How to talk to your kids about cyber safety

Explaining the risks of social media and the internet to your kids is an important conversation to have ¬– but how can you raise the subject without sounding like a relic from the last century? It’s easy for kids, tweens and teenagers especially, to dismiss parental caution as overprotective nonsense (just think of the way you viewed authority figures back in your youth), but this shouldn’t stop you from opening up the lines of communication.

Along with providing a wealth of information at their fingertips, the online space can also leave children vulnerable to privacy and safety issues such as identity theft, unauthorised credit card usage, cyber-bullying and online grooming. Run by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), cyber-safety program ThinkUKnow encourages parents to educate kids about online safety from an early age.

Approaching the conversation can be tricky, so we’ve listed some key tips, informed by ThinkUKnow’s recommendations, to get you started.

Have the chat early on

Simple discussions about cyber safety are increasingly important in a world where children can become smart phone literate as young as 3 years old. It’s OK for kids to watch YouTube videos or play games on our smartphones, but it pays to be aware of inappropriate video content or games encouraging in-app purchases. Explaining these simple risks to kids, as well as monitoring their use at an early age and setting clear boundaries are important to developing kids’ understanding of the internet.

Banning the internet is unrealistic – encourage openness instead

It’s easy to set a blanket ban on the accessing the internet “because I said so.” However, this forceful approach might discourage children from speaking openly about future online issues. Teenagers have many portable access points to the internet: from phones, laptops, gaming devices and tablets. Kids can easily access these devices in spaces without parental oversight – and parents will struggle to stop them.

Focus on having an honest conversation with your child about who they can talk to if they are made to feel uncomfortable online. Let them know that alerting you to online issues (e.g. being approach to strangers, bullying) will not land them in hot water, but that they will instead be supported and listened to. Encourage them to assert their own boundaries online with report/block functions. An honest two-way discussion will help build trust and hopefully set you up as the first point of call in a difficult situation.

Understand their world

Today, people of all ages browse the internet and have a social media presence. To understand the risks from your child’s perspective, sign up, download and familiarise yourself with the platforms they frequent. If you can get your child to walk you through the platform, even better. Having an understanding of how popular social media and online platforms work will help you speak to your kids on their level.

Parents often make a deal with social media, requiring kids to add them as friends so they can oversee their behaviour. While this is fine, parents must also remember that children can easily bypass their gaze by creating new accounts and false names.

Today’s kids don’t separate being online or offline in the ‘real’ world. Without social media, children are unable to see what their friends are saying and doing and their world stops. It’s important for parents to recognise that the internet is an important social avenue and that it’s only natural for kids to seek out spaces away from ‘uncool’ parental oversight. The best you can do is learn about how platforms function and how you can help manage risks.

Work through security settings together

Public social media profiles are an understandable concern for most parents. Explain to your child that images and written details that may identify your home address, school or other personal locations can jeopardise their safety and the family’s.

Don’t be afraid to take it one step further and ask to review your child’s social media security settings. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. Make it a collaborative process and review your own security settings alongside theirs; your child will likely pick up on something you miss.

It’s also a good idea to Google search your child’s name to see what comes up. Reviewing privacy settings, geotags and passwords might not be your child’s idea of a fun Friday night, but it’s a worthy exercise that will help equip them with an understanding of how to protect themselves online.  

For more resources on cyber-safety, visit these websites:

Think U Know
Think U Know’s SOS guide for parents cover cyberbullying, sexting and social media
National Centre Against Bullying