Written by Belinda Huang
Whether we like it or not, the internet is now a central part of our children’s lives. It is a place to do homework, socialize with friends, and build their own identity. It can be a wonderful tool for learning and discovery. However, as children spend more and more time online (and at younger and younger ages), it is also crucial to teach them how to protect themselves on the internet.
While 13 is the minimum age requirement for social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, it is very easy for children to get access regardless of age. There are also many gaming or discussion websites where children can come into contact with strangers from an early age. A 2007 study showed that 1 in 25 young people received aggressive and uncomfortable sexual solicitations online. Clearly, there are many risks involved with the online world.
We work hard to teach young children about “stranger danger” on the streets, but that doesn’t mean that they automatically understand how this applies to the internet. From a young age, you should start familiarizing children with the digital world with discussion or supervised screen time. Use examples to make the hypothetical online scenario more concrete, especially for young children. For help talking about this topic, try watching this digital safety video together.
Here are some questions and topics to bring up with your children or students, regardless of age:
- Who is a stranger?
While most children will know how to answer this, it is important to be clear that it is a broad category. Children are often taught that all strangers are scary, dangerous people. However, strangers are not always bad people, and not all strangers want to hurt them. There’s the stranger who opens the door or returns a dropped hat. Define a stranger as someone we don’t know, regardless of how they seem or how they are.
2. What should we tell (and not tell) strangers?
Children should understand that we don’t want strangers to know our personal information because we don’t know what they will do with it. This includes full name and age, address, phone number, or school to strangers online. However, they should also feel able to talk to people about other topics, like a favorite TV show or musician. Make sure everyone is able to differentiate between private information and harmless conversation.
3. Where do we find strangers online?
Especially for young children who haven’t spent much time online yet, it can be helpful to talk about the different platforms where you might come into contact with strangers: online gaming, comments sections, or social networking to name a few. Help them understand that they should be aware of strangers even in places that are meant for young peers or friends, like games aimed at young people and social networking sites.
4. How do we respond if we are uncomfortable?
Help children think through and verbalize their options for responding to uncomfortable situations on the internet. Talk about ways to express discomfort or tell other people to stop. Explain what it means to block another person or report someone online. And lastly, make sure they know who they can talk to in real life if something bad happens on the internet, such as a teacher, parent, or other trusted adult.
As parents and teachers, you cannot always control what websites children go to, but you can help prepare them to take care of themselves in the digital world. Although it can be a difficult conversation to have with young children, the risks of “stranger danger” online can be great. For children born into the digital age, these skills will be vital for their health and safety as they grow up.