How to Talk to Your Kids About the Internet
And why having that conversation is so important
At what age did your kids or grandkids start using the internet? With many families, that age range is now 3-to-6 years old. And boom, your kids are on the net. Modern day children have never known a time without the internet. That’s why it’s time to get seriously involved and have that talk; set limits, identify risks and instill safe usage behaviors. Truth is, if you as parents and/or guardians don’t get out in front of this tech and digital experience, your kids will be hard to catch up to before you know it.
The good news is that most internet devices have parental controls of some sort, and almost all parents now realize the importance of using them and closely supervising internet usage. Because, of course, literally everything you can imagine is on the net. The potential for inadvertent exposure to damaging material unsuitable for children cannot be overstated. There’s bad stuff out there and you’ve got to protect your kids from it. You already protect your kids from lots of negative experiences and behaviors, and now you have to add the internet to your list.
Parents have a number of tools to choose from to monitor their child’s internet activity. Several apps are highly rated on app stores, and there are programs for PC and Macs that also get the job done. Key loggers are a popular with parents. Rather than point to a single product, we recommend you do your own research starting with a search for “parental internet monitoring apps”. You may also want to search for “key loggers”. We explore the universe of available tools later on in this guide.
But it’s not enough to use parental controls or monitoring apps in the absence of context. This kind of restriction needs a credible backstory to fly with today’s kids. Approached correctly with some forethought, the conversation is easier than you might think. It’s a conversation you must have to provide your child with proper background, introduce key concepts (like permanency and privacy) and instill safe practices. We’ve created a list of talking points for you to consider.
Where to start:
What is the internet?
- A virtual library or encyclopedia
- A source of news and current information
- A virtual store
- A virtual gaming arcade
- A virtual school
- A collection of digital social networks
- A way to send and receive messages and files
- An archive of everything that’s been posted by you and others
What is on the internet?
- Lots of people in lots of places
- Most companies, schools and institutions
- The government
- All the images you post and the posts you share
- Archives of images, videos, movies
- Music of all sorts
- News and information of all sorts, including fake news and misinformation
How do people use the internet?
- To communicate and share with others
- To work collaborative with others in job/employment settings
- To get information and learn about things
- To buy and sell
- To schedule and book events
- To attend school
- To socialize with friends and family
- To manage finances
- To store their own information like pictures and documents
What happens when I use the internet?
- You connect with the world from your device – that’s good and bad (a great way to connect but also kinda like walking into a dark room and suddenly turning a bright light on yourself)
- Every website or streaming service you visit puts ‘cookies’; software tracking, monitoring and recording robots, on your device to capture your internet usage and behaviors
- All your posts, images, videos, likes, shares and pages visited are logged by trackers and data collectors who use the information to create a very personal profile of who you are and what you like to show you ads
- Your location is tracked to create a pattern of your movements, travel, destinations and duration
- Your keystrokes, the typing you do on your device or keyboard, are captured to reconstruct your interaction with the internet
How come I can’t see it all?
- The internet includes adult-only content that is not suitable for you
- The internet also contains a good deal of confusing misinformation
- The internet is populated by some bad people seeking to exploit you
What can I see?
Anything we agree on in advance, like:
- Educational sites for school, homework, research, etc
- Some approved gaming sites
- Approved streaming services, music and video
- Approved social media sites like TikTok or Instagram
- Sports content
- Some corporate brand sites like Lego
When and for how long may I use the internet?
- Two hours for homework/day after school, two hours for gaming/day
- IF you spend two hours outside in some kind of physical play or sport
A word or two about trust. Key to safe use of the intent is a trusting relationship between parent or guardian and child. It is important to be upfront with your kids about internet risks, and therefore the need for monitoring. Let them know it’s for their own good, and not intended to intrude. Stress that if rules are followed, parents will be chill and stay out of the way. But it is equally important your child knows to come to you with things they may see, read or experience on the internet. Your child has to TRUST that you will not react negatively, and that they can come to you without fear you will blow up or limit their internet usage. Tell them you’ll understand if they have a negative or startling experience on the net; encourage them to come to you, and let them know that you’ll help them to figure out ways to avoid exposure in the future.
And remember, kids can be brutal with each other, and internet bullying is definitely a thing. Teach your kids how to react appropriately when confronted with bullying behavior. Tell them they can walk away in the digital world, just like they can in the real world. Show them how to ‘block’ unwanted contact and how to delete unpleasant conversation threads. Most important, let them know you’ll be there for them if they somehow get in over their heads.
TIP: Keep the devices your child uses in the family room, or on the kitchen table. Somewhere open with minimal privacy, a location you can scan from a distance to observe internet behavior. This is a good idea through middle school. A lot of kids do have smart phones and/or tablets with internet access, and in those cases parents need to rely on apps and regular monitoring to ensure appropriate usage and online behavior.
Browsing and monitoring tools
Kid browsers – there are a variety of kid-specific browsers available for
PCs, Macs, phones and tablets. Most are fully featured and
available through all app stores.
Keyloggers – software that captures keystrokes is often associated with
Malware, but many parents use a variety of Key Logging
programs and apps to monitor their children’s online activity.
Web filtering software – allows parents to make a list of keywords as a basis
for filtering websites that may contain inappropriate content
White-listing sites after discussion
Another approach to parental control is to make a “white list” of sites that your child is permitted to access. In this scenario, your child is only permitted limited internet access to a list of sites you’ve pre-approved and white listed. Some parents like the control this approach affords them. This link is to a set of downloadable lists, alphabetically organized, of sites white listed for use in K-12 computers running McAfee anti-viral software.
Setting usage rules
Rules need to be a collaboration between you and your child so that both of your needs can be met. This is an important part of the conversation, so don’t just lay down the law and present a list of rules. Spend time setting up the rule making by talking about the importance of rules. You can give your child examples like playground rules at school, or traffic rules when they walk to school or get driven and how navigating crowded highways full of people in cars requires rules. So it is with the internet. To ensure safety of users, our children in this case, sensible rules must be in place. Rules about:
- Usage – when, where, how long
- Acceptable content & sites
- Self identification while online
- Online behavior including contact, conversation and bullying
- Sharing rules covering images, information and location
- Communicating appropriately
- Interacting with others
- When to alert a parent about a concern
- How to deal with unwanted attention or outreach
- Downloading and uploading files
- Clicking on links
So you’ve set your child up with a kid browser as well as web filtering and monitoring software; and you’ve collaborated on mutually agreed upon rules. You’re ready to go right? Technically, yes… but it is important for you to understand the parent’s job is not yet over. You’ve got to stay on top of the reports your software provides of internet use, review sites visited, check on time spent and keep an eye out for unhealthy behaviors. In other words, you’ve got to stay engaged and observant.
Using computer time as a reward
KIds love computers. They love surfing the net, seeing and hearing new things; but most of all, they love playing games and interacting with their friends – either through games or social media platforms like Tik-Tok or Instagram. So it’s only natural for parents to leverage that passion and use extra computer/device time as a reward. The word ‘extra’ is important here because it is given that you can’t really keep kids off of internet devices; computers, phones and tablets all the time, nor is it fair to tie all device time to objectives or tasks. That would be a mistake. But it is a great idea to offer bonus time for special achievements or goals achieved, that just makes sense.
When to restrict computer privileges
Kids are going to test limits, and sometimes go where they are not supposed to go. That kind of experimentation and testing of limits is to be expected on occasion. But when non-compliance with agreed upon rules and unwarranted negative behaviors do appear in your child, it is time to step in. Explain the offense and it’s negative potentials very thoroughly. Point out that actions have consequences and that when rules are broken or negative behaviors detected, it’s time to step back and take a break to think about what personal responsibility on the internet looks like. The amount of restriction depends on the severity of the offense, like in real life. Most kids learn fast when deprived of a much-liked activity or restricted in gameplay. You want the lessons learned to be gentle, not overwhelming, but to be internalized and retained. Repetition is a good tool. Prime your kids with regular reminders and encourage positive, compliant behaviors. Praise them for being safe internet surfers, just like you would for safe skateboarding or bike riding.
We intentionally did not recommend any specific products in this guide for a couple of reasons: we trust you to do your own research and due diligence on an issue of this importance; and, we are not in the business of affiliate marketing or making a profit by referring our readers to specific products or online platforms like Amazon. It’s part of maintaining our own authority and not compromising our credibility with commercial concerns. So please, there is a wealth of useful information easily available on this important subject; seek it out with a few simple searches and read what the experts have to say. Look for posts, articles and comparisons written by legitimate journalists, experts or academics. Ask your friends and family what they use. You’ll encounter many posts authored by marketers and companies with vested interests. Treat those with a grain of salt.