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Tips to Give Your Kids “The Talk” … About the Internet

It's essential to talk to kids about the internet. Here are some tips.

Every parent knows that eventually, their kids will need to have The Talk. It’s an important part of their development from child to adult, and knowing the facts can help them stay safe. But many parents don’t think about that fact that in this tech-forward modern world, there’s another “Talk” they need to be having, and the sooner the better. That’s right – parents need to talk to kids about the internet.

Why You Should Talk to Kids About the Internet

The internet is a major part of everyday life. Even our kids can’t escape it. They use devices to do their schoolwork, connect with friends, and manage everyday activities. And they grew up immersed in this online world. To them, there’s no separation between “online life” and “real life” – there’s just life. It’s just as important to have conversations about your child’s online life as it is to talk about their schoolwork and friends. In some ways, it’s even more important, because it’s often harder for parents to spot online threats than ones in the real world.

Online spaces are full of dangers. From inappropriate content to cyberbullying, child predators to internet addiction, there are a lot of ways your child could find themselves at risk or in trouble. Children are especially vulnerable to the addictive properties of things like social media and porn. And their developing brains often don’t have enough judgment and experience to spot warning signals and keep themselves safe.

As a parent, it’s your job to protect your child. You teach them that strangers offering candy are dangerous, to look both ways before crossing the street, and not to eat the things under the sink. So why would you let your child use the internet unmonitored and without telling them what dangers they could face, how they can keep themselves safe, and what you’re doing to protect them? Talking to your kids about the internet gives them the knowledge and resources they need to learn to protect themselves.

What to Tell Kids About the Internet

The exact wording you should use to talk to your child about the internet depends on a lot of factors. Teenagers understand different concepts than third-graders. Children who spend a lot of time on social media need to know different warning signs than children who mostly play online games. Rule-follower types require a different approach than kids who see rules as challenges.

You will need to tailor your topics to your child’s age, personality, level of internet use, preferred online activities, and any other factors that you think would be relevant. Children are individuals, and you know yours best. But regardless of your approach and what is most relevant, there are a few general topics you should cover:

  1. That the internet is fun and useful. Acknowledge that there’s a lot of great things your kid can do online and there’s nothing wrong with using it.
  2. That there are dangers on the internet. Depending on their age and exposure, you may want to briefly explain the risks of child predators, cyberbullying, pornography, internet addiction, scams like sextortion that target kids, and/or the mental health effects of social media.
  3. What they can do to keep themselves safe. Teach them good safety practices, like not talking to strangers online, keeping their passwords and personal information to themselves, and not sharing inappropriate photos.
  4. What red flags they should watch for. Let them know what signs mean something is suspicious or dangerous – and that they should let you know if they see any.
  5. What you’re doing to keep them safe. Let them know you’re also taking steps to keep them protected, whether that’s regular check-ins about what they’re doing, setting boundaries around device use, looking through their devices at regular intervals, or monitoring their activity with a parental control software.

Setting a Strong Foundation with Younger Children

Don’t assume that just because they’re young, you don’t need to talk with your kid about the internet. In fact, it’s actually a good idea to start the conversations as early as they are able to understand. Not only does it make them more comfortable with more in-depth conversations as they get older, it gives you an opportunity to set ground rules and boundaries and teach them what good internet use looks like.

If your child is old enough to know their address, they should also know that they shouldn’t give it out to strangers. If they’re starting to play games on their devices, even simple child-focused games, they should know not to talk to anyone they don’t know in real life. You can also set rules about using devices and teach them to tell you if something online makes them uncomfortable. This is the age where you’re teaching them how to behave in the real world. You can also teach them how to behave in the digital world and how they can be safer.

There are lots of resources available to help you teach young children things they should know about the internet in an age-appropriate way and with language they can understand. Resources like Talk PANTS provide kid-friendly resources to help you teach them the warning signs of online predators. And tools like Lego Build & Talk provide opportunities for conversation that your child will also enjoy. Even if their device access is limited right now, it’s important to start and keep having these conversations. It sets a foundation for being safe online in the future.

How to Have a Good Conversation About the Internet

If your child is a tween or teen, the idea of starting a talk about the internet with them may sound challenging. For many parents, the hardest part is getting started. Especially if you haven’t talked about it before, it will feel weird and outside of your comfort zone. And it will probably feel just as strange and uncomfortable for your kid!

But it gets easier the more you do it. If you make talking about the internet part of your daily conversations, like asking about school, eventually it will just be part of the routine. And starting the talk doesn’t have to be an interrogation. Try casual, open-ended questions at the breakfast table that show an interest in what your child is doing. Ask what apps they’re using with their friends, or what social media challenges everyone is talking about. If they feel like you’re interested in them, not just in pushing your own opinions about what they should do, they’ll be more likely to open up.

Once you’ve started the conversation, keep going! “The internet talk” isn’t a one-and-done situation. The internet changes, what they do to keep up with their friends changes, and their interests change. Even if it’s hard, frustrating, or feels like you aren’t making any progress, keep initiating conversations about the internet. Implementing some of these tips can help make the conversations better.

Asking is Better than Telling

If you have a teenager, you probably already know that lectures don’t work. No one likes being lectured, not even you. Your kid just doesn’t want to hear all the ways you think they should be living their lives. And when it comes to the internet, many kids feel like they know more about it than their parents. (In some cases, that may even be true.) You may have lots of opinions on what they should and shouldn’t be doing, but dominating a conversation with your advice will cause your child to check out – or argue.

If you’re trying to talk to kids about the internet, remember that it’s a conversation, not a lecture. Use open-ended questions. What are you and your friends doing online these days? Do you play any games? What social media apps do you use? How is the way you and your friends use the internet different from how adults use it? Teenagers love telling adults what they don’t understand. Ask what you’re not understanding about their online life – and then listen to the answer.

Many times when we have a conversation, we’re not listening to hear what the other person has to say, we’re listening to formulate the best way to respond. But that doesn’t often result in a good conversation. When you’re talking to your tween or teen about the internet, use active listening to understand what they’re saying. You may find that you learn something. This is an especially good tactic if these talks about the internet with your kid often end in fights. Active listening often takes much of the conflict out of conversations.

Validate Their Feelings

You’re having a talk with your kid about the internet. They say something that seems negative or unhealthy, or is just plain wrong. Your instinct is to jump in and correct them. But countering their statements with “What about …” or “Okay, but …” is a great way to shut down conversation. You may think you’re being helpful. But what your child hears is, “Your feelings don’t matter and I don’t care about them.” You wouldn’t want to talk to someone who thinks your feelings don’t matter, and neither does your child.

Instead, let them know you’re on their side. If they have a feeling or concern, validate that. Validation doesn’t mean that the feeling is necessarily right or accurate. It just means you’re acknowledging that they feel it. If they say something like, “I feel like everyone’s having fun without me,” you know that’s probably not true. But it’s more helpful to recognize and validate that statement with a reply like, “It sounds like you feel lonely,” or “It sounds like those feelings are hard for you.”

Some parents worry that acknowledging negative feelings can make them worse. But often, it does the opposite. By acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings, you’ve shown them that you care about them. And knowing someone cares about them often makes them feel better.

Get Them to Think

The key to changing your child’s mind is to know that you can’t change their mind. If you want them to change their online behaviors or come to new conclusions, you’ll have to get them to think differently. After all, the goal of having a talk with your kid about the internet isn’t to beat your views into their head – the goal is to keep them safe online.

Try asking open-ended questions that get them to think about their own habits and behaviors. Questions like, “How does this social media make you feel?” are a good start. To go deeper, you can ask if they’ve ever tried to cut down on their tech use and if so why, how a specific network or behavior has affected their friends’ mental health, or what they really enjoy or don’t enjoy about a game or app they use.

If they express negative or unhealthy attitudes, you can also gently push back with more questions. If, for example, they say they feel ugly because everyone on social media looks so much prettier, ask probing questions. What do they think these people to do change how they look in photos? How often do their friends look different in school than they do online? How many “influencers” do they think look like that in real life?

By asking these kinds of questions, you can encourage them to think deeper about their own feelings and behaviors regarding technology. They may find that when they think about it, they want to make changes. Or they may be able to better articulate why they don’t want to make changes, which can lead to a better discussion.

Keep Talking About the Internet

Sometimes you can follow all the best advice in the world and still have an unproductive or unpleasant conversation. And sometimes the conversation feels like it went really well, but a few weeks later nothing has changed and you feel like you didn’t actually get through to your child. But this talk about the internet shouldn’t be a one-and-done situation.

Your relationship to the internet has been shaped by years of habits. So has your child’s. And it keeps being shaped by new devices, new technological advances, new algorithms, and new ways friends and peers use it. Even if a conversation goes well, change isn’t instant. And it will probably take many conversations to cover all the different aspects of being online these days.

Unfortunately, one conversation won’t change the world. That’s why it’s important to keep talking to your kid about the internet. Keep having the conversation and don’t give up.

Be Alert for Signs that Something is Wrong

As a parent, you probably spend quite a bit of time around your child. That gives you a great opportunity to watch for signs that something is wrong. If they are being bullied or groomed, they may be ashamed to tell you – or the predator grooming them may manipulate them into keeping it a secret. But even if they don’t tell you, you will still be able to see the behavioral signs.

If your child is being bullied, they may complain of headaches, stomachaches, or digestive issues, may get sick more easily, or may fake being sick. You may also notice sudden changes in eating or sleeping habits, a dislike or avoidance of school, unexplained isolation, or mood changes. (Learn more about the signs of bullying here.)

If your child is being groomed, they may become isolated from their friends and stop engaging normally with their family. They may become withdrawn or aggressive, take more risks, or suddenly start showing sexualized behavior. Talking about how they shouldn’t listen to their parents or shouldn’t let anyone “control” them is a major red flag. (Learn more about the signs of grooming here.)

Sudden changes in your child’s device use habits, sudden withdrawal, and sudden emotional changes are all warning signs that you should investigate. Even if it doesn’t end up being an online danger, these can also be signs of medical issues that need attention.

Get Additional Protection from Online Dangers

Making sure you talk with kids about the internet is essential. You will be better able to keep track of what they’re doing online and can equip them with the tools to protect themselves. In addition, you can build a trusting, open relationship where they feel comfortable coming to you about anything uncomfortable or scary online.

But is that enough? For many parents, the answer is know. As important as conversations are, they can only let you know something is going on after it’s started. And no conversation can stop a child from accidentally seeing something they shouldn’t and getting caught up in something dangerous. Many parents think the best protection is to combine these conversations with a parental control software.

Parental control software enable you to monitor your child’s online activities and even control some of what they do on their device. Most options allow you to set a wide variety of safety features, depending on your child’s age and needs. You could lock the device to allow only certain approved websites and apps; you could set strict bedtime rules or screen time limits; and you could monitor incoming and outgoing messages for red flags. These tools allow you to protect your children and get an early warning if something is happening. It can also help guide your conversations, because if you know exactly what your child has access to, you know what risks and challenges they might be facing.

If you want to combine conversation and monitoring to give your child the most comprehensive protection possible, we’ve already done the legwork for you. Click the button below to see the best parental control software options.

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