Digital Security Guide

How to Talk Internet Safety With Your Kids (Without Endless Eye Rolls)

Hint: It’s not all about rules and guidelines.

A young girl using a tablet

Some subjects are tough to talk about with your kids: alcohol, drugs, and sex, for instance. Internet safety? That might be the most challenging. It brings up all of those other ticklish subjects, plus plenty of other tricky topics, like bullying, fitting in with peer groups, self-image, and stranger danger.

It doesn’t help that you’re something of an outsider in the digital world. No matter how comfortable you may be with email attachments and Facebook, you can bet there’s a whole world of content that kids use that you’ve never even heard about. It’s no wonder the subject induces endless eye rolls.

But that doesn’t mean you should give up. The dangers out there are real, and often children feel so comfortable online that they forget to take even the most basic precautions. It’s your job to keep them safe and to teach them how to take care of themselves.

Here are some suggestions for talking with your kids about online safety and making that conversation as painless as possible.

First Things First: Build Up Trust!

If you really want to get through to your kids when you’re talking about internet safety, you need to have built up some trust with them ahead of time. You really can’t start this process too early.

What can you do to establish trust?

  • Establish open communication. Talk to your kids openly about all things digital. If you limit their screen time, explain why you’re doing it. If you use one of the best antivirus software programs to set parental controls on the family computer, tell your kids what those controls do and describe how they protect them.

    Your children should feel comfortable talking to you as well. Of course, you want them to know that if someone is making them uncomfortable online, they can count on you to help.

    Even if they’ve screwed up, you want them to be able to talk to you about it. Maybe they used your credit card to order $1,200 worth of vaping supplies, but they’re still your kid. Keep in mind that establishing trust doesn’t mean you can’t be tough. Clear communication means they should know exactly what will happen to them when all that vaping equipment shows up on the front porch. If they know you’ll be calm when they tell you, though, and that you love them no matter what, they’ll be more likely to talk to you.

  • Start the discussion early. It’s never too early to start talking with your kids about the internet and especially social networking. Well before you let them surf on their own, you can model appropriate behavior by letting them see what you do on your own social media accounts.

    Talk about positive and negative uses of the web, and discuss the fact that virtual communication can help or hurt others in the same ways in-person communication can. Talk about the fact that posting things online can be permanent. Explain that people online may not always be who they claim to be. Most importantly, make sure they feel comfortable asking you questions about any new situations they might encounter.

  • Spend time online together. As they venture onto the web on their own, keep the dialogue going.

    Ask them what sites and apps they’re using, bookmark those pages, and learn how to use them yourself. Friend your kids on the social media sites they’re using. This will make it easier to keep tabs on what they’re doing, but more importantly, if you genuinely interact with them on these sites, you’ll strengthen your connection to them.

    If you have to, ask them to show you how these apps work. The sense of control they’ll feel when they’re the teachers will help them know that communication with you is a two-way street, that you listen and take their feelings into account when they have something to say. When it’s time for you to talk, they’ll be willing to listen too.

Always Set a Positive Tone

If you’ve established a level of trust with your child, talking about the internet with them shouldn’t be a struggle. When you’re having these conversations, start by setting a positive tone. They’ll be more likely to listen and remember what you have to say if they don’t think you’re just lecturing them.

  • Give them a say. If you’re simply lecturing your kids about what you want them to do or what they’ve done wrong, they’re in a passive role. Once they’re passive, they’ll tune out. Get them involved by asking their feelings on the subject. Rather than lay down the law, try asking them to come up with a list of practical rules.
  • Remain calm. There is a lot of terrifying information out there about internet dangers. It’s easy to get scared. Or maybe you’re really angry about something your kids have done online. When you talk to them about these subjects, you want to keep your cool. You’re the adult, the reasonable one. If you’re calm, they’re more likely to stay calm too. And, in the future, they’re more likely to come to you with their digital problems.
  • Talk about more than rules. If you talk only about the rules, your kids will come to feel that’s the only context they have for talking about the internet. If you get comfortable chatting with them about a wide variety of digital topics, they’ll be more comfortable coming to you about anything they might encounter online.
  • Let them know you’re interested in them. Stay interested in and positive about your kids’ online activities. Again, the more interest you show in them, the more willing they’ll be to listen when you do need to correct their behaviors or institute a new rule.
  • Avoid tapping into negative emotions they may already be feeling. The internet can be scary and intimidating. The words other people say online can hurt. If a kid has screwed up in some way, they may be carrying a lot of guilt. This may not be the emotion they display to you. They’re more likely to come across as angry and belligerent. Remind them that what they’re feeling is OK, and be ready to show support for whatever situation they’re dealing with.
  • Make it an ongoing conversation. Talking about online safety shouldn’t happen just once or only when your kids make a mistake. If you keep the conversation going and talk with them regularly, you can stay informed about what they’re doing, and you’ll be there when they have a problem.

Here’s What to Talk About

All right, so now you know how to talk to your kids about the internet. What exactly are you supposed to talk about, though? Here’s a list of some of the most important subjects you probably want to touch on. And, just to make it a little easier, we’ve phrased things the way you should say them to your kids.

  • Keep personal information personal. It’s important you never give out personal information about yourself to anyone. This includes things like your real name, your age, your address, your phone number, your email address, and any other details about your day-to-day life. This information could be used to steal your identity. It could also be used to track your movements and do you physical harm.
  • Never share passwords. You always want to protect your devices and accounts with strong passwords. Even the strongest password in the world can’t protect you if you give it away, though.
  • Always use a screen name. Protect your anonymity when you’re online by always using a screen name in place of your real name. When hackers, scammers, and other bad actors know your name, it’s easier for them to track and target you.
  • Never post personal pictures. What you post online can live forever. When you post personal pictures, you can’t control what others do with those pictures.
  • Never meet anyone in real life without supervision. The web allows users to pretend to be anyone they want. You can’t be sure that someone you met online is really who they say they are. That means meeting up with an online friend in real life could be dangerous.
  • Never respond to threats. It’s easy for arguments and threats to escalate. If you make threats in response to a threat someone made against you, the situation can quickly get out of control. Instead, if someone threatens you, tell an adult and let them handle the situation.
  • Use a VPN on public Wi-Fi networks. When you’re using a public Wi-Fi network, hackers can track your activities and steal your personal information. If you’re not at home on your own personal network, always use a solid VPN. A VPN, or virtual private network, hides your data and lets you surf the web without worrying about who might be following you.
  • Install antivirus software. Make sure all your devices have antivirus software installed. The web is full of scammers and hackers trying to install malware on your devices. This can ruin your device, steal important information about you, even put you in physical danger. Antivirus software creates a barrier so that malware is blocked.
  • Follow family rules. Family rules about how often you use your electronic devices and where you go when you’re on the web aren’t meant to restrict your freedom, but rather to keep you safe. You should be free to explore the internet, but you have to learn how to protect yourself too.

Final Thoughts

The world is different now than it was when we were kids. We didn’t have to worry about malware, scams, hackers, and online predators. Your children, on the other hand, swim in the digital world. They live and breathe it. Just because they’re a fish doesn’t mean they know how to spot a shark.

You may not be completely comfortable talking to your kids about their online behaviors. Heck, you may not even completely understand their online behaviors. It’s important you do it, though. You want to keep them safe, and keeping them safe these days includes making sure they know the dangers of the internet and how to cope with those dangers effectively.

Does that mean you have to learn how to use apps and websites you might not normally use? Probably. Does it mean you might even have to ask your kids to explain how to use them? Maybe. Will your kids laugh at you behind your back and roll their eyes when you’re setting the rules? Almost certainly. You’re an adult, though; you can take it. And the reward is definitely worth it.