Digital Safety for Kids

Summer break is over, and students are back in full swing with connected devices, apps, and many websites that open all kinds of online safety concerns. This brings a great deal of challenges to parents these days. In today’s digital world, we are continuously worried about our children’s online safety. The pandemic has brought us to a new age with the requirements and enticements of screen time. We relied on our screens for everything from church, school, or work to ordering food. 

Toddlers use their parents’ phones to access their favorite games and videos. Elementary children are learning to research and complete assignments online, and middle school children are starting to use the ever-evolving apps to connect with their peers. Our teenagers now have computer skills that have surpassed many parents. Children are having more online relationships than ever before. The world is experiencing persuasive technology, cyberbullying, online scams, plagiarism, sexting, pornography, etc.

Children feel pressured to post content that will receive many likes or comments. They feel pressured to share posts that make them look good. They believe screen time brings people who will support them when they are going through rough times.

According to a report from We Protect Global Alliance, a study of 18-20-year-olds in North America found that 71% experienced at least one online sexual harm during childhood. 

Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) detailed that nearly one in four 9-12-year-olds reported having had an online sexual interaction with someone they believed to be an adult. 

This is what we know:

It’s occurring younger than most of us think. Children have shared that they are being asked for nude photos online as young as 9, and nearly 40% of teens believe it is “normal” for people their age to share nudes. Our children are naturally interested in exploring their bodies and emulating older kids and adults. This is normal, healthy behavior – but using devices with cameras and unlimited access to individuals of all ages online can put them in unsafe situations.

Online relationships have different boundaries. Children regularly connect with people they know only online through mutual friends, shared interests, and games — which, for young people, categories like “stranger” and “friend” don’t translate online as parents would expect. They don’t consider them strangers. When connections heighten from innocent to inappropriate, kids can feel overwhelmed and alone.

Shame is one of the significant barriers to seeking help. FOSI also reports that 85% of children who had their intimate images used as extortion online said they did not seek help due to humiliation.

As parents, we can mistakably shame or blame them for the harmful actions of others, saying things like, “If your picture gets out there, it will be your fault for sharing” or “You should never have sent it in the first place.” This can intensify the potential for harm and lead children to try to manage situations beyond their control.

Parents need to make significant efforts to be more tech-savvy. There are steps we can take now to protect our children. Build trust early on by talking to your kids about key safety topics to prepare them with skills before they run into risky situations.

Here’s what you can do today:

Talk to your children about online scams. Kids are very naive when adults make promises. Scam artists could very well be telling our children that they are celebrities and requesting that they send credit card

information for autographed photos. Others could be predators who ask to meet your child. Continually stress to your children that they should never speak to anyone online without your permission and should not reveal personal information.

Set up your child’s computer so they cannot download software without a password. Kids have started downloading Tor to access the ‘dark web’ and search the internet because it is untraceable. This could be extremely unsafe as they could be exposed to terrifying websites and predators.

Chat about cyberbullying. An article on Web Purify states, “41% of children report that social anxiety is a result of cyberbullying.” Parents need to open the lines of communication with their children about this issue. It’s not being a tattletale or a snitch. It’s about safeguarding our children and protecting them from the mental pressures that can sometimes have tragic consequences.

Allow your kids to explore the internet. Refusing to allow your children to access the internet is not wise in today’s tech-driven world. They need to have these skill sets. Schools are now requiring online homework and blogging. Reward them with suitable screen time for getting an A on a test or an assignment.

Bookmark your child’s favorite sites and become computer savvy. We need to be aware of what they are up to. Take an introductory computer course if necessary. Bookmark all your child’s favorite sites so they can easily access what they need without using search engines.

Additionally, stay well-informed of what your children can access or who has access to them. Research AI detections and parental controls for your child’s favorite websites, devices, or platforms, and choose settings that work for your family. Turn on two-factor authentication and limit data collection when possible. Keep the software updated on all your devices and platforms. Turn on automatic security updates. Monitor your children’s dispositions and temperament before, during, and after screen activities. If something feels different with your child, don’t overlook it; talk with them about their feelings and seek professional support if needed.

Consider downloading location-tracking apps such as Find360, My Location, Life360, and Find My Kids. Snapchat is an exceedingly popular tracking app.

The best way to protect your children is to talk to them and be involved.

Submitted by Lisa Freed