10 Ways Parents Can Keep Kids Safe Online and Resources for Educators
Although most children spend the majority of their weekdays at school, much of their technology usage is done outside of school hours, oftentimes at home.
In May 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about the mental health impacts of social media on young people. He urged policymakers, tech companies, researchers, and caregivers to make a concerted effort to better understand the potential consequences.
“We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address,” reads the advisory. “The most common question parents ask me is, ‘Is social media safe for my kids?’ The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.”
The advisory says social media may cause body image issues, affect eating behaviors and sleep quality, and lead to social comparison and low self-esteem — all of which can lead to serious mental health issues. Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media are also twice as likely to experience poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety. Suicide is also the second-leading cause of death among people ages 15-24 with 20% of high school students reporting having serious thoughts about suicide, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
It is estimated that the average child gets a cell phone between the ages of 12 and 13, and 39% of Americans get a social media account before they are 12 (Laughlin Constable, 2018). Long before children have their own personal cell phones, most have already had access to digital devices for years. According to Common Sense, which conducts independent research about children’s use of media and technology and the impact it has on their development, the average amount of time Americans under the age of eight spent with mobile devices each day tripled between 2013 and 2017.
Ultimately, there is a critical need for parents and caregivers to teach children how to be digitally responsible from the moment they are given independent access to digital devices, particularly social media, in order to minimize potential impacts on mental health and wellbeing.
Much of the Responsibility Falls on the Parents
While students spend the large majority of their weekdays in school, it is likely the large majority of their social media usage is done outside of school hours, oftentimes in their homes. For parents and caregivers, it can be challenging to keep up with the rapid acceleration of social media and other technologies such as video games. To educate caretakers on the most popular applications and trends, Safer Schools Together (SST), a company that provides digital threat assessment training, released its free guide, “Raising Digitally Responsible Youth.”
The guide, created in conjunction with the International Centre for Digital Threat Assessment, aims to introduce parents and caregivers to leading social media platforms, video games, and other trends. It offers tips, how-to’s, and definitions for the most commonly used apps, including TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, among others. The full guide can be downloaded here but below are some parenting tips that SST says can help create a household that respects digital boundaries:
- Keep phones and devices out of the bedroom. Approximately 89% of adolescents have at least one device in their bedrooms and most are used around bedtime which doubles their chances of getting insufficient sleep. Sleep disturbance in childhood is known to have adverse effects on health, including poor diet, obesity, sedentary behavior, reduced immune function, and stunted growth.
- Have a central charging station for all portable digital devices. A common area in the home is a good place to keep all household devices charged at night, including adults’ devices. By modeling digitally responsible behavior and setting an example for youth that you don’t need to sleep with your device(s), it helps children understand that they don’t need to either.
- Know their passwords. It is a parental right, says SST, since most paid for the device given to their child.
- Stay educated. If a child asks to download an app that you are unfamiliar with, download the app and try it out yourself first. If your child already has an app or game, ask them to teach you about it and how it works.
- Put tape or a sticky note over the device camera when not in use.
- Build a culture of openness and trust in establishing a two-way dialogue about technology and social media. This ensures you are approachable when a concern comes up in a child’s digital life.
- Technology is here to stay, so try to introduce technology into your home and your children’s lives at a pace you feel comfortable with and that is relative to your child’s age and emotional maturity.
- We are a child’s parent before a friend and are responsible for ensuring their safety in the online world just as much as we are responsible for ensuring their safety in the offline world.
- Google yourself and your family. Any names, addresses, emails, phone numbers, or social media usernames that are associated with your family can be searched online; see what shows up before others do.
- Remind your children of the permanence of anything posted online or sent electronically. Not everything posted online stays but we don’t get to decide what stays and what doesn’t.
The good news is recent studies show many parents are taking on the responsibility of raising digitally responsible children. Once the majority of schools reopened for in-person learning during the pandemic, 28% of parents said they took steps to educate their families about safe online behavior, according to a 2021 McAfee report. It also found that 23% purchased new online security protection.
“We know that many parents are looking for online peace of mind, and so looking to schools to help them educate their children about safe online behavior,” said Judith Bitterli, senior vice president of consumer at McAfee. “However, it’s good to see that many are also doing the same at home.”
Teachers Want Online Safety Included in Curriculum
Research shows including online safety within a school’s curriculum is key to helping children become responsible users of technology. According to the aforementioned McAfee study, 76% of American parents want digital wellness and online safety classes to be taught in school. The good news is most teachers think it should be involved in the curriculum as well.
According to an aggregate 2018 Google report, 99% of teachers in the United Kingdom believe online safety should be part of the school’s curriculum. Encouragingly, many teachers are incorporating it into their lessons. Seven out of 10 American educators teach at least one type of digital citizenship competency. While 46% of teachers have addressed issues around cyberbullying and hate speech, 44% are also tackling privacy and online safety.
For K-12 educators looking to improve cyber safety in the classroom and play a part in ensuring students become digitally responsible citizens, here are some resources. Parents could benefit from them as well:
- Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance (TA) Center: Cyber Safety Considerations for K-12 Schools and School Districts
- Be Internet Awesome: Digital Safety Resources
- Common Sense Education: Digital Citizen Curriculum
- Common Sense Education: 23 Great Lesson Plans for Internet Safety
- NetSmartz Workshop: An Educator’s Guide to Online Communication Tools
- Childnet: Step Up, Speak Up Teaching Toolkit
Does your school or district follow a digital citizen curriculum that you think is effective? Leave a comment with information on where Campus Safety readers can learn more about it.
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