Promoting and Controlling Safe Online Adolescent Behavior

In last week’s blog on WiFi security, we discussed a ‘herd immunity’ approach to online security. Similarly, when it comes to promoting safe online behaviors for the community’s youth, it helps if we all observe comparable levels of knowledge on the topic.

For the sake of this blog’s purpose, we’ll assume you’ve discussed the ‘birds and the bees’ with your children. The goal here is to understand how a comprehensive knowledge of safe sex combined with a solid understanding of safe online behavior, can help your kids in navigating the internet responsibly; even when you aren’t there to block an inappropriate website, or to intercept a concerning message.

As tempting as it may be, getting overwhelmed and pulling the plug on everything is seldom realistic or helpful in the long run. You would be correct to observe that devices and connections are easily accessible outside of any parental controls you can put in place. If you personally don’t use social media, it may be difficult to understand that forbidding social networking can make it harder for youth to fit in.

So let’s start with understanding the benefits of social media.

  • Maintaining social ties. Your child can keep in touch with existing friends, siblings, and make (appropriate) new connections. This may be particularly important for those who have moved to a new community.
  • Support. Through online community groups, youth can share experiences with peers.
  • Family connections. Your children may be able to share posts and other information with family members between visits, where appropriate and approved by you.
  • Self-expression. Videos, blogs, and other digital venues allow youth to express their feelings and ideas, which can help them shape their identity!

Well, what are the risks? Everyone one can feel at risk for engaging in unsafe online situations, and may be vulnerable to inappropriate contact, cyberbullying, or [child] predators. When it comes to children, social media use may also aid in communication with adults or family members who you want to restrict.

Tips for safe use of social media:

Discuss social media with your children and others in your care. Ask them how they use social media and why it’s important to them. Set house rules early on for what’s okay and what’s not. Rules will likely vary with age (see this link for age appropriate internet use contracts). Your house rules should be clear and understood by your child’s friends, too.

  • Set strict privacy settings. Understand settings for each network used, so that you can limit who can find them (or you), what they can see, and how they can communicate. Visit the security updates for Facebook and Instagram, etc., and update settings that expose your child unnecessarily. We can help you understand how to access and use these settings.
  • Discuss dating sites with your children. Talk about what they are, and ask if they understand the intended use. Explain why dating sites shouldn’t be accessed. Sites like Tinder, Grinder, Bumble, Tumblr and Match are not designed for anyone under the age of 18 and are not appropriate. Explicit content and contact can be easily accessed on these types of sites.
  • Teach everyone in the household to keep personal information private. Discuss not posting a full name, address, school name, phone number, photo, or other information that would identify you. Give context and provide examples of why this is dangerous.

What else?

  • Monitor your children’s use. Keep computers in a common family space (not a bedroom) and keep track of all device use, including phones and tablets. Know what types of social media and applications your child uses. Ask them for passwords and perhaps permission to let a trusted adult “friend” them. It is however, important to be balanced when monitoring privacy. Consider further, personal information should not be posted or exchanged online – it’s not a diary.
  • Conduct searches. Once in a while, search your child’s name and address and see what information or tagged photos are available publicly.
  • Explain the need to be careful. Make sure your children understand that not everyone is who they say they are. Advise them to avoid sharing intimate photos and talking online about sex.
  • Discuss cyberbullying. Warn them not to send, forward, or respond to mean or embarrassing messages or pictures. Help them document, block, and report cyberbullying. Similarly, help them understand that everything they send can also be documented and disseminated, and as such they can be held responsible for their posts.
  • Talk about Copyright. Teach them about the consequences of publishing work or intellectual property that doesn’t belong to them. Discuss how to protect their own creative ideas as well.
  • Keep your lines of communication open. Encourage your children to let you know if an exchange makes them uncomfortable or if someone asks to meet them in person. Be vigilant of @handles. Handles like ‘HOT4U83’ are not indicative of appropriate interaction.
  • Be prepared to deal with mistakes. It’s going to happen. When they slip up and don’t follow guidelines, approach the situation as a “learning opportunity” and calmly work together on what to do next and how to handle embarrassment.
  • Teach them about reliable news sources. Not everything we see on line is true or sourced appropriately. Recommend reliable news sources and teach them how to recognize biased news or blog sites.

What about YOU? You too, are responsible for their online safety and comfort, and need to be considerate of their own boundaries.

  • Protect privacy and confidentiality. Do not identify your own child or friends in your posts without their permission. As much as we may enjoy gushing over your kid looking “all growed up” in his prom suit; consider whether he would appreciate the attention or not!
  • Think before you post. Be sensitive to how messages may be interpreted by others, including your child or their friends, or their friend’s parents.