Girl looking at a cell phoneRaising children to be active and responsible community members is a hard task for every parent. Part of the challenge is that our parenting style comes from the way we were raised. While we try to prepare our kids (and ourselves) for every possible problem that could arise, sometimes we forget about one little detail making kids’ life different from our own: the Internet. We’ve become familiar with the Internet in older age, but many kids today are adept with smartphones and tablets before they even learn to walk. They see the Internet as a tool for finding answers to every question they might have. It’s not a bad way to see the global web, but it is crucial for children to understand that the Internet can be as dangerous as it is useful.

Internet security and safety are issues all parents need to discuss with their children. You may have read articles about these before, but few actually tell you how to start this dialogue with your child or how to respond to their questions and concerns.

Are you worried about your child’s safety online? Sooner or later you’ll need to have “the talk”. Here are some of the issues you may want to discuss, as well as possible replies to take into account.

Preparing for “the talk”

Preparing yourself for a discussion with your child about online security and safety is important. It would be useful to do some research on the risks, such as bullying and abuse, common strategies to address these issues, and child or teen-friendly resources that you can pass on for them to look at on their own and refer to if needed. Here are some resources to share: No Bully, BullyingCanadaGetSafeOnline and SafeKids.

During the conversation, be sure to avoid accusations or defensiveness, even if you suspect your child is not being entirely truthful or is pushing back against your enquiries. Make sure you’re ready to listen to your daughter or son’s position and opinion as well. The aim is to have a two-way dialogue. The best way to ensure their safety is to build trust and open communication so they feel they can come to you if they ever feel unsafe or unsure. If you dismiss their concerns or become too authoritative, they simply won’t share their thoughts next time.

Having “the talk”

Every conversation between parents and kids will be different, but here’s a brief sample of how it might go and some of the concerns your child may raise. This is based on a discussion I had with my daughter when she was 12.

Me: Dear, I see that you’ve been spending a lot of your time online lately. Aside from studying, I’m curious about what you do online. Which websites and appsare popular and why?

Caroline: Well, all my friends are on Facebook, so I have a page there.I have lots of people friending me on Facebook and I like talking to them about different stuff. I also like Twitter. I follow Miley Cyrus and Nick Jonas and other people I like.

Me: That sounds fun. People under 13 aren’t allowed to have a Facebook account though – did you lie about your age when you registered?

Caroline: Yes, all my friends did. It’s not a big deal. I follow my favorite comic book creator on Facebook. He uploads new photosto his page, so I don’t have to look for them elsewhere. And I talk to other fans – we have a lot in common!

Me: I see why you like Facebook and I’m not going to make you leave it. But it is important that you keep your personal information private and try not to friend people you don’t know in real life.

Caroline: Why not? We have the same interests and want to be friends. There’s one boy, I think he is older than me, but he’s cool and cute. I’ve sent him my pictures and he liked them.

Me: I know it feels good to make new friends online, but it’s very important that these relationships are healthy and safe. If you want to, you can keep chatting with people, but make sure to protect your privacy. I don’t want to scare you and make you feel afraid of strangers, but some of them aren’t nice people. They might seem ok at first, but they might use what you tell them or the photos you send them to hurt you later. I just want you to be safe.

Caroline: What do you mean? People I talk to online live far away. What could they do to me?

Me: Sometimes people feel like they can act inappropriately because they’re far away from you and feel protected by the distance, or they may pretend to be someone else online, so you don’t actually know that they are who they say they are. Some older men pretend to be younger boys so that they can talk to young girls about their lives. And sometimes, if you tell them your real name and address, your school or where you are, they may start tracking you in real life, or threaten to share the photos you’ve sent or tell people the secrets you’ve told them so that they can manipulate you.That’s why I also wanted to talk to you about posting pictures of you or us online.

Caroline: Everyone posts pictures! My friends are all posting selfies, sometimes in swimsuits and underwear because they get lots of likes and comments. I don’t want to be left out. And the boy I told you about asked for more photos.

Me: Here’s a question to ask yourself whenever you’re posting online: would I do this in real life? I hope you wouldn’t undress for anyone in real life? So, don’t do it online. If you would, keep in mind that once something goes onto the Internet, it’s there forever. You can share photos of your activities and photos of yourself with friends and family, but it’s important to use the privacy settings so that they’re just shared with people you know.

Caroline: What if want to share my password? Melanie, Jane and Jessica want me to. They’re my best friends and we tell each other everything.

Me: If they’re asking you to share your password, they are pressuring you. A good friend will never make you feel uncomfortable, and will respect your privacy. Also, what if they’re in your account and they accidentally leave it open and someone else gets in? You should always keep your passwords private.

Caroline: Some of my friends’ parents monitor them online. Are you going to do this too? It’s not fair for you to tell me to keep my account private but then watch what I’m doing online.

Me: I can see what you mean. When parents use monitoring apps, they do it to make sure that their kids are safe online. It doesn’t mean thatthey don’t trust their child. It means they’re trying to protect their kids. I don’t want to you to feel like I’m invading your privacy, but I do care about you and want to help you be safe online, so I will monitor your activities once a week with the Life360 or Pumpic apps. Do you understand why I want to do this?

Caroline: I guess so. Sometimes I’m afraid to tell you about stuff. I don’t want to disappoint you.

Me: You will never disappoint me. I am always here for you. Even if something small is bothering you, online or in real life, you can always come to me and we can talk it over.

The bottom line

The way this conversation goes will depend on your child’s age and personality. No matter what their age though, always be sure to talk about the fundamental issues: privacy and communication. This means how websites and apps are used, and the disclosure of personal information.

And remember: this is not the one-time talk to have and forget. It’s an ongoing dialogue that will help both of you stay safe and confident online and offline.

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