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Girls with laptop You don’t need special skills to keep your kids safe online. To get started, just ask the same kinds of questions about the internet that you’d ask about the playground or the mall:

  • Who else will be there (are they going to websites where they can interact with other kids)?
  • Should there be adult supervision (should someone go online with them)?
  • What kinds of behavior are allowed (what are the guidelines for posting, friending, etc.)?
  • What time should everyone be home for dinner (how long can they stay online)?

When you start thinking about these questions for online spaces, you are already well on the road to internet safety for your children. Here are some more tips for bringing your offline parenting skills to your online parenting.

Tips for parents of Preschoolers

Provide supervision. You wouldn’t leave your preschooler alone on the playground, so don’t leave her alone online, either. Make sure that either you or another trusted adult is present with her any time she’s online. Whoever is there can help her navigate and keep her focused on content that you’ve selected for her.

Model safe, effective use of the internet. Your child sees you put on your seatbelt when you get in the car—let her see how you keep yourself safe online, too. For example, if you land on a page you don’t like, narrate what you’re doing to leave that page while she watches (“I don’t like this page, so I’m clicking on the home button so we can go back to a page I know.”). She’ll learn that she has the power to change what she’s looking at, and she’ll learn what to do if she ends up somewhere unsettling.

Tips for parents of School-Age Kids

Make public computer use the easiest option. School-age kids can start to visit trusted websites on their own, but they should still be in the living room or dining room, with the screen facing the room, so you can see what they’re doing online. That way, you can answer questions and guide them elsewhere if they end up on a questionable page.

Teach them to use the technology.Set up bookmarks to sites you approve, and teach your child how to get to those sites. Show her how use the back button so she can leave a page, and how to stop downloads that have started. And show her how to close a browser if she needs to. When she’s ready to do some searching on her own, come up with good keywords to use—and turn on the the parental controls to filter out unwanted results.

Tips for parents of Tweens

Keep the computer in a common space. Just as you give them more freedom when they’re with their friends, tweens need less supervision online. But keeping the computer in a public area can help you help them manage how long they spend on it and can remind them that everything they do online is public. That will help them stick to the household guidelines for computer use, too.

Teach them to use the technology to explore effectively. They will want to look up interesting websites or funny videos they’ve heard about from their friends, and they’ll also want to find information on particular topics that are no longer covered by the bookmarked pages. Help them learn to do effective searches for what they hope to find.

Ask about what they’re doing online. Tweens may be more receptive to questions that focus on media instead of on themselves, so take advantage of that openness. Ask them what sites they’re interested in, and ask them to teach you how they search—you may learn a thing or two, and you will also open the door for continued communication about what’s happening online.

Tips for parents of Teens

Let them know that the door is open for communication. Teens are ready to talk when they’re ready to talk, so when they’re asking questions, pay attention—and engage as fully as you can. The moment may pass quickly, so take advantage of it. If they aren’t inclined to talk to you, ask them to think about who they can talk to if they aren’t comfortable coming to you.

Talk about what’s happening online—one step removed.For example, ask them what their friends are finding online. Are there strange or upsetting videos they’ve heard of? What do they do when they see those? How do they avoid them, and how do they find the things they’re looking for? These questions can help them think about the fact that they have choices about what they see online.

shutterstock_80335825Children of all ages are spending more and more time online. Once there, they watch videos, play games, read stories, look at pictures, listen to music, and find information of all kinds.

Children develop in response to whatever is in their environment—including the things they find online. That’s why it’s important to take care in choosing the content they see. There are many positive learning opportunities to choose from, but remember that a mistyped search term or wrong keystroke can lead to content that you don’t want to influence your child’s development. And as they get older, they may even seek out such content.

So how can you make sure that the messages children see are the messages you’d like them to learn from?

            • First, understand where they are in their development.
            • Then offer them health-positive ways to act their age in an online world.

Tips for parents of Preschoolers

Preview sites you’ll visit with your child. That way, you’ll know what to expect when you visit and can make sure there’s nothing there—like sidebar ads for high-sugar foods, which may affect food choices and even contribute to obesity—that you’d prefer your child didn’t see.

Choose content with a purpose. Think about why you’re going online with your preschooler—is it so she can learn about how things are made? Is it so you can connect with grandma? Is it to play games that help her learn to read? Choose sites based on what you want her to get out of them.

Pay attention to what else is on the site. If there are ads on the site, what are they for? Other games? Junk food? Movies with violent content? If it’s on the screen, your preschooler will see it, so consider that when you’re choosing sites to visit.

Tips for parents of School-Age Kids

Use the internet with purpose. When you go online with school-age kids, don’t browse just to browse—go looking for something in particular, and help them find it.

When they see things that alarm you, stay calm. Show them that they can talk to you. When you see or hear about a site that alarms you (“The older boys are daring you to look up ‘naked women’?”), try these steps:

  1. Ask how they feel about what they saw (“How did you feel when they dared you to do that? How did you feel when you saw these pictures?”). Reacting calmly will encourage them to be open with you and will keep the things they’re not ready for from becoming more enticing.
  2. Express that curiosity is normal and acceptable (“It’s okay to be curious”), NOT that what they did was wrong or bad (which would likely create shame and push information-seeking underground, where you can’t influence it).
  3. Explain that some sources are better than others (“There’s a lot of incorrect and even scary (or whatever he felt when saw the pictures) information online”).
  4. Provide a health-positive way to act his age (“Here’s a good website and book to answer some of your questions”).

Tips for parents of Tweens

Avoid accidental exposure using parental controls. Now that they are exploring more on their own—doing searches for topics, for example—parental controls can help prevent them from accidentally ending up on pornographic sites (for example). Note, though, that these controls won’t keep curious tweens from getting around them, so don’t rely on them to prevent purposeful exposure.

Notice what they’re curious about, and give them the information you want them to have Maybe your tween has mentioned that so-and-so has a girlfriend, or maybe you’ve noticed that someone has been doing searches about spin the bottle. To help him get some good information, find resources you trust and direct him to those. You can even add a bookmark for a site you like or a scribbled note next to the keyboard so he can investigate on his own.

Tips for parents of Teens

Provide positive, healthful resources in a way that works for them.Teens are in the process of separating from their parents, so even though they are curious about all kinds of things, they are more likely to seek out information from their friends or online than to come to you. Depending on your teen, there are different ways to make sure they get health positive information. You can try opening a candid conversation about their questions and about where to get good information. You can leave some books in the bathroom, or leave a website open that she can explore when she’s ready.

Ask them to share their favorite websites with you, or ask for help finding something you’re looking for. This can help you learn more about your teen and connect with their world. It also demonstrates that you respect their expertise in this realm, which can help open the doors to communication about it.

usingcomputerPart of what children (and adults) love about the internet is that it provides a place to show their friends and family who they are. Whether they’re sharing fun photos, creating their own pictures, highlighting favorite songs, or stating their opinions, kids build their identities on the Web.

That’s great news when they’re trying to connect with family and friends who are scattered across the globe, but it also means that everyone else can see their posts, too. So your son’s friends can see his rant about math class, but so can his teachers, grandparents, and future employers.

As a parent, you can help your child understand how to share information online in ways that support her health, development, and safety. And you can give her the tools she needs to make those decisions throughout her life.

Tips for parents of Preschoolers

Reach only the audience you intend to reach. As a parent, you are probably the person who most often posts about your children. So when you do share images or stories, think about who you hope to share with—and who you do not hope to share with—and choose where to post accordingly. If you’re happy to show off your child to people you don’t know, then a social media site is a great option. But if you’d just like to share with specific people you love and trust, then set up a personal photo account to share.

Think before you post.What goes online stays online, even after you take it down, so consider what sorts of things you’d be happy to have publicly accessible in five or ten years. That picture of your child taking a bath may seem too cute not to share now, but he—and you—may be less than happy that it’s up when he hits elementary school.

When kids want to create things online, choose sites carefully.There are some great websites where preschoolers can create content, like drawings they can submit to be posted. Before your child sends in their work, though, make sure you’re clear on whether these sites share personal information about him.

Tips for parents of School-Age Kids

Respect their autonomy, and teach them to do the same for others. Before sharing his embarrassing story about spilling milk on his shirt, ask if he’s okay with that—and only post it if he says he is. Then explain that it’s important to ask other people before posting anything about them. The combination of asking and explaining why you asked will help him see that you value his wishes, and it will also show him it’s important to respect what other people want online.

Help them avoid sharing personal information. If she wants to show off her report card, explain that it’s important to block out any identifying information (like her name, home address, etc.). Then, work with her to do that, perhaps by taking a picture of only the grades and class names and posting that.

Make supervision an expectation

  • For sites where kids post their homework and comment on each other’s work, find out who (usually a teacher) monitors them and how.
  • For other sites, maintain access to their accounts. Try keeping all user names and passwords on notecards next to the computer.
  • Pull up a chair while your child is on a site so they can show you what they like about it.

Tips for parents of Tweens

Increase freedom…and responsibility Tweens can take increasing responsibility for their own safety, and as part of that shift, they will want to create content without direct supervision or constant consultation about what to post where. Work with them to set guidelines like these:

  • Ask permission from others before putting things about them online, and respect their wishes
  • Make sure that whatever you share about yourself reflects how you’d like everyone to see you
  • Share public information only; keep personal information offline

Help them use the technology to reach only those they intend to reach. Many sites allow you to create groups where you can email or share information only with members of that group. And for sharing videos, create a channel that only those with the password can access.

Know the sites, and know the laws.Although tweens are ready for more responsibility, they still don’t have the cognitive ability to really understand long-term consequences. That’s why there are laws in place that prevent websites from collecting information about children under 13, and why many social media sites have a minimum age requirement.

Tips for parents of Teens

Remember that teens are separating from their parents, connecting with friends, and figuring out who they are. These processes will play out online, too. That’s okay. Just make sure they know you are there for them if and when they have questions and concerns.

Talk about what online “privacy” really means. Remind teens that nothing online is truly private. Are they looking for a summer job? Their employer can probably see that photo from last week’s dance party—not to mention grandpa, and their math teacher. Encourage them to consider who can see things before they decide what to post.

Ask them to show you how to use their favorite social media site. This will give you a window into their world and let them demonstrate their mastery, which will help build trust between you.

smiley elementary boy using laptopThe internet has revolutionized the way we interact with each other. Whether enabling us to connect with family an ocean away or to build a virtual community around a shared issue, the web offers unprecedented global communication.

As positive as that can be, however, communicating through a screen poses a particular set of challenges, especially for children. Because they often cannot see the people with whom they’re interacting, the screen can create a sense of distance and anonymity—which can affect their sense of how it’s acceptable to behave.

Parents can play a major role in helping children navigate this space and help them learn to be good digital citizens. You can help them remember that once something is posted online, it doesn’t ever really go away. Then you can help them use that knowledge to make thoughtful decisions about what to communicate, and to whom, and in what medium.

Tips for parents of Preschoolers

Be part of all their online communications. If it’s time for a video chat with grandma, call her together—you can show your preschooler how the technology works and make sure that grandma is actually the person you reach.

Teach them to reach out in thoughtful ways. To help your preschooler learn to make conscious decisions about what to communicate, talk through your thought process as you decide to send a message to someone: ”I think this silly picture of a cat would make Uncle Tim laugh. Should we send it to him?“.

Teach them to think before they send. Ask ”What do you think Uncle Tim will say when he sees this picture? Do you think he’ll like it? You know…it might actually make him sad, since he just lost his cat. Why don’t we send him something else?“ Talking through your thought process this way can help them learn that there are actual people on the other side.

Tips for parents of School-Age Kids

Model the kinds of interaction you’d like to see. Your child is learning from everything you do, so when you’re online, act the way you’d like her to act. From time to time, reinforce the lesson by explaining why you’re making the choice you’re making.

Teach them to keep public communications positive. Writing ”Congratulations on a great game!“ can generate celebration in a public forum, which feels good for everyone involved. Communicating about conflicts, however (”I was frustrated that you never passed the ball to me“), should be done in private to avoid embarrassment and to keep a conflict from escalating.

Help them choose their messages carefully. Even when there’s a screen between them and others, they need to remember that there are real people on the other end. A good rule of thumb is not to say anything on the computer that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

Tips for parents of Tweens

Encourage them to think before they send. It’s easy to send messages but hard to take them back. When they’re upset, help them find a way to pause before they send—like taking 10 deep breaths in and out, or shooting a few hoops before deciding what to do. This will help them calm down and think more clearly before putting something in writing that could be hurtful or that they may regret.

Talk about tone. There are no facial expressions in writing (and emoticons only get you so far), so it’s harder to convey tone in writing than it is in speech. Brainstorm with your tween about ways to make his meaning clear—if you’re writing an email together, try reading it back to him in a different tone than intended. For example, think about the different ways you can read something like, ”Fine. Whatever you want.“ Is it serious? Sarcastic? Annoyed? Easygoing? Then try clarifying what you mean in the absence of tone (”That sounds fine—I don’t have a preference, so whatever you want works for me.“).

Tips for parents of Teens

Take care with context. When teens share photos, captions can be key. For examples, images of a teen covered in blood can be quite jarring for viewers…until you realize that she’s onstage, playing Lady Macbeth. If your teen is leaving out the context, try offering suggestions of what to call the picture…and let her know that her acting is so convincing that it really needs a caption so folks don’t flip when they see it.

Be careful about what you communicate, particularly when there are character limits. Help them remember to consider this issue. When you misread something a friend sends you, share the story with your teen. Or ask if they know of times when a friend sent a message that someone else misunderstood, and how they now handle that kind of thing.

Look twice at links. Remind them that, when forwarding a link, they should check to make sure it actually links to what they think it links to…especially when sending something to a teacher, or to grandma.


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Do you know a teen who wants to learn more about Internet safety?

Visit the Center for Young Women’s Health at Boston Children’s Hospital.