Back to School: Tips to Keep Kids Safe Online
Going back to school makes us think of new backpacks and freshly sharpened pencils, but children today might have another item on their shopping list: a new mobile device.
Even if they make do with the old one, you know they’re still putting it to use: as of 2015, teenagers were spending about nine hours a day using digital technology, while kids ages eight to 12 were spending about six hours. Those hours are spent watching videos, listening to music, and engaging with peers via apps like Snapchat and Instagram.
All that time online exposes children to a variety of risks. We’ve been talking about online predators for years, but there are some other concerns you may not have considered.
Cyberbullying: Schoolyard bullies are nothing new, but what is new is their ability to harass their victims day and night via the web. Gone are the days when children could find freedom from their aggressors simply by going home; now, they can find themselves bullied via text messages and social media. Cyberbullying can include cruel emails and messages, the spreading of rumors, embarrassing photos, intentional exclusion from discussions or events, and more. A U.S. Department of Education survey indicated more than 20 percent of students are bullied.
Exposure to Inappropriate Sites: There is an overwhelming number of sites featuring violence and pornography that you wouldn’t want your child to see, but it’s all too easy to find these sites intentionally or by accident. A simple misspelling in the search bar can lead to unsavory results.
Digital Addiction: Just like drugs or alcohol, digital addiction can damage the brain. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist and addiction expert at Stanford University, is quoted in this PBS story about a middle school girl who went to rehab for digital addiction:
“Addiction begins with intermittent to recreational use, then progresses into daily use, and then progresses into consequential use, which in some cases will progress to life-threatening use. That’s followed by a pattern of consequences like insomnia, dysfunctional relationships and absent days at work or school. That’s the natural narrative arc of any addiction, and the same is true with an internet addiction.”
Increased Risk of Depression and Low Self-Esteem: Excessive internet use has been linked to depression, and direct bullying as well as exposure to photos of other teens who may be perceived to have better lives can result in lower self-esteem.
How to Keep Children Safe Online
You can’t stop your children from using the internet, and you probably wouldn’t want to. That’s how the world is connected now, and your children are using the web for school projects and other learning opportunities, too. However, it’s important to remember that even the most responsible teen can fall victim to online dangers. This is what you can do to keep your kids safe online:
Open the Lines of Communication
Students are unlikely to report bullying because they’re afraid of retaliation or of being called a tattle-tale. They also don’t feel confident about what an adult could do to help the situation. Talk to your children early and often about bullying, and create a safe space for them to tell you if it happens to them. Ask them to report anything suspicious, including strangers who try to befriend or chat with them. Teach them about what kind of information they should never share online and how to engage in an online discussion in a respectful way.
Watch for Warning Signs
Notice if your child exhibits any of these bullying warning signs:
- Unexplained injuries
- Trouble sleeping
- Disinterest in schoolwork or aversion to attending school
- Changes in eating habits
- Frequent headaches or other illnesses
- Loss of friendships
- Decreased self-esteem
- Self-destructive behavior
At the same time, even though it’s difficult, consider that your child might be the bully. If he or she shows signs of aggression, frequently gets in trouble at school, or has a tendency to blame others, skirt responsibility, and get into arguments, he or she might be bullying other students.
Bullying is damaging to both the victim and the aggressor. The bullied child may be lonely, depressed, and anxious, and they often lose interest in activities they used to like. Grades may suffer. Meanwhile, the bully is more likely to abuse alcohol, get into fights, and have criminal convictions.
Set Guidelines for Internet Use
If possible, set these internet guidelines when the kids are young so the rules become ingrained as part of life in your household. You can always adjust the rules as the kids grow. This may include no phones at the dinner table or after 8:00pm. You can invest in parental controls that will help you enforce these rules by blocking certain websites and disabling internet access during chosen time periods. You might also insist on having access to passwords or reviewing your child’s internet activity.
Make an effort to engage your children in “real world” activities. This might include family outings, membership in a club, or enrollment in classes like martial arts or dancing.
Know the Landscape
Stay up-to-date on the latest apps and internet trends so you know what your children are doing online.
Despite the risks, most teenagers won’t become addicted to the internet or quit school as a result of bullying. As long as you understand the dangers, limit excessive use, and stay alert to changes in your children’s behavior, they’ll be able to enjoy their time online without any problems, as will you.
The internet is a part of life, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Contact us if you have any questions about building your online presence or protecting your devices.