by Abby Salazar

There is no denying that the Internet has evolved since it’s early years in the 1980s, expanding throughout our professional and personal lives as an integral part of modern society. The Internet’s pervasiveness reaches far beyond the public sphere and into our homes. As such, most children in the United States today have free and easy access to the Internet. Amid this Digital Era, children are constantly exposed to potential dangers online, from malware and cyberbullying, to privacy and self-esteem. Therefore, it is crucial to establish open and honest communication with your kids about online safety.

Set A Good Example
Children are a parent’s pride and joy, and it is tempting to share all their milestones, accomplishments and adorable moments on social media for long-distance loved ones to see. Reflect on what information you may unintentionally be sharing to your own profile that online predators could seek out. For example, posting “First Day” pictures in front of your children’s school may seem innocent, but all it takes is a quick Google search (or even a click if you
“check in” to a location on social media) of the school’s name for a complete stranger to know exactly where your children are during school hours.

Furthermore, make sure your children understand what kind of information is okay to share online and what kind isn’t. Explain to them why they should not share private information, such as their home address, with strangers.

Establish Healthy Boundaries
With public libraries, friends’ cellphones, and devices provided by schools throughout the country, children will have access to the Internet whether parents provide it themselves or not. Parental controls are a good way to manage what children have access to at home. Most smartphones offer the ability to limit the use of certain apps and overall screen time. It may also be helpful to talk to your kids about why these limitations are in place so they can make responsible decisions when they have opportunities to access the Internet outside of the home. Use age-appropriate analogies about the physical, mental and social repercussions of overindulging in internet browsing.

Web Threats
Learn about malicious software programs such as malware, viruses and worms that can be installed on devices without the user’s knowledge. Keep anti-virus software up-to-date, and make sure that children understand what safe and trustworthy websites look like. Ensure that they ask permission before downloading anything on their devices.

Social Media
Social media has revolutionized the way people communicate throughout the world. It is important to build trust with your children so they feel comfortable talking about what is going on in their online social networks. Listen to them as they share silly videos and memes from Instagram or TikTok and show interest in the different trends that captivate them. Talk about cyberbullying and the different ways it can be handled. Learn about how to keep profiles and information private. Communicate to them that things posted online can always be found later. Employers and future connections can view things that users have posted in the past, and no matter how long ago it has been posted, it can still reflect poorly on one’s character.

The reality is communicating with other people online is exciting, but it can also be dangerous. Make sure that children understand that people behind a screen can be very different from who they are in real life. Educate them on catfishing, the act of establishing a fake identity online, usually to target vulnerable users for abuse, deception or fraud.

Talk to them about how harmful it can be to compare themselves to celebrities, public figures and even their peers, because people often only post the best parts of their lives. Their online profile isn’t giving them the full picture. Show them examples of how different angles and lighting can make anyone look different from their real-life persona. Encourage self-love and self-confidence in their everyday lives outside the Internet so they do not rely on “likes” and comments for validation.

The Bottom Line
The Internet and social media offer vast resources that allow children to learn more about the world around them. Unfortunately, there will always be risks when engaging with this vast online network. Be patient and open with your children so they feel comfortable and safe talking to you. Netsmart, an online safety education program, offers age-appropriate videos and resources that will help you and your children understand the digital space together. You are the biggest advocate for your child’s safety, and it is never too early to start talking about the steps they can take on their own to deal with the dangers online.