Why We Need to Talk to Our Kids About the Bad Stuff on the Internet
Even if the conversation is uncomfortable, talking is better than doing nothing at all.
By Laura Higgins, Director of Community Safety and Digital Civility at Roblox
As parents, we want to protect and shield our kids from all the things in the world that are scary, confusing, or sad. The fact is that by setting this expectation for ourselves, we're setting ourselves (and our kids) up for failure. There will come a time, whether in the real world or a virtual one, where they will face a challenge that we can’t control.
As a society, we’ve reluctantly accepted this fact in the physical world. It’s why we equip our kids with the lessons our parents taught us: be cautious with strangers, look both ways crossing the street, don’t do drugs, car surfing is a really bad idea, etc. We foster critical thinking skills, we build resilience and confidence to empower them to make the right decisions and handle tough situations as they navigate the real world.
But our kids are growing up in a digital world, too, and to them, there is no divide between online and off. The internet is where they learn, create, explore, and connect with friends, but with all that comes some things less pleasant. There are real-life videos of violence. There is sexist, racist, or homophobic content. Porn isn’t just easily accessible, but shows up virtually everywhere.
So what can you do?
A report by South West Grid for Learning, an online safety advisor to governments around the world, concluded that we can’t solve this by “prohibition of access to this content,” but rather “through support and discussion, and the development of emotional intelligence and reliance.”
Much like the dreaded sex talk, not many of us parents are chomping at the bit to have these conversations. Plus, the internet is a vast and daunting place, particularly for those of us who didn’t grow up in the digital world.
But if we dig deep, just as our parents (awkwardly) did before us, we’re going to raise a generation of empowered digital citizens. Here are some tips on how to do that:
Be present in your kids' online life.
- Talk to them about the different platforms they use to play or hangout online. Ask them what they like and why. Too often we scoff at our kids for spending time with technology, when to them it’s very much part of their identity, so we need to get involved and express interest, just as we would in the real world.
Let your kids know they can talk to you about anything.
- You are their main source of reassurance, guidance, and wisdom. Be there if they need you, even if they broke the rules (like setting up an account without your knowledge), because it is likely you will help them solve a problem better than their friends. If they know you won’t judge them but listen with empathy, you’re setting a precendent that your door will always be open, which will serve you (and your kids) well in the real world, as well.
Help your kids understand critical thinking.
- There have been several high profile hoaxes over the history of the internet. Stop and think, and help them do the same -- is what they are seeing real? Talk to them about where they get their information from and if it is a trustworthy source. Consider cross-checking a couple of sources -- visit a site like the News Literacy Project or Factheck.org.
Know your kids’ digital hang-outs and make them safe.
- Ask your kids to show you the apps and games they use, and familiarize yourself with the privacy settings. Set them up and talk to your kids about best practices before accepting friend requests, and have them check with you before visiting a new site or downloading third-party apps.
Know how they communicate online.
- There are online spaces that strive to create a safe place and are relentless in fighting bad actors, but there are also less protected spaces. Often, teens will use these more open platforms in tandem with curated ones to bypass restrictions and push boundaries. Unfortunately, such freedom also brings things like “banter” (actually it’s bullying but they dress it up as fun), nasty shocking content, bad language, and a lot of bravado. Make sure you understand where kids are hanging out and how they are weaving the fabric of their social platforms together.
If the worst happens, don’t panic, empower.
- While we can’t always control what our kids see on the internet, we can help shift control back to the kids by empowering them with the tools to handle bad actors or bad behavior. Don’t rush to take away their tech, as they may perceive this as punishment to them, rather than to the bad actors. Report bad actors or inappropriate content with your kids -- it helps them understand what to do and shows solidarity.
Finally, simply spend time with them online. Sure, they are not going to want you commenting on their social feeds or pushing parental paranoia into their digital space. But there are ways to join in on their digital world, and play is a great way to do it. What if you swapped traditional family board game time for a video game one evening? There are many multiplayer games you can play together -- there are racing games and role playing games, etc. Don’t worry if you’re terrible -- it gives your kids an opportunity to help teach you a few things about the digital world.
Laura Higgins currently serves as Director of Community Safety and Digital Civility at Roblox leading the company’s new digital civility initiative and providing the community with the skills needed to create positive online experiences. She has 20+ years of experience building and managing proven online safety projects and safeguarding initiatives.
Top image © Mediteraneo / Adobe Stock