Stay safe when chatting online: a guide for parents and families

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When we were kids, the "stranger danger" conversation was pretty straightforward—don't talk to strangers, don't follow strangers, don't get in a stranger's car. 

These situations almost always involved a hypothetical stranger approaching us in person, which definitely makes it easier to identify if you know someone or not. 

Today, though, parents and kids have to navigate a different stranger danger: online strangers. It's a lot harder to tell if the person your kids are talking to online is who they say they are—and what their motivations might be. 

Luckily, many of the people your kids meet online through games and chats will be perfectly harmless. But it's still a good idea to talk to your kids about online safety—and when it is or isn't okay to chat with someone they don't know. 

Is it bad to chat with strangers online?

Online communication with strangers isn’t an inherently bad thing. When kids play or chat together online, they can improve their communication skills, get to know people who differ from them, and have new experiences together. 

But this is only the case if your kids are chatting online with other young people—and doing so in an age-appropriate manner, too. 

Playing an online game with a real-world friend and chatting with their other friends as a result is a potentially safe experience—kind of like going to a classmate’s sleepover and meeting their friends from church or summer camp. Meeting strangers in an open forum and exchanging direct messages, though, carries more risk.

Kids under covers online

What’s the safest way to talk to a stranger online?

There’s no 100% safe way to talk to a stranger online. Even if your kids feel like they know the person they’re chatting with thanks to social media platforms and YouTube videos, things may not go as expected. 

Sometimes, it turns out that other people may not be who they say they are. They could even be an adult predator posing as a child—though this isn’t the most common issue kids encounter online. The biggest issue is actually cyberbullying, which affects an average of 31.2% of kids in middle and high school.

But whether your concern is cyberbullies, scam artists, or potential predators, there are a few steps you and your kids can take to stay safe online.

8 Tips for staying safe when chatting with strangers online.

  1. Have your kids agree to use accounts set up by a parent, using approved gaming, social, and chat apps.
  2. Stress that your kids shouldn’t change their app or device privacy settings without talking to a parent first.
  3. Help your kids choose a username that doesn’t include their real name, email address, phone number, birthday, town, or age.
  4. Instruct your kids not to accept private chat invitations from people they don’t know—or switch from public social media comments to direct messages. Your kids should keep their interactions limited to public areas or group chats where multiple people are talking.
  5. Request that your kids stick to text chats, or voice chats when gaming. Tell them not to accept video chat invites and to keep their webcam turned off or covered.
  6. Have kids keep their online chats limited to the app you’re using or the game you’re playing. If the person they’re chatting with asks them to download another instant messaging app like Telegram or WhatsApp, your kids should say no.
  7. Encourage kids to keep conversations focused on the game they’re playing, or a specific shared interest that they’ve connected with the other person over. It’s best not to talk about personal experiences, school, family, or friends. When kids do this, they can unintentionally reveal private information that scammers and predators can use to learn more about them.
  8. Stress that your kids should talk to an adult if they have a conversation that makes them uncomfortable. If the chat room or forum they’re in has moderators, they can flag messages for a mod’s review, too.

How can the whole family chat more safely online?

Practicing good security habits can also help the whole family be safe when socializing, working, or learning online. A mix of parental control apps, VPNs, device encryption, and strong passwords can all help.

The biggest thing you can do, though, is to talk to each other about what’s happening online. Whether it’s sharing a funny video you saw on Instagram or listening as your child talks through a tricky conversation they had with a friend while playing Fortnite, creating a safe space for family check-ins and questions is key.

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