February 1, 2018

Five Tips for Talking To Kids About Online Safety

By Dayana Mustak

This week, Montgomery County parents learned that an anonymous Snapchat user was soliciting and circulating nude photos of children who attend the county’s public school system. Officials explained that the nude photos were taken on Snapchat by or with the permission of the children in the photos. The incident sparked conversation among local parents in the area.

On our show about the sexting scandal, digital education expert Barbara Huth of Common Sense Education and local parent Gillian Huebner of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, discussed how parents and educators can help guide young people to make smart decisions in the digital world. Here are five takeaways.

1. Preview media and mobile apps to determine appropriateness

Part of the conversation about sexting and safe online behavior has to do with the digital environment young people live in. Huth says one of the things parents can do before making media-related decisions for their children is to preview ratings. Common Sense Education provides parents with unbiased reviews on the latest digital content to determine whether any given digital content is age-appropriate for their children. The reviews note whether a movie, app or game has sexual content or violence. It also explains apps to parents so they can better understand why children are interested in it.

2. Start early and meet kids where they are

Conversations about online behavior will vary for kids of different ages. Common Sense Education has a digital citizenship guide broken down by age to help parents better understand their children’s digital lives. For example, a 4-year-old child might need to hear about protecting online identity, but a 9-year-old might require a conversation about preventing and handling cyberbullying. For older children, Common Sense has also developed a comprehensive guide for discussing sexting.

3. Participate in a community-wide conversation

In response to the sexting incident in Montgomery County, Huebner says the county’s school system has worked with Common Sense to develop a curriculum for third to ninth graders and are working on expanding the curriculum. Montgomery County Public Schools has also organized workshops and panels for teens and parents which are free and open to the public. Huth says the conversation about safe online activity with children needs to happen both at school and at home so parents and educators need to prepare to have this talk.

4. Create a larger conversation around culture

As several listeners and callers noted on the show, it is difficult to have a dialogue about safe online behavior and sexting without having a broader conversation about sexual education, self worth, consent and personal values. On the show, Huebner says she believes our social media use reflects the values we hold as a society.

“I don’t think kids are creating this culture. They are living in the culture that adults have created for them.” – Gillian Huebner

Huth also says that parents should model good online behavior. As an example, Huebner mentions that parents could ask for their children’s consent before posting their photos online. A caller, Jill, also suggested that children may learn safe online behavior by building better social and emotional skills such as self-awareness and relationship skills.

5. Encourage smart decision-making skills

On the show, Huth suggested the conversation about safe online behavior can be part of a larger conversation about decision-making.

“I think the big thing is for students to think about their future selves before they post or send anything.” – Barbara Huth

Parents and educators can encourage students to think about how they want to represent themselves today and in the future. Ask young people to pause and consider if they want a certain photo or post to represent them five years from now. A post in the moment may be fun, but Google is forever.