Because teens are more capable, adventurous, and are pushing for independence, and because adolescents are more mobile than younger kids, they are far more likely to get caught up in threats that originate online. A 13-year-old has the wherewithal to sneak out of their house at night to meet that 30-something they befriended online, whereas younger children are very unlikely to. Teens are far more likely to post stupid behavior that gets them into trouble, or to wind up the target of an online bully. Thus, most of the real Internet dangers begin to become an issue as a child approaches adolescence.
That said, adolescents have always engaged in these types of potentially risky behaviors. The Internet only changes the way in which kids can connect to these risks, and the biggest threat to your child is still the child themselves . . . and the potential for them to post something stupid that gets them in trouble. Here are some important safety rules you should go over with your teen to minimize these risks:
Teen Internet safety tip #1: When meeting someone new, always meet in a public place
Teach adolescents that whenever they meet someone they’ve only ever known from online, they should always do so in a public place. I know many parents are reading this and thinking, “I don’t want my kids meeting anyone they befriend from cyberspace,” but this is a rather unrealistic goal. Many teens do make friends online (usually perfectly normal and healthy ones), and they may be inclined to meet someone they befriended from the Internet (perhaps even behind your back if they suspect for any reason you wouldn’t approve), so you should at least provide them with the know-how to do it safely.
- Teach kids that they should never meet an online contact at that person’s house or another secluded place. Always do so in a public setting where there are lots of people, such as a restaurant or amusement park. Trust your instincts, and if you get any sort of strange vibe, don’t go anywhere else with them.
- Bring a friend. There’s safety in numbers, and it doesn’t hurt to have an extra comrade around.
- Always let someone else know beforehand where you’ll be and who you’re meeting, and give a time frame for your return. Tell them you’ll call if you’re running any later. Also instruct them that if they end up in that chance encounter with someone who has devious intentions, they can use this information (“my friends know exactly where I am”) to escape the situation.
You should also tell your kids that you want to be there whenever they meet someone from the online world, and many teens will be happy to accommodate this rule. Just be sure to go over the other, too, because news flash: sometimes teens don’t listen. Besides, this is an important rule they’ll need to carry with them into adulthood as well. Many car thieves and other unsavory characters utilize the Internet, so kids need to know how to meet people safely.
Internet safety rule #2: Talk with teens about sexting
Sexting is a recent phenomenon in which teens (or even preteens) take nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves and then post them online or send them to others. Some surveys suggest that around 20-30% of teens and around 12% of tweens (8 to 12-year-olds) have done this at some point. (USA Today, 5-5-2009; ABC World News, 12-13-2008)
Sexting occurs because contrary to what parents might want to believe, our children are born with a sexual nature. They crave to feel sexy and desirable. Sexting emerges from this natural desire to feel desirable. It’s made more compelling on account of the fact that adults give children very little affirmation about their bodies or their sexual attractiveness. Yet at the same time, kids can see from the world all around them that being desirable and attractive is an important thing. Sexting serves as a means of testing this attractiveness; a way to try and secure some affirmation that they, too, can be sexy and desirable.
Though sexting in and of itself is not a harmful thing, it can land a child in legal trouble or morph into a means of public humiliation. In a perfect world, children should not be ashamed of their body and neither sexuality nor nudity would be considered evil. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and in this world, sexting can come back to haunt a teen.
Parents should recognize that their child is a sexual being who possesses an inherent need and desire to be found attractive by the opposite sex, and that some teens will want to express themselves through sexting. But promote this compromise: sexy can be achieved without all-out nudity or depictions of sexual activity. If they must express themselves through sexy pictures, do so in a bikini, lingerie, a skimpy outfit, or whatever else you can without crossing that line into all-out exposure which could get you into trouble.
Additional Internet Safety Rules for Teens
* Be sure to discuss all the rules and information we gave for younger kids