Keeping Kids and Teens Safe Online
When I got my first tablet at 9 years old, it felt like I had everything I wanted at my fingertips. I dominated at games like Angry Birds and Minecraft, used the Kindle app for endless reading, and started entering chat rooms. The chat rooms were life-changing! As a kid with niche interests, being able to chat with people online who shared my excitement made me feel connected to a community that I couldn’t find much of in Anchorage. But I didn’t realize the potential dangers I was exposing myself to at a young age. Now, I know that even though you can find people with similar interests in these rooms, they also can be a tool for starting unhealthy relationships that may begin with emotional manipulation and end in exploitation.
The uncertainty and confusion that came with my new online friendships was made worse by the fear-based approach many schools and families took. Instead of talking to me openly, honestly and with age-appropriate information, online safety curriculum was and continues to be built around risk and danger. Like most families, the first discussions about online safety that we had at home were centered on restrictions; however, after a few open-minded talks, my parents and I developed mutual trust and understanding. Ongoing talks with my parents continue to help me navigate the internet safely and make wise choices, even at age 17.
Giving young people technological fluency is incredibly important; post-pandemic, most of my classes have at least some online components, and having a knowledge of online tools has helped me in school and work. That’s one reason why I encourage parents to let children use the internet but teach them how to manage and prevent dangerous situations by talking through scenarios, starting open discussions, and not treating online safety as a punishment.
Having these conversations is more important than ever before, especially as data tells us that the age at which children access the internet is getting younger. While I received my first tablet at 9, my sister got hers at age 4. As that trend continues, conversations between families and communities surrounding technology need to become commonplace, practical, open-minded, and not based on fear.
I’m passionate about protecting children like my younger sister while still allowing her the freedom to learn and grow through access to technology, so in my internship with Alaska Children’s Trust, I’ve helped develop tools for Alaska parents to start effective online safety conversations. We’ve created conversation prompts for caregivers and kids (including a fun card game!), platform guides and device info, gathered data on the relationship between social media and mental health, added practical information on online gaming, and more. All the resources we created for Alaska families are on alaskachildrenstrust.org/online-safety. I know these tools can benefit families like mine and make a big difference for a generation raised in a world where online and “real life” are the same.