How to Teach Your Children to Navigate the Internet Safely

By: Mrs. Amanda Hayes, Head of Middle School
Set boundaries, ease into technology, model appropriate online behavior…

When teaching teens to drive, we don’t simply give them the car keys and tell them to hit the road. We have certain practices in place, permits, driving ages, and best practices that we abide by as parents to ensure the safety of our children. We are very cautious about introducing them to the functions of the car. We start them off driving in a parking lot or around the block before heading to main roads and highways. We send them to driver’s education classes to learn the signs of the road and discuss how to handle certain driving scenarios. Lastly, we spend time in the car with them, gradually transitioning to the freedom of driving alone, limiting the number of friends in the car, teaching them that technology and driving do not mix, and setting curfews for when they need to be off the street.

However, when it comes to the use of technology and social media, we often give our children the “keys to the car” with limited guidance, education, or best practices to help ensure their safety on the virtual highway. Here are some tips to help parents ensure their children have passed the “driver’s test” to navigate the digital world.

The mechanics of operating a car haven’t changed all that much since we learned how to drive, but technology sure has! As parents, we often feel uninformed about the newest apps and social media sites that our children want to access. However, we do not have to know all of the content to give our children the skills they need to navigate these sites safely. We can educate our children about the behaviors and values that are important to us and discuss those values in the context of social media and technology. Consider limiting your child’s access to a device or app until he or she shows you what it is capable of. Discuss how your child plans to use the device or app within the context of your family values and expectations. Although the apps may change, chances are your values and expectations will not. Children need to know boundaries so they can stay in the right lane.

There is a reason why we start driving on back roads versus highways. Can you imagine if a teen’s first driving experience was at 55+ miles per hour? Experienced drivers passing by and a new driver trying to concentrate on the basics of driving while moving at high speed! I’m sure we can all agree that would be a dangerous position to put our children in. However, our children have grown up with access to technology and can very quickly believe that they are ready for the fast lane. However, open access to social media and the internet provides exposure to “more experienced drivers” and topics that most likely are not age appropriate. Consider age-appropriate guidelines in regard to what your child can access as well as the amount of screen time so that they can go at a pace that is appropriate for their level of maturity and development. 

There’s a reason why new drivers have a curfew. Being on the streets late in the evening often leads to distracted driving and more accidents for teens. Late night technology usage can often have a similar impact on the decision making process, not to mention the impact on decision-making for teens. Setting a “curfew” for phone usage and/or charging phones in a centralized location will help to avoid late night social media mishaps that have unintended consequences.

We all know that the double yellow line means, “no-pass zone”, and a red octagon means “stop”, but the roadmap in the digital world is not as easy to follow. New apps appear daily and kids learn quickly how to navigate these apps before adults know they even exist. There is not always a “caution” sign that is easily visible, and to be honest kids don’t look for them anyhow. However, the screen page of a phone or computer as well as the history page of a computer shows a pretty clear picture of how a child is using a device. Ensure that you have open access to viewing your child’s usage history by knowing passwords and, as social media becomes a part of their world, make sure you are their “follower” and their “friend”. The younger the child is, the more the parent needs to be the backseat driver.

Unfortunately, not all situations on social media allow “accident forgiveness”, and the consequences for poor decisions can have a permanency that tweens and teens are not ready for. As with many life lessons, kids learn best through example. The manner in which parents use and discuss technology and social media will have a significant impact on their children’s use of these tools. Modeling positive uses of social media, making personal time a priority over screen time, being aware of your child’s online presence, and having open discussions about online behavior are some of the most effective ways to train your child to be a responsible digital citizen and ensure that they have “passed the test”.

Looking for more resources to help you navigate the digital highway with your child?
Common Sense Media
“Social media apps that let teens do it all -- text, chat, meet people, and share their pics and videos -- often fly under parents' radars.”
Psychology Today
“Tweens' brains are simply too immature to use social media appropriately.”
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