that story to your teen in a gentle, but fact-based way. Take the time to talk to them about consensual relationships and reiterate the fact that no one who cares about them and respects them would ever be angry at them for saying no to sexting or sending nudes.
Everything that goes online stays there forever, so learning about factual consequences will help to give them a different perspective on their actions.
The same goes for sexual relationships: if they cannot get this information from you, pornography is only a couple of clicks away. This is definitely not how we want our kids to learn about healthy and consensual relationships!
5. Never close the conversation.
You may think you have covered all basis with your conversation and that your child now knows everything they need to know about online safety.
However, technology evolves and situations arise that nobody will have prepared either of you for. That’s why open and ongoing dialogue is so important. Encourage them to have a think about what you’ve talked about and to come back to you with any questions or worries they might have.
Above all, don’t forget that you’re doing your best. Raising kids who are growing up with an online world is hard, but worrying yourself to death over it won’t help them or you. The most important thing that you can bring to the table is a confident, calm and happy parent that loves them no matter what.
This content has been checked and certified by Cyber Safe Ireland whose mission is to empower children, parents and teachers to navigate the online world in a stronger, smarter and safer way.