The Dangers Are Real
We all have a vague sense that there’s a “bad” side of the internet—a side we don’t want children to experience. We’ve heard stories of horrible cases of cyberbullying—where, at the very least, children’s self-esteem is ruined. We hear stories of “sexting” among younger and younger teens. And we know pornography is all too easy to find. But while we’re aware of the dangers, it’s tempting to think that none of this applies to your child.
Unfortunately, the facts say that every child is at risk for at least some kind of internet activity that parents would rather shield them from. 90% of children aged 8 to 18 have seen pornography online. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that these are “bad” kids: 70% of children aged 7 to 18 have stumbled onto pornography accidentally.
Over half (52%) of children report having experienced cyberbullying to some degree. 39% of children have engaged in some form of sexually explicit messaging, or “sexting.” And 70% of teens admit to hiding online content from their parents.
More Devices, Increasing Mobility Make Internet Safety a Challenge
The proliferation of the ways children can access the internet has made protecting children increasingly difficult. Many schools now provide students with individual laptop computers. Most children have access to smartphones. Many have access to tablets as well. And entertainment devices—such as gaming systems and streaming devices (Apple TV, Roku, Google Chromecast, Xbox)—also provide an avenue of access. This makes preventing access to inappropriate content or undesirable interactions with peers extremely difficult.
This problem is further compounded by the increased mobility of connected devices. Smartphones and tablets access the internet both over Wi-Fi networks and data plans, making it more difficult to regulate access. Furthermore, the numerous apps that children can use to communicate and access content are difficult to control due to the limitations of mobile operating systems.
All of this means that, while the risks to kids and teens online have become much greater, the job of protecting them has become much harder.
Hope for Parents: Internet Safety Plans
The traditional approach to protecting children online—which involved simply buying content filtering software and installing it on the family computer—is no longer viable in and of itself, if it ever was in the first place. Content filters, while helpful and downright necessary for preventing exposure to explicit content, were never foolproof, and probably never will be. There’s also no one content filtering product that can possibly apply to all of the devices and apps that children use to communicate and access the internet.
But we won’t leave you without hope. While there is no off-the shelf product that will protect children from all inappropriate content and all dangerous interactions enabled by technology, it is possible to create a holistic internet safety plan that incorporates useful technical safeguards (such as modern content filters) and tools aimed at fostering healthy parent-child conversations about online behavior (such as monitoring and accountability solutions). These plans, of course, require parents to be involved in their children’s lives—but what component of good parenting doesn’t?
What’s involved in an internet safety plan? The first step parents need to take is to commit to being involved in and aware of their children’s digital lives.
The second step, depending on parents’ level of comfort with technology, is to get help from technology experts to select and implement the technical components of an internet safety plan. The right experts will understand that technology is a tool for parents to use, not a replacement for parenting, and will help parents choose and customize tools that will work for their parenting style and their children.