In the past, a child was safe from most of the world’s dangers if he was home at night. However, in today’s connected world, a child with unsupervised Wi-Fi access wanders through a dangerous jungle, even in his own home.

 Every parent needs to take the risk of online threats to our kids’ safety seriously.  Even if a child doesn’t have his own smartphone, many of his friends probably do, giving him access to the internet and the uncontrolled world of social media.  

What dangers might a child face online?

 Cyberbullying is a potent cause of suicidal thoughts, even more than traditional bullying, according to JAMA Pediatrics.  While it may seem uncomfortable to bring up, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people. Suicide takes over 5,000 young lives per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Online sexual exploitation of kids has also become incredibly common.  Predators gain access to our children by posing as other children, gradually building trust.  Soon enough, they ask for compromising pictures or a chance to meet up after school.  Among dating adolescents, many girls are invited to send photos of their private parts to their boyfriends as an expression of commitment. When the relationship ends, photos can irretrievably end up almost anywhere.  

Access to commercial porn sites has also created damaging psychological effects for many kids.

If you think it can’t happen to your child, talk to police detectives who investigate these crimes. For instance, Laguna Beach Police Detective Cornelius Ashton told me that even in well-educated, well-intentioned families, the worst can happen. 
     
Here are some proven strategies every parent should know to prevent online dangers:
 
Use Technology to Protect Your Kids Online

  • Parental controls. Virtually all computers and smartphones now have parental controls that can be enabled, allowing you to set limits for your kids’ online activity.  Learn about and use these tools. They are the first line of defense.  Most home routers can be configured to limit hours and levels of access for individual devices on your network.  
  • Family sharing.  Did you know there is an app that children can download which looks and acts just like a calculator?  When a particular key code is entered, however, the screen changes into a photo-sharing app where kids can share compromising photos with others.  If a parent were to look at their child’s phone, they would never know. On both iOS and Android devices, you can set up “family sharing” of apps.  Doing so allows parents to approve every app before a child installs it.  Before allowing your child to install an app, check Common Sense Media. This website lists parent reviews of virtually every app, movie, and TV show. By doing so, you can make informed decisions, regardless of your child’s age. 
  • OurPact.  Our family really likes a free app called OurPact. The app allows us to set a schedule for phones so that games, social media, or web browsing are automatically disabled during certain hours, like after bedtime.  Phone calls, texting, and tracking the device’s location can still be used at any time if desired.  When a child isn’t following “the rules” (see below), we can remotely and instantly disable games as punishment, giving us parents a rare sense of control. The premium service allows app-specific blocking and scheduling, and a screen time allowance for each day, which takes the argument out of budgeting device use.  Both my wife and I can share control of the kids’ devices from each of our phones.  The app is available for iOS and Android devices.

Other Methods to Protect your Kids Online

  • Install a moral compass in your child. Teaching him responsible online behavior is most important, according to experts.  The BSA’s Cyber Chip training is a safety course with age-appropriate content for all Scouting age kids, and it’s required for rank advancement.  We think of it like Totin’ Chip training for online activity.  You wouldn’t let a child handle a dangerous saw without this training.  Why then would you let him use the internet without proper training? 
  • Each of my children signed a contract, agreeing to ground rules for using the Internet and their device.  You can find a copy of good online contracts in a variety of languages at the Cyber Safety Cop website resource page.  These contracts set the rules when a child first gets a device.  It also takes the argument out of revoking the child’s privileges when necessary.  One rule we follow, for example, is that our children can only be online friends with other kids whom they know in person. 
  • Charge phones in a central location like the master bedroom or kitchen counter. Don’t allow phones in bedrooms at night – one of the dangerous situations where insomniac kids can get into trouble.  Phones in bedrooms can also interfere with sleep! Consider getting your child a separate alarm clock, so he can’t claim to need the phone as a morning alarm.
  • Borrow your child’s device to look through his or her text message threads from time to time.  Review his online posts and activities, and talk about the conversations you see. At some point, most kids will get into a subject matter that is borderline inappropriate.  
  • Don’t be judgmental when this occurs but use it as an opportunity to discuss reasonable limits for online interaction.  Make it an open and non-threatening conversation, because law enforcement officers find many cases where inappropriate online activity gets out of control because kids are afraid to tell their parents what is happening for fear of losing their device.  As always, help your child understand that he won’t be punished for sharing his worries with you.

For more reading on the subject of online safety, I recommend the book “Parenting in a Digital World” by Clayton Cranford (Cybersafetycop.com).  The book offers helpful tips and advice, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to set-up parental controls for popular apps, computer programs, and even gaming devices.
 
We teach our kids to wear seat belts, to brush their teeth, to exercise, and to protect their bodies.  But, helping them protect themselves from online threats is an equally important set of lessons in today’s changing world.  Please comment below if you have any other useful resources for parenting kids in today’s tech-savvy world.

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Dr. John Hovanesian
Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Orange County Council, Boy Scouts of America, Dr. John Hovanesian, M.D., is a seasoned Scouter and blogger who shares tips and tricks to help your family get the most out of your Scouting experience.

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