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