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Three Tips for Teaching Online Safety to Kids

Summer break has officially started. Whether your family is headed to the beach, juggling summer camps, or hopping on a plane, it’s a season where parents might be more relaxed with screen-time for their kids. It’s so timely then that June is Internet Safety Month.

Gone are the days where the internet was only on the desktop in a family room — kids today face a world far different from the one parents grew up in. In this era of digital connectivity, expanded social reach, AI and algorithms, how can we protect our children from potential dangers and equip them to stay safe?

Parenting in uncharted territory

Our life experience gives us practical knowledge we can confidently pass on to our kids, knowing we understand what they are going through. Things like learning to ride a bike, navigating conflict with friends and dealing with the confusing emotions of a first crush are familiar territory. But for many of us, the experience of navigating the internet in our youth is completely uncharted territory, and the realities of the social landscape can be jarringly foreign.

To effectively parent, our understanding of the experiences, challenges and risks that kids face today must be ever evolving. Thorn, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing child safety around the world, partnered with the Benenson Strategy Group to poll youth directly and found shocking data:

Youth Perspectives on Online Safety

Thorn's 2022 annual report of youth attitudes and experiences

1 in 3

9-17-years-old reported they have had a sexual interaction online.

1 in 7

9-17-years-old report they have shared nudes, including 1 in 5 teens.

1 in 4

minors agreed that it’s normal for people their age to share nudes with each other.

Being familiar with the work of IJM to protect children, makes us acutely aware of how vulnerable kids are to being tricked, abused and exploited online. For most of us who work at IJM, learning about these realities has changed the way we parent or mentor youth around us, and you might feel the same way too.

Fortunately, there’s good news: we don’t have to take on this challenge alone. Through our work combating online sexual exploitation of children, IJM works closely with several partners who are dedicated to protecting children on the internet. Organizations like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (NCCP) and child safety tech leader Thorn have done extensive research into what children are doing online, what threats are most common and what steps can most effectively help protect children from harm as they learn to navigate the online world.

Sally Frank is on staff with IJM as a specialist on Internet Crimes Against Children and has built her career working to protect children from exploitation and abuse in the US and around the world. She is passionate about online safety and recently took some time to share some wisdom from her years of experience addressing these issues with youth. Here are a few things she wants us to know about keeping our families safe online.

Table of Contents

Don’t just shield your kids from the online world. Prepare them for it.

The internet can feel like a vast, nebulous space that evolves faster than we can adapt. Keeping up with the constant stream of new apps, devices, platforms and technology is a full-time job on its own. It would be an impossible task to constantly monitor it all.

Thankfully, there are plenty of tools and apps that can help you enforce the rules your family has set. They can limit the time your child spends online, the content they can consume and apps they can access. Many apps even have parental controls and privacy settings built in. But eventually, these tools alone will not be enough.

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Inevitably, children are going to be exposed to the internet in ways that are out of your control. And when they are, they will more likely be safe if they are prepared for what they might encounter.
In an age-appropriate way, it can be helpful to begin the discussion of what the risks are and what warning signs to look out for. Thorn has a useful guide filled with talking tips and conversation starters to help you get started.

Move beyond "Stranger danger”

Most parents say it all the time: “Don’t talk to strangers.” But this concept doesn’t begin to address the nuances of the internet (or, if we’re honest, real life).

Children must learn that unlike real life, time never equals trust when speaking to a person online. Even after months of conversation, that person on the other side of the screen is still a stranger. This is challenging, and even adults are commonly deceived by people on the internet who pretend to be someone they are not. If adults are susceptible to these tricks, children are even more vulnerable.

Though it may be a difficult conversation to have, kids need to know that there are people online who don’t have good intentions and may try to trick them into doing something that could harm them. But with proper guidance and open conversations with adults they trust, they can learn to stay safe.

Safety rules are not a replacement for open conversations.

Just like the rules we grew up with as kids, families can and should create clear boundaries around internet and social media usage. Just like we broke rules as kids, children today will also invariably stray.

The most important thing a child can do when they are in danger is talk to a responsible grown-up. But research shows only 6% of children 9-17 years old turned to a trusted adult after being sent a nude photo by someone else they thought was an adult. (Thorn, Responding to Online Threats: Minors’ Perspectives on Disclosing, Reporting, and Blocking, 2019)

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No child ever deserves to be victimized, even if they have broken a rule or engaged in risky behavior. Children need to be know that their safety is more important than anything else, that you will always be on their side, and that it is never their fault when someone else does something to hurt them.

As best as you can, normalize open conversations with your child built on a strong foundation of trust. Let them know that they can talk to you about anything without fear of being judged or shamed. It’s also helpful to identify with them which relatives or friends are trusted adults they can turn to when they don't feel comfortable talking with you.

It takes a village to raise a child. You don’t have to do it alone.

We all want to raise children who can thrive in a complicated world with wisdom, compassion and hope. And as difficult as that can be sometimes, it helps to know that you don’t have to do it alone.

At IJM, we know first-hand that it’s possible to protect people in vulnerable situations when a network of partners works together. We partner with organizations around the world because we have seen how the collective effort of working together is stronger than anything we can accomplish alone.

Essential Online Safety Resources:

For the whole family:

  • Internet Matters: find out what your privacy settings are on every platform and make sure that profiles aren’t discoverable by strangers.

For parents:

  • Kids in the Know: resources for teachers and parents of kids from Kindergarten to High School to teach them personal safety strategies.
  • Bark. App controls: monitor your child's online activity across devices, manage screen time, block websites and apps and track location.
  • NCMEC Safe to Compete: training for coaches, summer camp staff and other youth workers to recognize abuse and risks.
  • No Escape Room from NCMEC: an interactive film to help you learn about sextortion.

For youth:

  • Netsmartz by NCMEC: age-appropriate videos and activities for children ages 5-17 to learn about safer online behaviors.
  • Zoe & Molly Online: comics, an interactive game and online safety quiz for kids ages 8-10 to have some fun exploring what it means to be safe while playing games online.
  • NoFiltr by Thorn: resources and advice for youth to learn about digital mindfulness, sextortion, online grooming, healthy online relationships and how to seek help.
  • Don’t Get Sextorted by Canada’s Tipline: uses humour to engage youth about what sextortion is but also provides a unique alternative to sending nudes: naked mole rat gifs and memes.
  • NCMEC: resources to learn about what sextortion is and how to seek help.

What to do when you need help:

Additional resources:

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