facebook logo twitter logo
Father and son looking at a laptop; son is pointing at the screen

 

The Internet is an incredible tool, one that offers users ways to learn about the world, express feelings, connect with others, play, and create. Many parents may think of the Internet as a vast open world, finding it impossible to know everything about it, including how to help children use it in healthy ways. Fortunately, you don’t need to know all the ins and outs of the Internet in order to help children master their own use—you can bring your offline parenting techniques to the online world.

Informed by developmental science and full of practical tips, our Internet Mastery Guide offers age-specific advice to help you parent and teach your children the skills they need to use the Internet safely and mindfully!

 


Preschoolers are at the stage of development where they often ask “Why?” and love to explore their world, both on and offline. This kind of exploration is part of their learning and helps them develop language, critical thinking, physical, and social skills. Below are simple steps you can take to help set your preschoolers up for successfully mastering their use of the Internet:

Before going online

  • Childproof
    • You make your home safe by getting down on your hands and knees and looking at the physical world from a child’s point of view. Do the same with the virtual world of the Internet. Make sure safe-search features are turned on, use ad-blocking software, and when available, make sure website and app settings are family-friendly. Most importantly, make it easy to access websites and online apps that are designed with children in mind and that will interest them.
  • Set expectations
    • Talk to your children about how the Internet fits into their day. Say, “Let’s play this game together on the smartphone. After that, we’ll make a snack.” Show your preschoolers that you use the Internet for a specific purpose and that when you’re done with that activity, it’s time to move on to something else.

While online

  • Supervise
    • You wouldn’t leave preschoolers alone on the playground, so don’t leave them alone online, either. Make sure that either you or another trusted adult is present any time your children are online. Whoever is there can help navigate and keep your children focused on content that you’ve already approved.
  • Communicate
    • Help preschoolers learn to make mindful decisions about what to communicate online. To do this, talk through your thought process as you decide to send a message to someone. Say, “I think this silly picture of a cat would make Uncle Paul laugh. Should we send it to him? How do you think he’d like to see it, should we post it or show him in video chat?” This will help preschoolers be mindful about what they want to communicate and think about the best ways they can use the Internet  to get her message across
    • Teach your children to think before they act online. Ask, “What do you think Uncle Paul 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 preschoolers think about how their actions online affect others, and build their empathy skills.

Always

  • Model
    • Your children see you put on your seatbelt when you get in the car—let them 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 they watch. Say, “I don’t like this page, so I’m clicking on the home button so we can go back to a page I know.” Preschoolers will learn that they have the power to change what they’re looking at, and learn what to do if they end up somewhere unsettling.
    • Demonstrate the behaviors you would like to encourage in your children. These include only going online when you have a specific reason, doing your best to follow a healthy, Internet-free bedtime routine, and having daily device-free family meals. Preschoolers learn from the example you set, and will be well on their way to mastering their use of the Internet!

School age children are at the stage of development where they are forming their own identities and socializing with their peers. Many children at this age begin using the Internet as a tool for learning, both at home and in school. Below are simple steps you can take to help school age children successfully master their use of the Internet:

Before going online on their own

  • Make a place for cyberspace
    • Have a “public” space in your home such as the kitchen table, or a desk in the living room where children can do their school work. This will allow you to monitor their Internet use and also be present as a resource should they have questions or need help. Enable safe-search features, use ad-blocking software, and when available, make sure website and app settings are family-friendly so that your children aren’t exposed to content they are not ready to see.
  • Set expectations
    • Teach your children how to use online tools to help them navigate the Internet safely and mindfully. Set up bookmarks to sites you approve, and teach your children how to get to those sites. Show them how use the back button so they can leave a page, and how to stop downloads that have started. Come up with good search terms together, and let them know that you’ll be checking in on what websites and apps they use, and that you’re always available to help them if they need it.
    • Talk to your children about how the Internet fits into the day. Discuss their daily activities such as homework, physical play, a family meal, and sleep. Then discuss how the Internet fits into this time and if there is time leftover for online entertainment, such as games and videos. Plan out what kinds of entertainment choices they have that are optimal for their development, and when it makes sense for them to do these online, and when they’ll need to move on to other offline activities.

While online

  • Supervise
    • Supervise your children’s online activities, both for school and their personal interests. Make sure you know what their teachers’ expectations are when it comes to using the Internet for learning, and guide your child’s online homework time accordingly. For other sites, maintain access to their accounts, setting them up together and keeping user names and passwords updated on a notecard near their main device. Check in from time to time by pulling up a chair and asking your children to show you what they are doing.
  • Communicate
    • Teach children that what they post, share, and write online is “public” and help them keep their communications positive. If they are frustrated about something, encourage them to settle it privately, either through a phone call, or face-to-face.
    • Respect their autonomy, and teach them to do the same for others. Before sharing silly stories about them to a relative, always ask for permission, and remind them that they need to also ask for permission before sharing any information or photos about someone online.
    • Help them avoid sharing personal information. If they want to share a picture of themselves at school, help them crop it so that others aren’t in the photo (unless they’ve given permission) and that identifying information, such as the name of the school, is removed.
    • Ask them about what they did online when you ask them about their day. Talk about what they did, saw or made that they liked, and discuss anything they might have seen that upset them. When you see or hear about an online action that alarms you (“The older students are daring you to look up ‘naked women’?”), try these steps:
      • 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.
      • Express that curiosity is healthy 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 help them).
      • Explain that some sources are better than others (“There’s a lot of incorrect and even scary (or whatever they felt when saw the pictures) information online”).
      • Provide a health-positive way to explore the subject (“Here’s a good website and book to answer some of your questions”).

Always

  • Model
    • Demonstrate the behaviors you would like to encourage in your children. These include only going online when you have a specific reason, doing your best to follow a healthy, Internet-free bedtime routine, and having daily device-free family meals. Children learn from the example you set, and will be well on their way to mastering their use of the Internet!

Tweens are at the stage of development where they begin to think differently about school and learning, and often begin to push boundaries. They place more importance on their friendships, their outward appearance, and begin the initial stages of puberty. Below are simple steps you can take to help tweens successfully master their use of the Internet:

Before going online on their own

  • Make a place for cyberspace
    • Have a “public” space in your home such as the kitchen table, or a desk in the living room where tweens do most of their online activities, whether school work or gaming. Just as you give them more freedom when they’re with their friends, tweens often need less supervision online. Keeping the computer in a public area can help you help them manage how long they spend on the Internet and can remind them that everything they do online is public.
  • Set expectations
    • Teach your tweens how to use online tools to help them navigate the Internet safely, mindfully, and in advanced ways. Teach your tweens how to identify trustworthy information and verified sources and how to get to them. Help them use search, safety and privacy tools in browsers, apps and games, and let them know that you’ll be checking in on their activities, and that you’re always available to help them if they need it.
    • Talk to your tweens about how the Internet fits into the day. Discuss their daily activities such as homework, sports, clubs, a family meal, and sleep. Then discuss how the Internet fits into this time and if there is time leftover for online entertainment, such as games and videos. Discuss together what kinds of entertainment choices they have that are optimal for their development, and when it makes sense for them to do these online, and when they’ll need to move on to other offline activities.

While online

  • Supervise
    • Supervise your tweens’ online activities, both for school and their personal interests. Make sure you know what their teachers’ expectations are when it comes to using the Internet for learning, and check in with them and their teachers to make sure all is going smoothly. For other Internet activities, maintain access to their accounts, setting them up together and keeping user names and passwords updated on a notecard near their main device. Check in from time to time by pulling up a chair and asking your tweens to show you what they are doing.
    • 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.
  • Communicate
    • Talk about how their Internet use is a privilege, and as they demonstrate responsibility online, increase their freedom. Tweens can take more and more responsibility for their own safety, and as part of that shift, they will want to create content without direct supervision or having to ask you 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
    • 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. Explain to them that 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.

Always

  • Model
    • Demonstrate the behaviors you would like to encourage in your tweens. These include only going online when you have a specific reason, doing your best to follow a healthy, Internet-free bedtime routine, and having daily device-free family meals. Tweens learn from the example you set, and will be well on their way to mastering their use of the Internet!

Teens are at the stage of development where they strengthening their ability to solve complex problems, are separating from their parents, figuring out who they are, and developing deeper friendships and romantic relationships with peers. Below are simple steps you can take to help teens successfully master their use of the Internet:

Before going online on their own

  • Make a place for cyberspace
    • Have a “public” space in your home such as the kitchen table, or a desk in the living room where teens can do online activities. While they may not utilize this space, it can act as a helpful reminder that you are there as a resources should they be struggling with schoolwork, or other issue. It will also give you a space to continue to model healthy Internet use.
  • Set expectations
    • Talk to your teens about how the Internet fits into the day, and how they plan to manage their time online with all of their other responsibilities and activities. Help them formulate a schedule and act as a resource for them should you notice an imbalance in how they are spending time on and offline.

While online

  • Supervise
    • Supervise your teens’ online activities, both for school and their personal interests. Make sure you know what their teachers’ expectations are when it comes to using the Internet for learning, and check in with them and their teachers to make sure all is going smoothly. For other Internet activities, talk to them about what they are doing, follow or friend them on social media, and get to know the games they like to play.
  • Communicate
    • 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 someone you both can agree on 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 memes 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 and do online.
    • 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 party—not to mention grandpa, and their science teacher. Encourage them to consider who can see things, and how it will reflect back on them, before they decide what to post.
    • Ask them to show you their favorite social media platform, game, video channel or app and how to use it. This will give you a window into their world and let them demonstrate their mastery, which can help build trust between you.

Always

  • Model
    • Demonstrate the behaviors you would like to encourage in your teens. These include only going online when you have a specific reason, doing your best to follow a healthy, Internet-free bedtime routine, and having daily device-free family meals. While they may not always show it, teens continue learn from the example you set, and are well on their way to mastering their use of the Internet!