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Raising kids in an online world: What parents need to know

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by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

father and daughter having fun with digital tablet on couch

With young people spending more and more time online, parents need to learn some basic parenting techniques to protect their children—and their children’s online reputations. Being a parent today means understanding the benefits and pitfalls inherent in your child’s online interactions and using your knowledge to help your child make smart choices.

The following are some easy ways to help your child navigate the Internet the right way.

Teach your child how to be a good digital citizen

Digital citizenship, also called “online etiquette,” is a set of rules that help kids stay safe and behave appropriately when they’re online. Here are some of the most important guidelines:

1. Be kind

The Internet is full of mean people; individuals hide behind a veil of anonymity to attack, slander, and discredit random strangers or people they don’t like. Don’t let your kid be one of them. Remind them that although they aren’t communicating face-to-face with someone, they should behave as though they were. It’s easy to be mean if you can’t see the other person’s reaction.

“Parents may not want to look uninformed about how to use technology/social media operationally, but that shouldn’t stop them from talking about what kind of behavior is acceptable online!”Joseph Yeager, cybersafety advocate and founder of Safety Net of PA

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A good rule of thumb is to T.H.I.N.K. before you post anything online:

T: Is it True?

H: Is it Helpful?

I: Is it Inspiring?

N: Is it Necessary?

K: Is it Kind?

2. Don’t spread gossip

Thanks to websites like Twitter, breaking news can reach millions of people within seconds. This can sometimes be a good thing; for example, social media users are among the first to learn about important events and news. However, when the news is false, the speed of social media can lead to misinformation that can destroy a person’s online reputation.

“Discuss expectations and set boundaries before giving them access. Have age-appropriate talks about the power at their literal fingertips to spread love or hate, the importance of those choices and how they can ultimately affect another person’s life. Be the example.”J. J. Cannon, author of @Sophie Takes a #Selfie

Let your child know that passing on false information is as bad as telling a lie, even if he or she does so unknowingly. To this end, make sure your children know how to discern whether information online is true or false, and teach them to be skeptical of what they read online. 

Picking the truth out of the sea of lies online is something most adults find hard to do. So, don’t worry if you need some guidance in this area.

Here are some things to think about when deciding whether to trust a piece of online content:

  • Is the source for this information one you know and respect? If you’ve never heard of the source, the story is less trustworthy.
  • Does this story exist anywhere else online? If not, then it’s probably fake.
  • Who might be harmed by this message? Who would benefit?
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  • Is the information on a satire website? Sometimes, you need to check to make sure.
  • Is the information believable? For example, you should be skeptical of miracle cures for diseases.
  • Does the story make you angry? Fake stories tend to provoke a strong emotional reaction.

“The Aim is simple, equip your kids to use technology, rather than get used by technology.”#SocialMediaMatters, an organization that promotes the use of social media for social change.

3. Guard your privacy

Some companies focus their entire business model on scraping social networking websites for personal information and then compiling it to sell to marketers or (more frighteningly) identity thieves. As such, you should teach your children not to share private information on social media or anywhere else. 

“Technology has changed. Good parenting hasn’t. Trust yourself. And every time you talk to kids about offline safety—such as crossing the street or where they’ll be after school—talk about an online corollary—like visiting safe sites, friending people you know, keeping passwords private, etc.”Linnette Attai, data privacy compliance consultant and author of Student Data Privacy: Building a School Compliance Program

Some smart privacy practices to follow are:

  • Only friend people you are friends with in real life.
  • Lockdown your social media privacy settings.
  • Don’t send pictures to or chat with strangers.
  • Don’t reveal personal information, including your name, address, phone number, or school name.
  • Use good password etiquette.

4. Be an upstander

If your children saw a student at their school getting teased or bullied on the playground, would they say something to a teacher? Hopefully, the answer is yes. The same rule should apply online.

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A shocking 59% of American teens say they have experienced some form of cyberbullying. This makes it one of the most pervasive problems facing young people today. For adults, it can be hard to see when cyberbullying is happening. Kids are more likely to see the abuse because it’s happening within their social network. Teach your children that if they see cyberbullying occurring anywhere online, they should tell you or another trusted adult.

“Be curious. Ask your kids what they are doing online, you might learn something! Plus it will give you a chance to share wisdom earned with age.”—Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World and founder of Cyber Civics and Cyberwise 

5. Avoid sexting

The number of young people sexting or sharing sexually explicit images via text message or other electronic communication is on the rise. In 2009, 4% of teens aged 12 to 17 reported sending sexts, and 15% said they received them. Today, nearly 15% are sending sexts, and 27% say they’ve received them.

“Be ready to have a sexting talk and agreement (PDF) handy. Prioritize child/youth safety over chastisement and punishment—you’ll have time to discipline after: Let them know you’re there to keep them safe first and above all.”Julia Hengstler, technology, privacy, and educational specialist 

You might intend to share the image with only one person, but these types of images have a way of spreading—including through your school in a matter of hours. This can cause severe emotional and psychological damage and might also subject anyone involved in disseminating the image to criminal prosecution for child pornography.

“Your child may always be an app ahead of you, but they will never stop needing your parenting wisdom offline. Especially when they face challenging times online and you’re not there. They need your voice whispering in their head. ‘What would mom/dad do?’”Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation, cybersafety advocate, and founder of helpyourteens.com

Explain the power of an online reputation

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Your child’s online reputation consists of the things that appear in an online search for his or her name. Because people rely on the Internet as a trusted source of information, the things your kid does and says online today have the power to help or hurt him or her, even years later.

At a minimum, make sure your child understands these facts:

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1. What you share online is essentially public—There’s no way to guarantee that what you post online will stay where you put it. People hack Facebook accounts, friends share private messages, and companies change their privacy policies. Before you post a picture, write on a wall, or send a message, ask yourself if what you’re sharing is something you would want shared in public. If not, don’t post it.

2. Your online reputation can stay with you for a long time—Unlike humans, the Internet doesn’t forget. The things you do when you’re young will stick with you forever—and can impact you when you’re older. College recruiters look up information about prospective applicants. And after you graduate, hiring managers and recruiters will look at your online reputation before deciding to hire.

Think twice before you post photos of your kids online

Is it safe to post photos of your kids online–on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking websites? Visit any mommy blog or parenting forum on the Internet, and you’ll be sure to find this question hotly debated.

Risks in sharing your child’s photo on the Internet

One of the first things people worry about when they think about sharing their child’s photos online is the threat of their child being targeted by a pedophile or online stalker. While this is certainly a possibility—although a remote one—there are other dangers to consider.

  • Image misappropriation—It’s easy for someone to find a photo of your child and misappropriate it in some way. For example, one American family found that a photo they had posted online ended up being used in a front window advertisement for a grocery store in the Czech Republic. Another family had their child’s photo uploaded to a stock image site and used in a genetic testing advertisement in Spain
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  • Cyberbullying—If you share photos of your child that other children might consider embarrassing, there is a possibility that a bully will seek out these pictures and use them to taunt or abuse your child.
  • Unwanted online reputation—How will your kid feel when he or she looks back at the picture you posted of him or her wearing a T-shirt with an extreme political message? Whether you realize it or not, you are creating an online reputation for your child whenever you share pictures of him or her online. These digital footprints will follow him or her for years to come and can conflict with, and even undermine, the online image he or she might want to project as a teen or young adult.

“The reality is that the data shared by parents could be revealed by Google search algorithms for years to come. And we don’t know what our children’s goals might be when they get older.”—Stacey Steinberg, an associate director for the Center on Children and Families at University of Florida Levin College of Law

Tips for sharing photos of your children online

It is safe to post photos of your kids online if you do so responsibly. Before you share, make sure you follow these tips to keep your kids’ photos from winding up in front of the wrong people:

  • Create a private album—If you have hundreds of Facebook friends, you shouldn’t expect them all to be interested in your photos. Most social networks have private sharing options for photographs. If you want to share photos, make sure you set up a private album so that only certain people can see your images.
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  • Only share photos that are appropriate—Your children will eventually grow up, and no matter how cute you think those pictures of them splashing around in the tub are, you should avoid posting images that could embarrass them down the road. Think about what you share online as a digital tattoo. Whether you like it or not, it’ll be there forever. 
  • Avoid posting pictures that reveal personal information—Think hard about what kind of personal data someone can discern from a photograph before you share it online. Does the shirt your child is wearing display the name of his or her school? The likelihood of a stalker tracking down your family may be extremely low, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid taking the appropriate precautions.

“It’s never a bad idea to ask your kids for THEIR permission before you take and post a picture of them online. Set a proper example so they don’t do it to others.”—Richard Guerry, founder of Public and Permanent and executive director of ROC2.org

For more information

Now that you’ve learned some ways to help your child safely navigate the Internet, you might be interested in learning more about online safety and online reputation management. For this reason, we offer several self-help articles, including the following:

You can also give us a call. We offer free consultations 24/7 to discuss your unique online privacy or online reputation concerns.