“Don’t talk to strangers!” I have known this helpful piece of safety advice so long I don’t really remember even learning it. It’s just something I’ve always known. This is something we ingrain in our children as we help them be safe, although they learn it now as “Stranger, Danger!” We educate children to know the difference between a stranger we can trust, like a police officer, and those we shouldn’t trust. We instruct them on how to be polite with other adults when they ask us questions, without giving away important information like where you live or go to school. I remember taking a lot of time to learn what to do in emergency situations, and now I’m helping my children learn how to do the same thing.
So why does it seem that all the rules we learn about being safe when communicating with people get thrown out the window if we are communicating with people online?
Communication is communication. It can be face to face, or keyboard to keyboard, or phone to phone or any combination you can dream up. The rules for communicating should be the same for all the ways we communicate with each other. Many parents feel that they are technology impaired and don’t know all the latest social media sites or play store apps. This shouldn’t change the fact that they should still help their son or daughter learn to communicate in safe and appropriate ways either in person or online. The issues of communication are still the same no matter what you are using. Teaching kids to be safe online isn’t any different than being safe off line. For me, there is a very simple rule involved: “If you wouldn’t say something face to face, then don’t type or text it.”
Here are a few simple suggestions for you as you help parents and youth exercise safety online:
1. Using computers and devices is a right, not a privilege. Regardless of what your middle schooler says, he or she will not die if they do not get the latest iPhone. While they become a great convenience for communication, everyone will survive when unplugged from their phone. Parents will be wise when they set up strict guidelines for new phones and technology. Once trust has been established, greater privileges can be granted. Ask questions about how much online time is allowed per day and when. Is there a central location for all online devices to be turned in every night? Is there a place where online devices are not allowed? Figure these kinds of hard questions out early and you will save headaches and trouble down the road.
2. Be very open about how to communicate with people, offline and online. While offline communication might occur for younger children, as they grow up, continue the education for safe ways to communicate online. Don’t assume that they will just know and do the right thing. Be open about why they shouldn’t share certain kinds of photos with people. Talk about the kind of information that should never be shared with strangers online. Encourage them to only communicate with people they know outside of the online world. Remind them daily that anything shared and typed online never goes away, and remind them how that can affect them negatively in the future. Help them understand that they shouldn’t speak differently with their thumbs then they would with their mouths.
3. Reduce temptations from unsupervised online interactions. Because our online devices are becoming so portable, it’s difficult to create a specific space for online use. With that being said, it’s a good idea to keep computers and online interactions to rooms where people can be supervised. Even if parents are not going to monitor every web site and interaction online, it is less tempting to visit inappropriate sites, or have negative conversation online, when anyone could happen upon you in a high-traffic area of your house.
4. Engage other family members online. Parents do not need to be part of every social media app and site that their kids are a part of, but it’s good to find one or two that they regularly use and be present on those sites. Look at the pictures they post and comment in uplifting and appropriate ways online. I wouldn’t use the online interaction to correct behavior, but to make your presence known to your son’s or daughter’s online circles. “Like” awesome pictures, give encouraging responses to posts, and affirm them. This can all be done without being an overbearing parent or overly embarrassing children, but sometimes a little loving embarrassment from parents can be healthy.
5. Parents should experience the internet AS their son or daughter. It’s one thing to be “friends” with your son or daughter online, but it’s a different thing altogether to log on the internet using your son’s or daughter’s usernames and accounts. It is the parent’s right to view e-mails, surf Facebook and other social media accounts as your son or daughter. There are interactions that can be private unless visited under their username and, as trust is established, this monitoring can and should happen less and less. Companies also specifically advertise to users differently so web sites that are visited while a youth is online is going to give specific information to companies on how to market to them specifically. This can only be seen and monitored by parents if they experience the internet using their son’s or daughter’s accounts.
6. Exercise forgiveness as much as possible. There are so many great things about being connected to millions of things and people online, but there are also great dangers and temptations. Talk about those dangers often and help them understand that as a parent you are there for them no matter what. They can and should trust you enough to be able to go to you if they mess up. They need to trust that you will love them no matter what and will help them through the difficult situation. Online privileges will need to be reduced to help them through difficult and tempting situations, but love and forgiveness should always be quickly given.
7. Parents need to model appropriate online behavior. It’s difficult to expect positive online interactions from youth if parents are not living by the same standards. How parents use their phones and when they use them can teach poor online interaction to kids without even thinking about it. What is the rule about online use times at home, at the table, during family time? Parents shouldn’t be exempt from the same rules. What is okay to post online? Parents should live by the same rules.
Helping youth and parents communicate safely online all starts by helping youth and parents communicate safely offline. Use those basic principles to establish trust and responsibility so that as youth get older, more privilege and responsibility can be given because trust has been established. The more parents can talk opening about these issues with their kids before it becomes an issue or a crisis, the better off they will be able to navigate through difficult situations throughout life online or off.