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?

Legislation Protecting Young People Online

Legislation passed in 2023 provides increased protection for minors from harmful and deceptive practices online, and parents and guardians with a better ability to protect their children’s online presence.

Digital service providers (DSP’s) socially connect users; allow users to create public profiles; or allow users to create or post content on message boards, chat rooms, landing pages, video channels, or main feeds. When a DSP has confirmed the identity and relationship of a parent or guardian to their minor child, they become a verified parent. A verified parent is allowed to supervise their child’s use of the digital service using tools the digital service provides. Verified parents are also allowed to submit a request to the DSP to review, download, and delete any personally identifiable information associated with their minor child.

How do DSP’s know when someone is a minor?

DSP’s, with certain exceptions, cannot allow users to create an account unless the person has registered their age. If the person registers their age as younger than 18 years of age, they are known to be a minor to the DSP. If a minor registers their age as being over 18, a verified parent can notify the DSP and they are now known to be a minor to the DSP.

DSP’s have requirements as it relates to known minors. Requirements include:

  • Limiting the collection of personally identifiable information. DSP’s are allowed to use personally identifiable information to comply with civil, criminal, or regulatory purposes
  • Not allowing the minor to make purchases or engage in other financial transactions
  • Not sharing, disclosing, or selling the minors personally identifiable information
  • Not geolocating the minor
  • Not providing targeted advertisements to the minor
  • Developing and implementing a strategy to prevent exposure to material that promotes, glorifies, or facilitates suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse, stalking, bullying, harassment, grooming, trafficking, child pornography, or other sexual exploitation or abuse
  • Creating and providing parental tools to supervise the known minor’s use of a digital service. Tools include, but aren’t limited to, controlling the minor’s privacy and account settings, and monitoring and limiting time spent using digital service
  • Making reasonable efforts to prevent advertisers from targeting known minors with advertisements that are unlawful for minors to use or engage in; for example, vapes
  • Making reasonable efforts to ensure algorithms do not interfere with the DSP’s responsibilities to minors
  • Using reasonable age verification methods to verify that anyone seeking access to content that may be harmful or obscene is over the age of 18 and preventing access if they are not

Electronic Device Use in Schools

Recognizing the increased use of electronic devices and software applications in school settings, legislators mandated that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) create standards for their use. In 2023 TEA released standards for permissible electronic devices and software applications used by school districts and open enrollment charter schools. These standards state schools must:

  • Minimize data collection of students’ personally identifiable information
  • Get parental consent for their child’s use of applications, with some exceptions
  • Get parental consent for their child’s use of applications that conduct mental health assessments or other assessments that collect student information, with some exceptions
  • Provide resources to parents and guardians on understanding cybersecurity risks prior to their child’s use of electronic devices at school
  • Deactivate an electronic device provided to a student if staff are made aware of searches or activity that poses a risk to student safety
  • Consider necessary adjustments, by age level, to the need and use of electronic devices in the classroom
  • Consider appropriate restrictions on student access to social media websites or applications on student-issued devices
  • Evaluate alternatives to social media applications for educational purposes to optimize security
  • Consider using internet filters to notify school administrators, who are then required to notify the student’s parent or guardian if a student accesses inappropriate or concerning content or words. Examples include, but aren’t limited to, self-harm, suicide, violence to others, and illicit drugs. If a student accesses content involving harmful, threatening, or violent behavior, the school must follow established suicide prevention programs, intervention policies and procedures, and notify the Safe and Supportive School Program Team (school behavioral threat assessment team). For more information on School Behavioral Threat Assessment, see section 2.9 School Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management
  • Assign personnel whose responsibility it is to receive concerns or complaints from parents, students, district or school staff regarding student use of electronic devices
  • Consult with district information technology staff and legal counsel to ensure that legislation is complied with

If you are interested in reading these standards verbatim, they are linked here: TEA Standards for Permissible Electronic Devices and Software Applications.

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 in an effort to scare, but to educate. Share how what they say and do online can impact them and others, sometimes forever. Social media is not the place to vent about people or situations. Posts and comments made in the heat of the moment can destroy your child’s or another child’s life.