How to talk to your kids & teens about inappropriate content

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Back when we were teenagers, the internet was a bit of a wild west for us and our parents.

Parental controls were limited to your dad looking over your shoulder, or your mom picking up the phone to cut off internet access. Maybe the good old hand-slapped-over-the-eyes from time to time, too.

For today's kids, it's different. Their parents are internet veterans—and we have way more tools on hand to protect young internet users.

But no matter how many content filters you put in place, or how many parental controls you implement, kids and teens are curious. This is why it's important to have open conversations with your children about what is and isn't okay for them to do or see online.

Yes, those chats can feel awkward to start. (Talking about it in the car, when you don't have to maintain eye contact with each other, can make it easier.) But they're important to have—and these tips will help.

Mom and young girl on tablet

Talk to your kids before they're online.

Think back to family movie nights while you were growing up. Your parents probably had some restrictions on what you could rent at the local Blockbuster, right? Or maybe there were certain TV shows they wouldn't let you watch at home.

By letting you know what was and was not okay for you to view in advance, you were able to instead seek out approved content ... at least when your parents were around. (What were sleepovers at friends' houses for if not to watch the scary movies that were banned at home?)

This is why it's helpful to talk to your kids about what is and isn't appropriate before they start using the internet on their own.

You can also have a frank conversation with your kids about how you'll be helping them stay safe online. Being open about the use of parental controls—and how they work—is a key step in helping you kids feel supported, not spied on.

Follow up as kids and teens use the internet.

This isn't a once-and-done conversation, either. As your kids spend more time on the internet, it's important to continue talking about what content is appropriate for them.

The guidelines you set around appropriate content will likely change as they get older. Regular check-ins make it easy to either reinforce your boundaries and expectations or discuss what they're now allowed to view going forward.

That said, there will always be some content that's inappropriate for kids and teens to see before they turn 18. And even if your kids know not to seek it out, they may accidentally encounter something that's too mature or scary for them to know how to handle.

Taking measures to block inappropriate content can help to avoid this, but it's also a good idea to let your kids know that they can come to you for help blocking or processing any content they may accidentally see.

Discuss the content your kids see online.

But what should you do if you suspect your kids are seeking out inappropriate content and not telling you about it?

The first step is to keep your cool, as tricky as that may be at the moment. Next, you'll need to start a conversation about what you think (or know) they are viewing online.

CEOP, the education arm of the U.K. National Crime Agency, suggests that parents focus on discussing not just what a child has seen, but:

  • Whether a friend sent them the content, or they sought it out
  • What piqued their curiosity and prompted them to view or seek out the content?
  • How are they feeling after viewing the content? (Even if your child sought out something inappropriate, they may not have the tools to understand or process how they feel afterward.)

The conversation is also a good time to discuss how you'll handle this situation now and moving forward. Your solution may involve no changes, a reduction in screen time, stricter parental controls, or another action—the right answer will be different for every family.

And remember to keep checking in. Whether you know your child accessed inappropriate content in the past, or you want to help them stay safe as they venture onto the internet for the first time, having regular digital safety talks is critical.

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