Young people are spending more time online than ever before. During the coronavirus pandemic, school, work and even hanging out with friends have moved to online platforms to provide socially-distant ways to stay in touch with others.
While online platforms offer engaging new ways for young people to interact, these platforms also bring risks to child safety. From cyberbullying and digital body dysmorphia to the potential for interactions with online sexual predators and exposure to obscene materials, young people may find themselves in situations that impact everything from their mental health and to their physical safety. Thus, it is important to establish internet safety with the young people in your life, as well as be able to recognize the warning signs of online safety risks.
Here’s what you can do to help keep the young people in your life safe from harm:
Four Ways to Protect Youth Online
Here are four ways you can prepare your kid or teen for online safety so that they can recognize online safety risks themselves and make informed decisions.
- Educate young people about online safety. First and foremost, when young people begin engaging with the internet, it’s time to facilitate age-appropriate education about online safety. Topics might include privacy, digital consent and boundary violations, cyberbullying and digital citizenship. Some online safety programs include:
- NetSmartz and KidSmartz are online safety programs from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) that help youth become aware of online risks and prevent victimization by making safer choices on- and offline.
- Common Sense Education’s Digital Citizenship lessons help youth understand how to use technology responsibly.
- BGCA’s MyFuture Digital Literacy activities are open to all youth, not just Club members, and help young people build skills in online safety, as part of building foundational technology skills.
- Create safe spaces for conversation. Provide physically and emotionally safe environments for youth to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and worries. This means always making space to talk, not being pushy or questioning about sharing, and being consistent with non-judgmental or punitive reactions regardless of what you’re told. By keeping lines of communication open and letting youth know that they have supportive people who care about them, you’ll create the consistency of a safe environment where young people will be more likely to share their questions or concerns.
- Enable technology safety features and establish your technology “code of conduct.” Many online services and platforms include tools, such as content filters/blockers, parental controls or other safety features that limit young people’s access to potentially harmful people or content on the Internet. Depending on the age of your kid or teen, you may also want to discuss your “code of conduct” for using technology, and any expectations of parental supervision, access or monitoring to devices and programs. Just like adults, young people value their privacy, so being open about expectations and involvement is key here, and a critical part of establishing that safe environment for conversations. And remember that school-issued technology devices should have the same rules as personal devices.
- Know the warning signs. When a young person is a victim of online bullying, harassment or sexual exploitation, it can be a traumatic event that impacts them and potentially their family, sometimes for many years. But there is hope and help. Having open lines of communications with young people and being able to spot warning signs early can help stop online safety risks before they progress. So even if you’ve laid a strong foundation of online safety, be sure to know the warning signs.
What Are the Warning Signs?
According to stopitnow.org, the following are warning signs that a young person may display if they are affected by online sexual abuse, but these behaviors are also prevalent across many online safety risks.
Here’s what to look for in your kid or teen:
- Isolating Themselves – a young person may start spending more time online, be secretive about their use of technology, hide their devices or screens from others, or become possessive of their technology.
- Social Changes – a young person may spend more time away from home, be vague about new friends and social interactions, or be hesitant to be alone with a particular person.
- Emotional Changes – a young person may display sudden changes or behavior or mood swings, engage in self-harm, or show signs of anger or irritation.
Although young people may be spending more time online, we can work alongside them to minimize risks to online safety. Through open communication, supervision, prevention education and strong technology policies, we can provide the guidance and support needed to keep young people safe on the Internet.
If you or someone you know has suspicions of child online sexual exploitation, report suspicions to Child Protective Services and the police. You can also contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline 24 hours a day at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). NCMEC can provide assistance to victims and families, including referrals to counseling, community resources, legal support, and help removing illegal images from online. Visit BGCA’s Parent and Caregiver Safety Resources for more information about keeping your child safe.