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The Talk

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Not THAT talk. That’s beyond my expertise and if anyone has good advice on THAT talk please let me know. This talk is the talk with your kids about online safety. As parents, we want to arm our kids with the knowledge and an appropriate caution to avoid the truly dangerous hazards of the internet, but we don’t want to scare them so much they have nightmares or never want to engage online at all. We all grew up with the basic rules for staying safe in the real world. Stranger danger, the buddy system, and never get in a car with someone, and we were pretty much all set. But these rules need a few tweaks and additions for online safety. Here are some tips for how and when to talk to your kids and some simple rules you can teach them.

When to talk with your kids

It’s never too early. The right time to talk to kids about online safety is before they have to deal with it. A good first step is to find some YouTube channels or Twitter feeds (Facebook would also work but I don’t recommend facebook at all) that your kids will be interested in. Spend some time watching the videos or reading posts with your kids and talk about the comments or other interactive features of the site. If your kids like a video, help them post a comment. Take some time to review what kinds of things it is OK to post. Supportive comments are great, but no personal information.

This is also a good time to review the golden rule and talk about etiquette. We want our kids to understand that online content is someone’s creative effort (we’ll teach them about mega-corporate advertising later) and that it is OK if they don’t like it but if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Cyberbullies learn early, just like other bullies.

How to talk to your kids

First of all, this isn’t going to be a one-time talk. You’re going to have a lot of small conversations rather than one long one. If your kids are anything like mine, then they are going to lose interest after about 5 minutes so we are going to have to prioritize what we want them to know and deliver it quickly. Remember, the most important part of talking to your kids about online safety is that they are willing to talk to you. You can’t prepare them for every situation so what you want is for them to feel comfortable coming to ask for your advice or help when a situation comes up.

I was looking for a picture of a bored child, but then I found this cute picture of a girl with a rabbit.

When I was in high school, I had a “deal” with my parents that if I ever found myself in an unsafe situation, for example if I was out with friends and someone was too drunk to drive, I could call my parents and they would come pick me up no questions asked. I recommend something similar with your kids here. Make sure they understand that even if they are doing something online you have forbidden, they can still come to you and get a free pass. If this ever happens you should praise them for being honest and open,  help them address the issue, and then you can block the site or content if necessary. We are working on a post explaining how to block online content effectively so if you are interested, please subscribe to be notified of new posts.

So, keep it short but also make it clear that this is an important discussion. You may want to explicitly lay out what’s in it for your child. You might say something like, “I want you to be able to chat with your friends or play online games, so we are going to talk about some rules for online safety. Just like we have rules for going to the park or the store, there are some rules I need you to follow online.”

I recommend against trying to scare kids straight in these talks. There may be times when it is appropriate or even necessary to share some of the awful stories about kids going missing or people’s homes being robbed while they are on vacation. But generally I find it is sufficient to say “These rules help to keep you and your friends and family safe. There are some bad people on the internet and if they have too much information about you they could do bad things.” If your child is old enough and wants more details you can talk about things like identity theft or online fraud. These are less scary but still help kids understand some of the potential consequences.

What to say (Dan’s basic rules for online safety)

For my kids, I like to keep rules simple and absolute. Yes, there will be exceptions and as they get older I’ll expect them to use more of their own judgement to decide when it is OK not to follow these rules. In the beginning, I want these rules to be walls protecting my kids. As they get older, these should be guidelines that remind them to consider carefully before sharing information or trusting people and content online.

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t going to be a one-time talk. So pick a few items from the list you want to cover each time you talk. The priority for some of these will depend on your child and the kind of activities they are engaged in online. I try to touch on the first three rules every time. A key fact to remember is that no online attacker can reach through the internet and grab your kid. So making sure that kids don’t give out any information that could help a bad actor is the most important part of online safety.

  • Rule 1: Friends you meet online don’t need to know anything about your real life. Don’t tell them your name, where you live, where you go to school, or how old you are. 
  • Rule 2: If someone online is asking you for any of this information, in addition to not answering, you should tell a parent right away. 
  • Rule 3: Never agree to meet someone IRL (in real life)
  • Rule 4: People online may not be who they say. If you get a message from someone who is claiming to be a friend or even a family member or teacher, you can respond, but all the rules about not giving out any information about your real life still apply. If the person really is who they claim, they will have other ways of getting your information.
  • Rule 5: There are other topics you should avoid with online acquaintances. These can give a bad guy information they can use to learn more about you. Don’t talk about the weather or big public events in your area like concerts or rallies. If talking about sports, try not to refer to a “home team”. For the most part, it is best to avoid small talk and focus on the game or the topic of the online discussion.
  • Rule 6: Never open files or download anything an online friend sends you without checking with a parent. Often times gamers may send you a link to download a game plugin or even a free game. These links may contain viruses or other dangerous programs, or they may be illegal copies of a game (Pirated Software). Downloading pirated software, even if you did not know it was illegally obtained, is a serious crime. So always check with a grownup before trusting a link or file from someone you only know online. You can check the safety of links or files using some easy online tools like this Google service. Another good online tool for checking websites is Virus Total. This site will also scan files for you to see if they contain known viruses.
  • Rule 7: Never tell someone online your password. Not even if they claim to be from the company that made a game or website you are trying to use. No legitimate technical support should be asking for your password. Never share your password with online friends either. They may ask for your password to give you some loot in a game or to help you level up. You should not trust these kinds of offers. Just not worth the risk. Plus it is kind of cheating.
  • Rule 8: Never threaten anyone else online. Cyberbullying is a serious issue and in some places can be a serious crime. We are not as anonymous as we think we are online. So don’t say or do anything you would not do in real life.
  • Rule 9: If someone online ever threatens you or makes you feel uncomfortable, tell a parent or another grownup as soon as you can. If you can save the messages or capture them with a screen shot, that will help your adults put a stop to this behavior.
  • Rule 10: Talk to your parents. Show them the games and sites you are interested in. They may have some interesting information to share with you (probably not, they are parents after all, but who knows?). But knowing the kinds of online communities you are a part of will let your parents help you stay safe online.

What if my kids won’t listen?

Yeah, my kids don’t listen either. Keep trying. Maybe ice cream will help? 

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