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A mother and son look at a laptop screen together.
Communication is key, experts say. damircudic/E+ via Getty Images

Monitor or talk? 5 ways parents can help keep their children safe online

Children have been spending more time online. A May 2020 study found that U.S. teenagers spent around seven hours a day, on average, using screens. Even before the pandemic, U.S. teens were indicating in surveys that they were “almost constantly online.”

As with any venue, parents might be concerned about what dangers lurk on the internet – from cyberbullying to teen-to-teen sexting – and tempted to use various technological tools to monitor their children’s online activities.

As a researcher who specializes in how teens operate in online environments, I know that spying on your children’s keystrokes and web browsers isn’t the only or even the best parental practice to employ and may create problems of its own. Here are five tips on how parents can encourage their children to adopt safer online behavior beyond using spyware or computer surveillance.

1. Don’t just monitor your kids online, talk to them

Technical measures, such as those that allow parents to monitor every keystroke, can provide parents with an additional way to keep tabs on what their children are doing. However, parental controls should not replace an ongoing conversation with children about their digital media use and what it means to be safe online.

Many parents value open communication with their children about their internet use. This can be beneficial in keeping them safe. Research on related traditional risk behaviors, such as teenage substance use, has found that children who have open conversations with their parents are less likely to engage in these risky behaviors. Open communication about online experiences may also allow children to stay safer online.

2. Search for conversation starters

More and more television series and films have story lines about digital media use that serve as natural conversation starters. For example, in Episode 5 of the first season of Netflix’s “Sex Education,” sexting is a central theme as sexually explicit images of a girl are sent to her schoolmates. The main characters of the show try to put a stop this revenge porn. The movie “Love, Simon” portrays the struggles of a gay teenage boy who seeks and finds online support from another closeted gay student in his school through an online confession site, only to be outed through the same online platform.

Alternatively, you could ask your children to teach you how to use some of their favorite apps. This would be an excellent opportunity to discover together all the features as well as the privacy settings that these applications offer.

3. Assure your children they can turn to you if they run into trouble

As part of an ongoing conversation about media use, parents should make sure that their children feel they can reach out to them for help when they run into unpleasant online experiences. Research has found that some children are afraid to talk to their parents when they face problems such as cyberbullying. They worry that parents may overreact or take away their devices.

Making sure that your child knows that they can reach out for help and that you will try your best to understand their needs can make them less vulnerable to risks like online extortion. If your child does disclose a particular online problem, a good way to respond is to simply ask your child how the problem makes them feel.

4. Explain why you’re monitoring their online activities

Parents who do decide to monitor their children’s internet use should always disclose that they are doing so. Most parents already do this, as evidenced in a study that found most parents believe that not telling their children that they are being monitored would violate their child’s sense of privacy and security.

Moreover, when children find out that their internet use has been monitored without their knowledge, it could lead to a breach of trust. One study found that intrusive parenting, such as snooping without their children’s knowing, can lead to more negative interactions between parents and children once the children find out and could make some children less likely to communicate with their parents. Consequently, parents will become less informed about their children’s lives. Therefore, it is important for parents to explain the reasons they are monitoring their children’s online behavior.

5. Tailor monitoring to your child’s maturity and unique situation

While young children can benefit from a close monitoring of their internet use, research has found that many parents gradually grant more autonomy to their children and become less restrictive in their monitoringas the children get older. As a natural part of growing up, teenagers increasingly value personal autonomy, especially when it comes to their media use.

Just as parents cannot always monitor their teenage children in the offline world, they could find it useful to grant their children gradual increased autonomy in the online world as they get older. This can encourage children to develop problem-solving skills and teaches them to navigate online risks. What this looks like will differ for each child and depends on their age. Everyone is susceptible in different ways to media effects and online risks. This is why it is important to adapt the autonomy that you grant your child based on their personality, their maturity and their prior online experiences.

Online monitoring can also have some unintended side effects. For example, parents of LGBTQ teenagers should be aware that sexual and gender minority youths often rely on the internet to find information, explore their identities and connect with the broader LGBTQ community. Restrictive forms of monitoring may take away youth agency and may severely limit opportunities for them to grow in their identities.

Whether or not parents decide to monitor their children’s internet use, there is still much to learn about effective parental mediation in an increasingly complex digital world. While parental monitoring differs for each child, it should primarily start with good communication and a balance between surveillance and autonomy.

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