By: Dr. Shari Seinuk-Ross, ProKids Pediatrics
As the weather gets colder and the pandemic wears on, the internet has become more and more ingrained in the lives of many families, with children of all ages. The internet has been a helpful tool as various degrees of lockdown and social restrictions have become the norm over the last year. It has helped many children maintain active social lives through online games and social media when their in-person social opportunities have been limited. Through video conferencing platforms distant friends and relatives can now join you remotely for conversations and celebrations. People adjusted to physical isolation, yet through the internet, some have become more connected to friends and family.
As a pediatrician, I have also adjusted my well visits to reflect the changing role of the internet in our lives. I always talk about internet safety with my patients. I adjust topics based upon the patient’s age group. Sometimes children as young as first-grade text, game, and post. Now I regularly include internet safety as part of my discussions with children and their parents. Teaching children about internet safety and about accountability for their virtual actions has become so important. Here are some of the strategies that I use to discuss this topic:
Tip 1: What is the internet?
OK, this one seems straightforward but believe it or not many children and teenagers remain unaware that most of the activities they do online generate a traceable record.
Anything that you hit “send” or “post” on is present in some form on the internet. This includes texts, chats, emails, online games, and social media. Even messages or emails that are directed to an individual person or chats that later disappear can always be screen-shot and then shared beyond their intended recipient.
Tip 2: The “Grandparent” Rule
Before you hit “send” or “post” on anything, you should imagine that a grandparent or someone who is like a grandparent to you is reading or seeing everything that you send. If you would feel embarrassed if that person would see what you are about to hit send or post on, then that is a sign that it should not go out onto the internet with your name or username attached to it.
Tip 3: The “Friend” Rule
You may be very careful with the things you put online but you may have some friends who are not so careful. If you are included in any post, chat, or email thread and you would feel embarrassed if your grandparent or similar person saw your name attached to it then you should tell your friend to remove you from the chat, group, or post.
Tip 4: The “Parent” Rule
You can ALWAYS blame a parent if you need to leave a group or need to ask a friend to remove a photo or post. Your friends will always believe that your parents saw something and became upset with you or that your parents told you to turn off your device.
Many children, teenagers, and young adults can feel social pressure around asking friends to remove them from group chats or posts online that they know they should not be involved with. Like with real-life socialization, parents can be a good excuse to leave any online scenario. For some adolescents or young adults, they can also blame the online-content policies of a sports team or job. Everything, even if a pseudonym or username is being used, can be traced back to a real person with enough effort. These days it is so important for young people to learn to be mindful of their digital footprint and the effects that it may have on them for their future goals. Colleges, graduate programs, and large companies routinely screen social media platforms for their applicants.
This topic can also be a good way to reinforce how online bullying can affect someone’s real life. Things that are said or posted online can affect the way people feel or act in the real world. If your child is part of a game or chat where someone is being bullied, they should leave that chat or group and tell someone about it.
Tip 5: The “Warning Signs” when interacting online
We regularly reinforce stranger-safety skills with our children. Many children and teens are easily swayed by “friendly” profiles and personalities on social media and in online games. It is important to stress to our children that not everyone online has good intentions. For younger children who are mostly playing online games, I introduce this topic by saying that most of the people in their games are kids just like them who want to have fun but there are also some “sneaky people” on these games who it is important to learn to look out for.
Do not talk to people online who you do not know in real life. If you are playing a game where part of the game includes interacting with people who you may not know in real life then it is very important to never give anyone any real information about yourself. If another player or user (even if it is someone who you think you know) is asking questions about your life, such as your real name or school, or town that you live in, then that is the warning sign that you should not be speaking to that person. I would leave the game or block that person and tell a parent. If that user name belongs to a friend, call them (or have a parent call them) because sometimes people’s accounts do get hacked.
Never give anyone your password or phone number over the internet. If someone is asking you for this information you should tell a parent immediately.
For both younger and older children, this can also be an opportunity to discuss how it is sometimes hard to tell who is really on the other end of the computer. Online personas may not reflect who the real person is behind that profile or avatar.
Our children need the internet in this pandemic to maintain their vital social connections. They also need to be able to use it safely. There is no way to know how the online footprint that children generate about themselves today will follow them into the future. Talking about online safety with children of all ages helps give them the tools they need to identify unsafe internet situations and to have a plan on how to handle those situations if they arise.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Healthy Children:
Netsmartz: A resource with free online videos and activities to teach children about internet safety and free resources for parents.
Common Sense Media: Free media reviews and educational resources. Also a source of free guides for parents on various online media platforms and game platforms.