Today, more and more young adults, adolescents, and children have unprecedented access to the world wide web, and all the knowledge, wonder, perversion, and predation that comes with it. Whereas many adults grew up in a time where there was no such access or the access was limited by now-ancient dial up internet, today’s young people can talk with strangers from across the globe at a moment’s notice. There was once a day when parents cautioned children not to get in cars with strangers or tell strangers where they live, now, people summon strangers from the internet to come pick them up at their home address via Uber.
It may seem hopeless to try to instill any sense of caution in today’s youth with their recklessness online, but there are some easy ways for you to help your children understand the potential consequences of their actions and exercise some restraint before they share their every thought and moment online.
Show them some concrete consequences of other people’s behavior. It’s been well documented that the last part of the brain to develop is the part that controls forethought. However, you can show them concretely what happened to others who didn’t exercise caution. There have been some incredibly ignominious cases of individuals who didn’t think before they tweeted. Consider Justine Sacco. At one time, when you googled her name, positive headlines about her blogs and social life popped up, but today, the “Sacco Incident” has been held up as a perfect example of the internet’s wrath gone wild. For your children who may have trouble considering what could *really* happen to them because of their “twitter fingers,” as Drake says, showing them a case could help solidify the potential.
The same way we teach children about “good touch” and “bad touch” for interpersonal relationships, you need to teach your children what information and picture requests are normal and not normal. Helping kids and young adults learn what kind of requests are safe and which ones could indicate something more sinister could help them sift out who they should and shouldn’t be talking to.
Demonstrate to them that not everything they find online will be true. Especially for questions related to diseases and sexuality, the internet can offer some wildly inaccurate advice (for reference, “blue waffles” is a popular google search term for a sexually transmitted disease that doesn’t exist). Fostering an open, trusting relationship between you and your child will help mitigate some trips down potentially bad rabbit holes online.
Many sites that allow free downloads of music files are harbors for malware, so teaching children about the perils of piracy and the potential damage that can be done to computers by means of malware, spyware, and other various viruses. Instructions about how to tell if a site is trustworthy and whether it’s safe to submit an email address to sketchy sites will help instill some healthy skepticism that will help young people navigate the internet safely.