Back to school: Do you know your high schooler's online fluency?

Emma McGowan 10 Aug 2022

At this developmental stage, it’s time to start trusting that all of the work you put into teaching kids about good online behavior will pay off.

Just as you wouldn’t put your kid in a car at age 16 and say, “Drive, kid!” without ever talking to them about how to drive — and why speeding or driving intoxicated or looking at your phone while driving is dangerous — you can’t let a kid run around freely in the virtual world without first preparing them for how to do it. 

When it comes to digital literacy, a smartphone is the car in this metaphor. Your teen likely has a smartphone – a study from Common Sense Media found that 84% of teens do. And when you give your kid a smartphone, you’re ceding much of the control you have over their online activity. But don’t freak out! You’ve already done the most important job by having conversations with them starting in elementary school and staying involved in their digital lives. 

At this developmental stage, it’s time to start trusting that all of the work you put into teaching them about good online behavior will pay off. Your best bet is to keep engaging them in those conversations. Ask about the apps they’re using. Show interest in what they’re creating and looking at. Be as involved with their digital lives as you are with their in-person social lives. Continue to have conversations.

Here are some additional tips for making sure online safety and privacy are part of your teen’s back to school routine.

Talk — a lot!

The parental controls that worked so well when your kids were little? They just aren’t going to cut it by the time they’re in high school. Trust us: They know ways to get around them that you haven’t even heard of.

So with that in mind – and because your teen deserves privacy online as much as you do – our best recommendation isn’t technical; it’s social. Have those conversations. Stay involved.

Help them set their own limits

An important part of parenting teens is helping them learn how to self regulate – and that includes with their devices. So while your teen might want to spend all of their time glued to their phone, you can help them figure out when it’s time to put it down by having conversations with them about their digital schedule.

When they were small, you were probably able to be the first and last word on when and how devices were used. But now that your kids are approaching adulthood, your best bet is to model good behavior. If you’ve set a limit about devices in common areas of the house, for example, then lead by example and leave your phone to charge in the kitchen when you go to bed. That way your teens know that it’s not a “do as I say,” rule that they can ignore.

You can also work “holidays” into your digital schedule. These are days where the usual screen rules don’t apply and your kids are free to be on their phone as much and wherever they want. 

Lead by example

As the old adage suggests, children pay far more attention to parents’ actions than their words. With that in mind, one of the most important things you can do is model healthy digital habits

If you’re trying to set limits with children around screen time yet they see you continually scrolling on your phone, it creates a mixed message. Similarly, if you want to be able to get children’s attention while they’re engaged with technology, model this same courtesy and turn your attention to them while you’re engaged. 

Talk about the less savory corners of the internet

While the internet can be an awesome place, full of information and communication and connection, there are also less desirable areas – especially for teens. Think of it like a city: There are neighborhoods where you wouldn’t think twice about your teen walking on their own and there are ones that you’d really rather they didn’t venture into. 

First: Adult content. While it’s up to each parent to decide exactly how all sex-related talks go, online adult content is often left out of the conversation. But by the time your kid is in high school, they have very likely (almost certainly) been exposed to internet pornography. And while that knowledge is a hard pill to swallow, it also provides an opportunity for you, as their parent, to help them navigate this part of the world.

Talking about adult content is a great way to bring up conversations about consent, exploitation, and how what they’re seeing on screen is as close to real intimacy as Marvel movies are to the laws of physics. Parents should get outside their comfort zone and acknowledge that this is part of the “bird and the bees” for many teens today.

Second: Gaming. Many kids have a lot of fun and even make friendships with online games. But they might also find antisocial behavior in those spaces, like cyberbullying or even buying and selling malware. Talk to your teens about what’s going on inside their games and reinforce those values you’ve already established.

Third: The dark web. Internet-savvy teens might figure out how to access online marketplaces where illegal things – including drugs – are sold. If you’re worried about drug use for your teen, keep an eye out for the “Tor” software, which is used to access the dark web.

Update your security software

And, of course, make sure that your antivirus and cybersecurity software is installed and up to date. Make sure your whole family stays safe this year by using our all-in-one online guardian, Avast One.  

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