A Parent's Guide to School Safety Toolkit

3.4 Internet Safety

Beginning of a URL address, stating:'http://www.'

The internet is an expansive resource that has become necessary for work, school, and daily life in our society. We are dependent on applications (apps), gaming consoles, and social media to meet many of our needs. This powerful resource also comes with potential and serious dangers, especially for children, including encountering inappropriate content, extortion, blackmail, identity theft, human and sex trafficking, kidnapping, cyberbullying, and harassment.

Student sitting at a table while happily working on laptop

In addition to these dangers, every search, comment, purchase, picture, tweet, share, game, snap, like, and phone call is recorded in a person’s digital profile. All digital data is collected, stored, used, and sold to companies and stolen by criminals. Everything associated with a person’s name, cell number, email, and internet protocol (IP) address, is saved forever and cannot be erased. All information, despite deletion, is still stored somewhere on the internet or in a storage cloud. Incognito mode and anonymous apps can still track and record browsing and purchasing histories and online activity. Colleges and universities, the U.S. military, and potential employers look at a person’s current and previous social media and other online activity when determining acceptance or rejection.

While young people may be “digital natives,” having lived their whole lives with the widespread use of the internet, some parents may be “digital immigrants.” This does not mean you cannot educate, guide, monitor, and protect your children from the dangers that exist online. Research shows that brain development continues until a person’s mid-20s. The last part of the brain to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, decision-making, problem-solving, and planning. The limbic system, which is the part of the brain responsible for reward seeking, sexual urges, and emotional responses, develops earlier and quicker. This means that it is more difficult for children and adolescents than it is for adults to identify and recognize some of the dangers that exist online. This emphasizes the importance of parents setting appropriate boundaries and limits to help their children make the best choices. Talk with your children on a regular basis about the importance of internet safety and digital citizenship.

What is digital citizenship?

School districts are now mandated by the State Board of Education to incorporate instruction in digital citizenship into the district’s curriculum, including information regarding the potential criminal consequences of cyberbullying. Digital citizenship is the responsible use of technology, including the appropriate action and interaction with others online.

How can I protect my children?

Father and son share a laptop together, laughing

The following suggestions are research-based, best practices to help protect your child from online dangers:

  • Teach your children about internet safety and best practices, including the importance of security and privacy.
  • Protect your children from inappropriate websites, content, games, and apps by preventing access to them. There are apps and settings which can do this for you. Online gaming and gaming consoles, including the Xbox, Switch, and Play Station provide the same dangers as cellphones and computers because of internet access and webcams.
  • Watch for warning signs that may indicate that your child is getting into trouble online.
  • Be aware of the dangers that exist on the internet and set a good example.
  • Take an ongoing and active role in your child’s internet activities. Monitor their digital devices and online activity.
  • Minimize or delay access to the internet, online games, and social media. There are cell phones with limited features: no internet browser, app store, or social media access.

Talk With Your Child About Technology

Have regular conversations with your child about technology and social media. Talk with your child in a curious and conversational way rather than in an interview format. Ask your child:

  • What are your favorite websites, social media apps, and online games (such as Fortnite)? Why do you like them? What social media do your friends use?
  • Do you have a hard time minimizing time spent online, with social media, or games?
  • Have you ever witnessed cyberbullying? How did you feel? What would you do if you were a target? How would you be an “upstander”?
  • Have you ever received an upsetting text message? What did you do?
  • Do you use social media to vent? Do your friends?
  • Would you feel comfortable coming to me if you are being bullied? If not, who would you go to?
  • Do you know what to do if you witness someone being a target of bullying, exhibiting bullying behavior, or making online threats?
  • Do you know about privacy settings? Ask them to show you.
  • How do you determine what is safe to post?

Social Media, Addiction, and Mental Health

Two middle school students share a laptop

With the widespread accessibility of smartphones at even younger ages, young people are especially prone to develop an addiction to their cell phones. This can lead to increased mental health concerns, decreased self-esteem, impaired work and school performance, and increased interpersonal conflict. Dr. Jean Twenge states in her article, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation, that teen depression and suicide is at record peaks; these devastating trends precisely match the emergence and use of smartphones and social media. There has likewise been a rise in addiction to online gaming.

Behaviors which may indicate declining mental health:

  • Changes in behavior after going online.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.
  • Irritable, angry quicker, or sad.
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns; not eating or sleeping because of the desire to continue gaming or scrolling online sites.
  • Declining hygiene.
  • Self-destructive or secretive behaviors.

What Should My Child Know?

Talk with your child about the dangers which exist online, not to scare them, but rather to open their eyes as to how the things they say and do may impact them in the future. Also talk with your child about how it impacts their safety. Comments that are made on social media at age 16 may lead to your child not getting into the military, being uninvited to a college, or not getting their dream job.