When you think back to your childhood, it’s easy to see how parents’ concerns have changed.
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They probably taught you safety lessons like looking both ways before crossing the street. To stop-drop-and-roll if you ever caught on fire. To wear a helmet while riding your bike.
But they probably never sat you down and talked about cyberbullying and keeping your passwords secure. They didn’t have to worry about whether your username gave away too much information about you. Or whether creeps would watch your dance videos on YouTube.
Now that you’re the parent, though, you see potential threats to your kids not only in the physical world, but also in the online world.
It can be scary to think about the complicated ways the internet affects your kids’ lives and their well-being. It’s also normal to not know what to do about it. After all, these weren’t the safety lessons you grew up with.
So, we talked with child psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD, about internet safety and kids — how to talk about it and where to draw lines.
In the spring of 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory about the risks of social media on children and teens. The report provided advice about the “growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.” That includes things like setting unrealistic expectations, increased depression and anxiety, and impacts on sleep.
But it’s not just social media that can affect your children’s physical and mental health online. The internet as a whole is a portal to the best and worst that society has to offer. And it’s changing every day.
“As parents, part of our job is to educate ourselves about what’s out there and what’s available to our kids,” Dr. Eshleman notes. “But kids are very smart. Their brains are wired to learn quickly. It’s hard to keep up with technology and content that evolves daily.”
So, how do you help your children respect the opportunities and dangers of the internet? And to what extent should you monitor their activity? Dr. Eshleman offers advice.
Access to people and information at all times is a given in your kids’ lives. They don’t know a world where that wasn’t an option. But that access comes with responsibilities that they likely won’t understand without some coaching.
“Kids are being exposed to ideas and information on the internet all the time, but they may not appreciate that they’re not necessarily always getting truthful, safe or age-appropriate content,” Dr. Eshleman explains.
Parents and caregivers can help set expectations with their kids to help them sort out the good and bad of internet access. Yes, the internet can help them learn about science or new cultures or current events. And, yes, cat memes can be a welcome distraction on a stressful day. But the internet can also be a hotbed of hateful commentary, illegal activity and false information. And kids should be aware of the dangers — in an age-appropriate way.
“You don’t necessarily need to talk about human trafficking, with your 9-year-old child, but it is appropriate to say something along the lines of, ‘There are people out there who use the internet to do bad things,’” Dr. Eshleman says. “Explain steps you’re taking as their parent to keep them safe online. And let them know that they can talk with you about anything they have questions about.”
Some topics of conversation might include:
Every family is going to have a different level of comfort about what their kids should and shouldn’t do online. And how involved you are in knowing about your child’s online presence is a matter of your comfort level.
Dr. Eshleman says that parents should feel empowered to have some oversight of what their kids are doing online if that feels right for their family. But transparency is critical.
“If you are going to monitor your child online, it’s important to make sure they know that you’ll be doing that and to set expectations of what they should and shouldn’t do on their devices,” Dr. Eshleman advises. “Secretly following their internet activity will diminish their trust. And building and maintaining a trusting relationship between parents and children is important to raising healthy kids.”
There’s no shortage of apps and programs available to monitor your child’s online activity, each with different features, options and price points. If you don’t know where to start, it can be helpful to ask other parents for advice and about their experience.
A lot of people will ask how much time is OK for kids to spend online? It’s a legitimate question. But the American Academy of Pediatrics says there isn’t enough evidence to set guidelines on a quantity of time that’s healthy for kids to spend online. Instead, consider the quality of their internet use and what effects it has on them.
Dr. Eshleman explains, “Rather than focusing on how much time your child spends online, consider the impact of that time, and how it fits into their life and the family’s lives.”
For example, is your child doing online research for a school project? Are they having meaningful and healthy interactions with friends from school virtually? Probably OK.
On the other hand, internet use shouldn’t keep them from participating in other aspects of their life.
“Kids can have a hard time transitioning away from their devices. It’s fun. It’s immediate feedback. But we need to look at how that fits into the family’s life,” Dr. Eshleman states. “We know, too, that there’s an impact of too much screen time on mood and behavior. So, talk with them if you notice any changes to find out what’s driving that. Maybe it’s related to their online life, and maybe it’s not. But it should be addressed in any case.”
Setting clear boundaries is important to establishing a healthy online presence for your child.
There aren’t necessarily “right” or “wrong” answers. Just like other rules in your house, your comfort with certain activities may be different from other parents’. Just like you’re a stickler for eating only at the table, but their friend’s family eats on the couch. Different strokes for different folks.
Your family’s internet guidelines will depend on your preferences, as well as factors like your child’s age and maturity level. The important thing is that you set some ground rules (whatever they may be) ahead of time and are consistent in enforcing them.
Some things to consider:
How you interact with your phone, tablet, computer and other online devices makes an impression — whether you realize it or not.
“If a parent has a screen at the dinner table, or when they’re riding in the car, but telling the child to put their tablet away, they’re not going to understand why,” Dr. Eshleman points out. “They should see you disconnecting from the online world, too; see you interacting with people in real life. Modeling that behavior is very important.”
That whole “Do as I say, not as I do” thing? That’s a hard sell. And in reality, taking some downtime from the online world can do your mental health a world of good, too.
Dr. Eshleman recommends setting aside certain times when your child knows that you’ll check in with them. Maybe it’s in the car ride home from school. Or during dinner. Or at bedtime. Whatever time works for you and your family is fine.
The important thing is creating space and time where your child can expect you’ll ask about how they’re doing.
“It always comes back to communication,” Dr. Eshleman says. “Hopefully, most of the time, nothing’s going on. But then, if something major might happen online or at school or wherever, they know they’ll have a space to talk about it.”
You’re far from alone in wondering how to talk with your kids about internet safety and what steps are appropriate. It’s a question parents everywhere are asking.
Dr. Eshleman says talking with other parents, healthcare providers, teachers and others can help you get new insights and ideas.
That’s not to say that other parents’ rules and strategies have to be yours, too. But gathering some information about what works well in others’ families can help you determine what you’re comfortable with — and what you’re not.
Let’s face it. The internet is big. It’s unwieldy. Complicated. And changing all the time. Chances are you’re not going to think of everything and shield your child 100%.
Might your child accidentally watch a news report that scares them? Yes.
Could they friend a stranger on a gaming platform? Possibly.
Might they try out a new social media app that you had no idea even existed? Sure.
It happens. Try to give yourself some leeway.
“Parents are more stressed than ever,” Dr. Eshleman recognizes. “Sometimes, things seem pretty simple, but in reality, they’re not easy. These are goals. Be kind to yourself and try your best. That’s all we can ever do.”