If You Haven't Done These 5 Things, Your Kids Are Not Safe Online

The internet can be a scary place; how to protect your kids.

Last updated on May 01, 2024

Parents teaching their teen about how to protect themselves online Konstantin Pelikh, towfiqu barbhuiya, mediaphotos | Canva

Many parents are worried about their teen's online activities. Bullying, texting inappropriate things and pictures, viewing adult videos, and making homicidal and suicidal threats are some of the most concerning behaviors teens engage in online. Parents are doing their best to figure out what the rules should be. How do we allow our kids to use technology while limiting the risks? What are the best parenting tips for monitoring our children's internet use?


If you haven't done these 5 things, your kids are not safe online:

1. All parents of kids and teens supervise online/social media activity

Yes, everyone deserves privacy, and yes, kids and teens should have thoughts, feelings, and experiences that their parents know nothing about. But, the reality is that your child's online activity is not private and could become open to predators. Even during "private" conversations, like on Facebook Messenger, Instagram DirectMessage, or texting, screenshots of conversations can be taken and shared, passwords can be shared and accounts accessed by other people. Anything your teen doesn't want to be seen or shared should be said or done in person, in a private setting, or written in a paper journal.


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2. Create a contract with their kids and teens around device use

To have the privilege of using a laptop, phone, iPod, tablet, etc., parents will have all passwords to the devices and apps and periodically sit down with their teens and review device activity. I know many parents who don't want the hassle of dealing with disgruntled teens over this, but I believe it is as basic as teaching hygiene and nutrition. We wouldn't avoid feeding our kids or making them shower. Don't avoid this important part of their lives either. If you introduce this rule at the very beginning, it is much easier to implement. But even if you didn't set this up at the onset of internet use, go ahead and do it now. Parenting has a learning curve and you are allowed to change the rules as you learn new information.

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3. Review all Internet activity with your child

Periodically sit with your teen and scroll through pictures, review texts, view the internet browser history, and review Instagram, Facebook, or other social media activity, including private messaging. Review any concerns with your teen and calmly share thoughts, feelings, and expectations around the concerns. Share positives, too, and highlight the ways your teen is engaging with others in kind and respectful ways. Don't hold your teen responsible for friends' posts (i.e. Don't yell at your teen if their friend uses foul language or bullies another teen online). Calmly share your concerns and expectations.

4. Allow devices only to be used in public areas and require they be turned into one area overnight

No one needs their phone in bed or the bathroom. Ever. It's worth purchasing a separate MP3 player or alarm clock to keep the phone out of their bedroom at night. All family members benefit from designated "no-screen" times when everyone unplugs from devices and spends time screen-free.

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5. Have your child ask herself these questions (these apply to you as well!): 

  • Would I say this to the person's face? I mean, really, would I say this in person, or would shyness, awkwardness, compassion, respect, human decency, etc. keep me from saying this? 
  • Would I say this to the person's face in front of their mom/dad/sibling/grandma? Would I be OK if 100 of my closest friends and enemies knew I said this?
  • If I was implicated in a crime and the police investigated my online presence, would this look at all suspicious or bad to them? (I add this because so many people make threats against each other via private message thinking it's funny or glib, but it looks awful when read by a third party. Also, teens share intimate photos and in some states, teens are being prosecuted under child pornography laws, even if they are sending a picture of themselves).
  • If I'm sending a picture, would I be okay with my entire school seeing this? Would I show this part of myself to not only the recipient of this text but to everyone I know? Sexual pictures are often shared far sooner and far more easily than a teen would share nudity in person. And they are rarely kept private. Friends grab phones and share pics in seconds. Angry parents share pics found on phones with other parents. Even if your face isn't in the picture, often there are clues in the photo that make the person identifiable. 

Everyone (including parents) should always assume that online activity is being supervised. Many parents check their teens' phones without their teen's awareness, so teens should assume all of their messages are being read by you and by their friends' parents. Parents should assume that kids and teens are going to see their texts and posts. Kids borrow phones to use a calculator, make a quick call, or send a reply to a parent while they're driving. My niece hacked into my phone and changed my Instagram info in less than a minute. I assure you — nothing is sacred.

I hope that with these guidelines, everyone will slow down, think through what they're viewing and typing, and develop healthier relationship habits, whether online or in person. The physical distance of online communication often provides us with a false sense of security and we say and do things online we would never do in person. Your kids and teens need your help to be intentional and thoughtful in all of their interactions. I hope you will help them guard their integrity so their online activity represents them well.

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Shelby Riley is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been practicing for over twenty years. Shelby has been interviewed for The Washington Post, Health Magazine, KidsHealth Magazine, Parents Express Magazine, MainLine Today, and Philadelphia Family as a specialist in family and relationship issues.