The statistics are staggering. Upsetting. Panic-inducing.
9 out of 10 children under the age of 10 spend time online. 1 child in 5 has been inappropriately solicited over the Internet. 1 in 4 children have seen adult content. 6 out of 10 teenagers have gotten an email or direct message from a stranger. Half of these teens replied to that message.
While the Internet Age has given us access to untold amounts of information and allowed us to connect to friends around the world, it has also been a boon to those who seek to do harm. Cyber stalkers, cyber bullies, and people with an inappropriate interest in children can now, with little effort, attempt to prey on our children from behind the anonymity of a computer screen. Parents, teacher, and students must team up and present a united front against the dangers of the online world.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Children push boundaries as part of growing up. They don’t want to get in trouble for this, so they are reluctant to tell their parents or teachers about what they’ve seen or done online. These experiences, however, can have long-term, damaging consequences for children not mature enough to process their online interactions. So, how do we help them face an increasingly dangerous world, while not stunting their curiosity?
The first thing to do is set clear boundaries, and this can usually be accomplished by taking advantage of the parental controls that come standard on most devices or streaming services. Netflix has a special channel just for children, for example. Amazon allows parents to restrict what their children watch by age rating (nothing rated higher than TVPG, for instance) and the Fire stick lets parents set a PIN for content and app access. Many services will also let parents set time limits so children spend, say, no more than an hour watching TV a day.
Once those hard and fast boundaries are set, though, it’d be easy to get complacent and consider that problem as handled. Parental controls give us a scapegoat to point to so our kids don’t blame us for keeping them from doing what they want. “It’s not my fault the TV turned off in the middle of Voltron,” we can say. “The TV is only on for 60 minutes a day.” In reality, the hard work begins after the parental controls are set.
Another important boundary to set is where children can use their devices. Our house has a “no iPads in the bedroom” policy because we know that children are less likely to go looking for trouble if a grown-up is nearby. A closed door is an invitation for children to get up to mischief, while sitting in the same rooms as their parents is a strong deterrent. Part of this strategy involves randomly checking things like browser history and recently-used apps. We want to know what they’re looking at, who they’re chatting with, and what programs they might be using because, as the saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed.”
As with every other part of raising and educating a child, communication is key. Spend time online with your children, visiting sites they might be interested in, showing them which apps they can use, and modeling good online behavior. It’s easy to answer a question with “just google it,” but children don’t always know which key words to use to get the best result. Vague search terms yield equally vague results, and some of those hits might not be appropriate for children. This shared online time can also be used to talk about the dangers of the web. Tell them about what’s out there waiting for them should they venture into the less desirable parts of the Internet. A little fear can go a long way, so open and honest discussion is key.
As parents and teachers, it’s our job to stay informed about what’s happening online. Test yourself by taking a quiz over what those chat abbreviations actually mean. Is that hot new app really as innocuous as it seems? The answer is usually no. Not too long ago my child wanted to download music.ly to her iPad because a lot of her friends were on it. It looked like a harmless lip synching app, so I said OK. A few days later we were hastily deleting it and deactivating her account because it turns out not all was what it seemed.
For one, the “song library” kids could choose from featured clips from movies and stand-up comedy shows that were full of profanity. I know she’ll learn those words eventually (if she doesn’t already know them), but there’s no need to give her such easy access to them right now. The second, and most concerning, reason music.ly went away was the article I read about how predators were using the app to prey on young children. We were fortunate that our child had only used the app the first day we downloaded it (and that our skepticism kept her from using it more), but hundreds of parents weren’t that lucky. Music.ly has rebranded as Tik Tok, and has seemingly dealt with the predator issue, but it’s still rated as a app for 12 and over in Apple’s App Store.
Finally, we need to monitor our children’s offline behavior. Are they acting more secretive? Behaving as though they’re scared all the time? Closing browser windows when we walk in the room? Not eating as well as they once did? These are all signs that they’re engaging inappropriately with someone online or have interacted with content they’re not mature enough to handle. These behaviors could also signify potential cyber bullying, which is a whole separate blog. Parents will most certainly be able to recognize these changes, but teachers should be on the lookout as well. Here, private school teachers have the advantage thanks to their smaller class sizes and more frequent one-on-one interactions with individual students.
We’ve only scratched the surface of how to keep kids safe online, but the topics covered above are the best ways to ensure your children have positive experiences on the Internet. Your kids will surely bristle under some of these rules, but they’ll no doubt thank you later when they have kids of their own.
The Branch School cares deeply about students' safety online. We encourage you to learn more about our school and program.