Tips & Advice

The dangers your kids face online might not be what you think

Emma McGowan, 12 October 2020

Parents need to adapt to the ever-changing risks that today's children encounter online

Millennial and Gen X parents grew up side by side with the internet, stumbling through the painful days of dial-up and America Online in their younger years and then falling head first into Facebook and social media in their twenties. So while people of those age groups feel like we know the internet — and, to a large degree, we do — that doesn’t mean that the dangers we were told to look out for as children online are the same as the dangers kids face today.

We were told to never give away our real names online. (Hence all of those embarrassing AIM screen names — mine was MadonnaMiniMe.) We were warned of stranger danger in chat rooms and private conversations. (Anyone who ever learned what “cybering” meant when they were 12 knows that’s true.)  We were told to never reveal our addresses. (Still generally a good call.)

While online grooming is certainly still a concern, kids today are facing a whole host of other obstacles online that parents may or may not be aware of. And that’s totally understandable! Many of these things just weren’t issues yet when we were kids, because the technology literally didn’t exist yet. Just as our parents probably didn’t have a firm understanding of everything that was going on online when we were younger, it’s reasonable that today’s parents are similarly in the dark. 

But here’s the thing about being a grown-up: You know more about the world than your kids do, no matter how proficient they are in TikTok. Psychotherapist and author Catherine Knibbs, who coined the term “cybertrauma” to describe some of the negative effects online experiences can have on kids, encourages parents who are freaked out about online activity to remember that fact.

“We’re being told that children know more about cyberspace than we do,” Knibbs tells Avast. “That’s not actually true, because we know more about people and conversations than they do. So, actually, we know more about the internet than they do.”

With that in mind, there are still some online dangers that you might not be aware of. So here’s a quick outline of some of the dangers kids might encounter online today, based on the best currently available research. Hopefully it will help you feel more prepared to guide your children through the digital world.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is a huge problem online, across any platform where kids hang out. When it comes to social media, 42 percent of young people have experienced cyberbullying on Instagram; 37 percent on Facebook; 31 percent on Snapchat; and 10 percent on YouTube, according to The Annual Bullying Survey 2017, Ditch the Label - UK Study. Bullying also happens on gaming platforms that allow kids to play together virtually.

According to UNICEF, one in three children in 30 countries report that they’ve been victims of online bullying. And while Avast’s Generation Lockdown survey suggests that parents are aware of this issue — 89 percent report being concerned about it for their kid — cyberbullying is still a relatively new phenomenon. That means many parents might be unsure how to handle it or what to look out for. 

Knibbs says that one thing to be aware of is that, unlike in-person bullying, cyber bullying can be just one traumatic instance. (In person, bullying is defined as a pattern of behavior, not just one instance.) Because online bullying can be much more vitriolic, Knibbs says, even one event can lead to lasting negative effects on a kid’s mental health. Check out the Avast guide to cyberbullying or Knibbs’ own website for further guidance.

Poor body image

And speaking of mental health effects, too much time on social media is probably not great for young people, especially girls. In addition to the potential for cyberbullying outlined above, constant exposure to filters and photoshopping can lead to poor body image, for both boys and girls. 

A good comparison to when Millennials and Gen X parents were younger is magazine ads and photos. Most of us are aware of the effect those super skinny girls and young women and super buff guys had on our self image as young people. Now imagine what might have happened if you’d stared at those images for hours, every day. Not great. 

But, luckily, just as we were taught to be critical of the images we were exposed to in magazines, young people can be guided on how to recognize altered and unrealistic images online. Internet Matters has a great guide to help you get started.

Sexual solicitation 

Unfortunately, stranger danger is still real online. And you all certainly know it: 91 percent of parent respondents in the Generation Lockdown survey reported being concerned about “strangers talking to [their kids] and asking them to share personal information or inappropriate images of themselves.” However, only 58 percent have told their kids not to talk to strangers. 

That’s a big discrepancy. It’s important to talk to kids about who they should and shouldn’t be talking to, but it can be an intimidating or embarrassing conversation for parents. So rather than trying to scare your kids about all the baddies out there, Knibbs recommends asking leading questions.

“Ask, ‘How do you know they’re your friend? How do you know they are who they say they are? And how could you tell?’” Knibbs says. “What you’re trying to do is encourage critical thinking, because critical thinking is the thing that prevents them diving into grooming conversations.”

See the difference? Instead of taking a scare-tactic approach (which has been shown not to work in many fields), you’re actually teaching your children the skills they need to navigate the internet on their own. 

Exposure to explicit content

“The internet is an 18+ world,” Knibbs says. And she’s right — the internet was not built with children in mind. That means that content that’s perfectly okay for adults is being viewed by young people who don’t yet have the ability to understand what they’re seeing. 

Sometimes kids come across sexual content by accident because they’re curious about bodies, and other times, friends show them stuff that should only be seen by adults. But regardless of how they get there, you can pretty much guarantee that kids are going to see porn at a young age: The average age for first exposure today is 10.3 years old, according to Enough is Enough. (Other sites say age 11, but that’s based on an outdated study from 2005. And considering the reluctance of most kids to talk about this stuff with adults, it’s likely the age is even lower.)

This is why it’s extremely important for sex education classes to include explicit content education and for parents to add a conversation about porn to “the talk.” If you’re completely floundering on how to get started, check out this awesome guide from Sex Positive Families. They also offer a great webinar to help you through the process.

Phishing

Phishing is a type of online scam that manipulates human behavior in order to get access to valuable information, like passwords or banking info. So, for example, a phishing email might look like it came from your boss and ask for a copy of your W-2, but it’s actually a fake email from a cyber criminal. 

While phishing scams started in the 90s and early aughts — the first phishing scams appeared on AOL in 1995 — they’re much, much more prevalent today. And, unfortunately, young people are more prone to fall for them than older people are: According to Get Safe Online, 11 percent of young people under 25 have fallen for a phishing scam, compared with 5 percent of people over 55.  

So far, the best bet for protecting kids against phishing scam is education. A 2017 study found that teaching kids how to detect phishing scams was effective for reducing the number of scams they fell for — but only in the short term. This suggests that repeated refreshers are probably needed. 

Just like the physical world (or, as we Millennials and Gen Xers used to say, IRL), the online world has certain dangers that your kids will likely stumble upon. It’s scary, but it’s also an opportunity to remind yourself that, as a parent, you can be good at guiding your children through both worlds. All it takes is a little education, a little gumption, and a lot of conversations.