Newshub headline with Children's Wisconsin logo
Boy in dark room on computer

From catfishing to cyberbullying, how to help kids avoid internet dangers

Hashtags, selfies, snaps, tweets, gramming, streaming, vlogging…the world of the internet is enough to make a parent’s head spin. But to keep children safe, it’s important for those of us with kids to keep up on the latest trends and social media platforms.

For all the benefits of social media — staying connected with friends and family, improving our health and creativity and accessing a wealth of fun and games — there are just as many dangers to be aware of. From identify theft and catfishing to cyberbulling, sexting and online challenges, it can often seem like the only solution is to throw away every electronic device. But before you do that, rest assured that with some simple precautionary measures, there is no reason your child can’t safely enjoy the perks of social media and the internet.

Communication is key

As with most child-rearing tasks, the key to safe internet usage is communication and involvement. You have control over how your child will receive information online. Keep the lines of communication open by asking them questions about games they enjoy, who they talk to, sites they frequent or YouTube channels they follow.

This is also a great opportunity to talk to kids about the dark side of the internet. Let them know that there are sites that are simply inappropriate for them to see, and set filters to make sure they don’t accidentally end up somewhere they shouldn’t. Tell them about phishing and the potential to pick up viruses — don’t click on pop-up ads! — that could harm their machine and steal vital information.

Go online together

There’s no reason that going online can’t be a shared experience. If your child has a new device, or is just getting the hang of technology, sit down with them and explore it together. Find some fun, kid-friendly websites that match their interests. There are also plenty of sites that let you play games together.

Associating online time with you can help keep your child from zoning out and just going into another room whenever they want to log on. This may also help your child explore positive aspects of technology by incorporating it into your family life (communicating with distant relatives, watching funny videos together, etc.)

While the internet can be great, it’s no substitute for playing with a friend in person. Children should be participating in extracurricular activities and engaging with kids outside of social media.

Limit screen time for everyone

No matter your child’s age, they should have a screen time limit. A recent study said that the average child in the United States spends a whopping seven hours every day in front of a screen (including TVs, computers and various gadgets). This is far more than the two hours per day recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It doesn’t take a medical degree to see why that’s not healthy.

Set limits, but be realistic. Being too strict can make some kids want to rebel, or compel them to use every single second of the time allowed. No phones at mealtime is a simple, reasonable expectation. No screen time an hour before bed is another good rule as studies show that such visual stimulation so close to bedtime negatively affects a child’s sleep. Maybe have “screen-free nights” once or twice a week where the family gets together for board games or card games.

And this applies to parents, too. How often are you on your phone or tablet? Do you check social media during dinnertime? In the middle of a conversation? Your children are watching you, and will take their cues on how to use social media from you.

Baby steps

Just as a child transitions from tricycles to training wheels to a two-wheeler, internet access should happen in stages. Children should have restrictions in the beginning, such as parental supervision, frequent monitoring, limited time and access to sites/devices, and no access to passwords. As children prove their responsibility, they can earn more freedom, access and independence.

Like kids, social media doesn’t come with its own set of instructions. The truth is we’re all just figuring this out as we go. With a little bit of care and open dialogue, you can make sure you and your child get the best out of social media and avoid the pitfalls.