Helping your kids make safe and healthy decisions online

It seems like almost every week brings a scary new online threat to the safety and well-being of our kids.  Recently, a troubling story made the news regarding an online “game” of increasingly intense and cruel challenges — one that ended tragically for a local teenager.

It might feel overwhelming as a parent, helping your child navigate the ever-changing world of apps, games and websites. But the best way to keep your kids safe is to keep open the lines of communication. And if you have a teenager, you know that can be easier said than done.

Make a point of asking them from time to time how things are going. Ask what they’re worried about, or if anything is causing them to feel stress. Listen without judgment as best you can, and resist the urge to suggest quick fixes to what’s bothering them. “Are you OK?” is a good place to start.

What might be warning signs of unhealthy or dangerous online activity? A child who has become secretive and isolated could be a reason for concern. Mood swings, avoiding old friends or losing interest in normal activities can also signal emotional or behavioral problems. Don’t be afraid to seek help if you’re worried.

Whether you’re dealing with a potential problem, or hoping to prevent one, take time to learn about your child’s online use. Educate yourself about the many technologies kids are using. Ask about online use and the kinds of issues they and their friends face online. For older children and young teens — or tweens — consider setting clear-cut rules about how much online use they are allowed and require they ask your permission to download new apps and games.  Some parents find it helpful to hold regular family meetings to discuss online topics, check privacy settings and online profiles for inappropriate posts. These discussions are best led by emphasizing what’s healthy and good, rather than punishing poor decisions, experts say.

And while there is software that can help you monitor your kids’ online use (some call them “net nanny” programs), open communication is often a better strategy when dealing with adolescents and teens. However, it also makes sense to get a profile yourself for the social media sites they’re using, and have a rule that you and your children “friend” each other, to have access to their online posts and communications.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more advice on kids and social media, including a whole section on “sexting” — considered harmless flirting by some kids, but one that has caused both legal and social consequences.

As for dangerous or disturbing online apps such as the challenge game, most experts agree it is best not to mention them directly or by name unless you believe your child has participated or is aware of it. Sometimes kids are attracted to the fact that parents are outraged or unaware of something online. Help them understand that these viral phenomena are often the creation of someone else trying to exploit them  — and that they shouldn’t be taken in by them.

And finally, if other strategies fail, parents must be empowered to limit or ban online use and take devices away if they feel their child is at risk of harm — even if tantrums result. Even adults have trouble maintaining a sensible and civil relationship with the online world. Our kids need some firm but loving guidance to stay safe and healthy.

Mandie Svatek, M.D., is a hospitalist at University Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Health San Antonio