Staying Safe Online

Many children have their own dedicated tablets. Other children often use an adult’s smartphone to watch videos or play games. What’s safe, and what’s not safe, when it comes to various apps, channels, and games? How can we guide our children in staying safe online and with media in general?

stay safe online

Websites and apps with user-generated content can pose the greatest risk. Not to be alarmist, but even seemingly harmless videos can expose children to violence, sexual content, or frightening imagery or ideas that are not appropriate for a child’s age or mental development.

This SciMoms article was inspired by the latest round of news that videos on YouTube were masquerading as children’s cartoons, but included instructions on how to commit suicide (as reported by Ars Technica and Scary Mommy, among others). Note: If your child sees this type of content, consider consulting with their healthcare provider about what type of help might be needed, if any.

YouTube is filled with inappropriate videos marked as kid-friendly and that show up on the YouTube Kids app. I deleted YouTube Kids myself after seeing familiar cartoon characters like Peppa Pig and Elsa in violent and sexual situations, including what seemed to be desensitization to sexual abuse. Kavin agrees, “We uninstalled YouTube from the kids’ devices a couple of years ago when I started seeing these creepy grooming scenarios with familiar characters.”

Ban and block

Whatever your feelings about screen time – some parents allow children to choose how much time they will spend with computers, tablets, and tv, while other parents have strict rules about when screens are viewed – online safety is something all parents should all consider.

Banning internet use won’t help, as children may find access at a friend’s house or at school (similar to how we should teach gun safety even if we have no guns at home). Blocking common websites may not be the best option, either.

There is a lot of great content online, including on YouTube. Older children may need access for school projects, and there is a lot of educational content that can’t be found elsewhere. We all need to teach our children how to use these powerful tools and also how to stay safe online.

How can we help children stay safe online?

Vetting content

Kids get sick, or we need a break, and letting them veg out with videos is perfectly acceptable – as long as the content is something we have already vetted. Kids should not have free range on YouTube or other platforms where users upload their own content. There’s no shortage of free or paid kids content that isn’t mixed with nightmares – that’s what channels like PBS Kids and Nick Jr are for. Each has its own app, and there are many other YouTube alternatives as well.

One of the media rules at our house is that mom or dad has to watch a new show with our daughter before it gets added to the “ok to watch” list. Some of the kids’ shows on Netflix or Hulu are just a little too mature or frankly too mindless for our taste. We also play each new game or app together before she’s allowed to play it on her own. As with video, we tend to steer towards trusted sources to stay safe online.

Checking reviews

Reviews can be a huge help, especially with apps and movies, where a preview might not tell the full story. Common Sense Media provides ratings based on a variety of factors, and specifies which age group the content is appropriate for. Common Sense Media is Layla’s go-to source. She says, “I love how it breaks down everything into various categories. For example, my son can’t handle Violence & Scariness so I pay close attention to that category. Whereas Consumerism isn’t a big deal since he controls his own allowance and chooses to save to buy big items.”

Another source of information is National Online Safety, based in the United Kingdom. They have platform guides (large infographics) for many topics, including YouTube, social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, and gaming platforms like Twitch and Minecraft.

National Online Safety even has a guide for the recent internet fear, Momo. As described by the Guardian (caution, link includes an image that some may find disturbing), Momo itself seems to be a hoax. However, as mentioned above, there are plenty of other examples of highly inappropriate content being spliced into YouTube videos targeted to children.

Watching together

In addition to pre-screening content, what can we do to help our children stay safe online? It may not always be convenient, but the single most important thing is to watch and play with them.

At my house, we have a “no YouTube on the tablet rule”. In other words, YouTube may only be watched on the TV or my computer, where I can easily monitor what’s happening. My daughter knows that if I say to change a video, we do it right away, or the screen is turned off – this is true for all content, no matter the source.

staying safe online

Watching and playing together keeps her safer online, but also makes for great conversations. She tells stories about the characters, which often turn into stories about what happened at school. Watching videos together will only get more important as she gets older.

As Jenny describes watching YouTube with her daughter, “we’ve had great conversations about what makes a good role model and even what role romantic relationships should have in your life when you’re a teen or twenty-something. You have to watch it with them, though, in order to have those conversations, and they have to be old enough to understand the content.”

Expert guidelines

The experts agree that media can be useful when used with care. The American Academy of Pediatrics has the following Children and Media Tips, (republished here with permission, paraphrased slightly). Here’s what they recommend:

  • Make your own family media use plan. When used thoughtfully and appropriately, media can enhance daily life. Don’t let media displace important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, and sleep.
  • The same parenting guidelines apply in real and virtual environments. Know yo tour children’s friends. Know what platforms, software, and apps your children are using, what sites they are visiting, and what they are doing online.
  • Set limits and encourage playtime. Media use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Make unplugged playtime a daily priority, especially for very young children.
  • Screen time shouldn’t always be alone time. View, play, and engage with your children when they are using screens. Don’t just monitor children online, interact with them – understand what they are doing and be a part of it.
  • Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness and good manners online. Limit your own media use. You’ll be more available to your children if you’re interacting with them rather than simply staring at a screen. 
  • Know the value of face-to-face communication. Research has shown that it’s that “back-and-forth conversation” that improves language skills—much more so than “passive” listening or one-way interaction with a screen.
  • Limit digital media for your youngest family members. When they do watch media, young children learn best when they are re-taught in the real world what they just learned through a screen.
  • Create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes, social gatherings, and children’s bedrooms screen free. Turn off televisions that you aren’t watching, because background TV can get in the way of face-to-face time with kids.
  • Don’t use technology as an emotional pacifier. Media can keep kids calm and quiet, but should not be the only way they learn to calm down. Teach them how to identify and handle strong emotions and to manage boredom in other ways.
  • Do your homework on educational apps. Many apps are labeled as educational, but little research has demonstrated their quality. Organizations like Common Sense Media provide ratings to guide you in making the best choices for your children.
  • Warn children about the importance of privacy. Remind teens that privacy settings do not make things actually “private” and that images, thoughts, and behaviors shared online will instantly become a part of their digital footprint.
  • It’s OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are part of typical adolescent development. Be sure your teen is behaving appropriately in both the real and online worlds. Warn teens that sex offenders often use social networking, chat rooms, e-mail, and online gaming to contact and exploit children. Let teens know you’re there to talk about any questions or concerns.
  • Remember: Kids make mistakes. Try to handle errors with empathy and turn a mistake into a teachable moment. Some indiscretions, such as sexting, bullying, or posting self-harm images, may be a red flag. Enlist supportive professional help, including the family pediatrician, when needed.

Note: Any mention of specific websites or apps is for informative or illustrative purposes only.