How to Talk to Your Kids
About Digital Safety

We’ve heard from Cathie Bledsoe about what parents need to know about the digital world, and how to reinvent your group chats for better interaction with friends. Today, Cathie is sharing tips for parents who want to have a conversation with their kids about digital safety.

If you have questions about staying safe online, or if you’d like to see a new topic on the Kosciusko Connect blog, let us know on social media.

When we asked Cathie to give us an example of a typical conversation she has with parents, she said it goes something like this:

Cathie: “Does your child play a sport?”

Parent: “Yes.”

Cathie: “Tell me three people on their team.” (They do.)

Cathie: “Do they play online games?”

Parent: “Yes.”

Cathie: “Tell me what games they play.” (Most of them can’t.)

Cathie: “Tell me three people they play with on a regular basis.”

Parent: “What do you mean? They’re just a bunch of usernames.”

Cathie responds to the parent’s answer this way: “I don’t care. This is a virtual playground. If your child was going to any other playground, you would know what kids were there, and you would be sitting there watching. It’s not anonymous – there’s no way to be anonymous.

“A lot of kids and adults take risks online,” Cathie continued, “That risky behavior that you do online that you wouldn’t do in the real world still impacts your real world. If kids are being rambunctious, cussing, talking about drinking and drugs, putting out suggestive pictures, and cyberbullying, that lets a predator know that mom and dad aren’t there, and it makes the kid an easier target.”

Enjoy the rest of the Q&A and pass it on to other parents with concerns about their child’s activity online.

Two kids looking at screen with mom on couch

What are the precautions that some parents and kids take that just don’t work?

  • Facial scans

CB: In Europe, many apps require a facial scan, but facial scans don’t detect age well. You can also put filters on a photo to make you look older. In the U.S., a lot of our technology can’t block a lot of things because we have an open internet. We don’t have the same policies and laws that, in other countries, tech companies must follow. For instance, TikTok in Canada is not TikTok in the United States. Yes, the worldwide web includes Canada, but depending on the internet service providers and what their laws say, there can be limits. We don’t have that in the U.S. So, we need the parents and the kids to do that themselves.

  • Using a VPN

CB: Sometimes, kids want to show off and tell me they use a VPN, but I have to explain to them that their information is still going to be backed up to a server. They have to hope that no one hacks the server and that the technicians with access aren’t creeps. Your information still ends up in the hands of people.

You should also question how the software is handled. Snapchat says that all your chats will disappear, but that’s not how that works. Nothing is deleted. It is archived. They even have a data mining program that retrieves it called SnapLion. They’ve had issues with SnapLion in the hands of their own staff stalking and harassing kids and getting pictures. If I could, I would make every child and every parent read PC World and Wired, so they would at least get some information on the criminal activity.

Read more about the SnapLion conflict.

  • Cropping photos

CB: Kids will say, “When I took my picture, they couldn’t see my face.” They don’t need your face. The program that takes your picture has geotagging and metadata that will locate exactly where you are. There are also very inexpensive apps that will analyze pictures for you and give you all that information.

  • Keeping it virtual

CB: One kid said, “I video chat with them, but I never meet them in the real world.”

When you’re doing a livestream, there are ways to ping that live stream and get your location on a map. Kids don’t understand how their technology works. They think we call it “smart” because it does a lot of stuff, but really, it’s smart because it learns the user. Its artificial intelligence programming helps it learn you, so when you pick up your phone and open Google, the news you see is related to your interests.

  • Lying about age

CB: A lot of kids will say, “I lied about my age.” That doesn’t make it better. It guarantees that tech companies don’t have to be held responsible for any harm that comes to you. If there are predators that only want 15-year-olds and you’re 8 but say you’re 15, you’re a target now. Just like any other criminal, they can be very specific. Sometimes, a kid doesn’t realize they’re a predator because they’re 17 and they think they’re talking to a 15-year-old, and it turns out to be an 11-year-old. If a predator can claim they didn’t know a child’s age, it makes putting a case against them a lot more difficult.

How can parents start doing research and equipping their kids to make safe decisions online?

CB: My favorite website is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC.) They have some of the best resources for all grades, even preschoolers. They have vignettes based on real cases, they update the numbers, and they work closely with all of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) Programs. They work closely with the FBI and law enforcement, and they’re federally mandated to work with tech companies. Their staff is trained to triage it before they pass it on to law enforcement.

Common Sense Media is also a great source to review the content of books, movies, and games. When my son was young, he would come to me and ask if he could play a game, and I would tell him to search it on Common Sense Media and tell me what the kids say about it. It helps because they’re hearing reviews from other kids. If you’re an educator, Common Sense Media grades how invasive educational software is, and how much privacy it takes away from children.

It's not just about rating how dangerous something is. It’s about teaching your child how to behave within the environment.

What should parents look for when they’re considering giving their child permission to use a specific app?

CB: Predators have used everything to get to kids. If they’re creative enough, they’ll find a way. But I do look at several specific things.

  • Camera use

CB: If the camera is necessary for an app to work, I cover the camera when it’s not necessary because it can be turned on remotely, and we’ve all accidentally turned them on.

  • Parent permissions

CB: Instagram, Snapchat, Among Us, Fortnite, TikTok, and more are all at least 13 and up with parents’ permission. That means you are supposed to be overseeing and monitoring it.

  • Developer background

CB: I look at what country an app came from and who the developer is. I look to see if they have a website where I can see what other apps they develop. If they develop other apps that are risqué, then I expect the kids’ app to get risqué.

Google them, look for reviews, and see what parents and kids are saying on Common Sense Media. Do your research, just like if my kid came to me and said, “Mom, I want to spend the night at Joe’s house.” I would say, “Well, who’s Joe? Who are Joe’s mom and dad? Where does Joe live? Who’s going to be there?” Just ask the questions.

Dad and daughter looking at screen together in living room

What are the ground rules for what families should and should not share on social media?

CB: Sometimes, kids share online about depression and problems they’re having. Negative stuff like that makes you more of a target. Someone could bully you and make you upset, then come in to “save” you and act as a hero. An abuser is an abuser, whether it’s online or in the real world. A lot of the steps someone would do in the real world to trick you into trusting them they do online as well. We must teach our kids what a healthy relationship is.

Things you shouldn’t include in photos:

  • School name
  • School mascot
  • Your car’s license plate number
  • Home address or street sign
  • Anything specific to your area, like a distinct water tower

Questions to ask before you post:

  • If grandma saw this, would it be okay?
  • If my school principal saw this, would it be okay?
  • Do you want this picture seen by your children?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” you shouldn’t post it. It’s just so easy to be careless.

The sad thing is that the digital world was made to connect us. Now, it’s separated us. It’s allowed us to become vulnerable, victimized, and targeted.

I’m not saying that kids can’t connect with their friends. I’m saying they must remember this stuff is not private, they need to share what they think is okay to share, and you have to be willing to face the consequences for it. It’s going to be there forever. Are you okay with that?

If you take your child’s phone away, they’ll get another one somewhere. What I used to do is, when my child was in the house, their phone and devices were mine. They could have them when they were at school because if there was a change in schedule, it would punish me for my kids not to be able to reach me. But if they were with me, I have their phone. My kids knew that when they were out, whatever they did online, I would see later. That was more of a threat than taking the phone away permanently.

How should parents interact with the legal system if they suspect their child is a victim of CSAM or cyberbullying?

CB: Indiana has different law enforcement with capabilities in a variety of areas, so I would suggest that parents report to NCMEC because if a child is being bullied and harassed and they need counseling, NCMEC can help them get counseling. If a child has to go to court and the predator is in another state, they can help them get an advocate to go with them.

If you have enough information about the predator for NCMEC to find them, like username and IP address, they’re going to do some triage and send it to law enforcement. Then, it’s guaranteed to go to ICAC. They make sure that any party involved who needs it will get it.

This is what I tell parents: You know your child. If a child is behaving in a way that you suspect, it’s probably an online issue. Schools say 85-90% of every problem they have in school starts with or includes activity online.

If you suspect something, first ask, and if it’s not effective, check your child’s devices. If it’s serious and blocking, reporting, and deleting is not enough, you need to report it to NCMEC.

I’ve had parents say, “What if someone sends my child inappropriate photos?” If it’s a friend, the child needs to tell them not to send that stuff and delete it. That’s what I tell them to do the first time. After that, if they continue to do it, have a conversation with that child’s parent, because that parent is legally and financially responsible. Remind them they can be charged with possession of inappropriate pictures of children. It’s a felony. Period. I don’t care if a child is taking a picture of themselves as a joke – it’s not funny, and it feeds bigger crime. Have the conversation.

A lot of times, tech companies don’t do anything right away after a report. But if they get a preponderance of evidence, they have to. We want that paper trail that’s so easy to get from our phone, and we want to get it as soon as possible.

Look at your child’s behavior – do they get angry when they’re getting on or offline? Do they have to be online at a specific time? That may mean they’re being groomed. Look at how they act when they’re offline and when they’re online.

Our children are greatly influenced by things online. When you hear things from them, talk to them and ask what they understand about it. Block as much as possible but remember that kids are computer-savvy. They can google how to hack something.

One monitoring software that does a really good job of providing education is Bark. I love Bark. I don’t advertise any monitoring software because it’s too easy for kids to get around it, but when it comes to educating your child and yourself, I recommend the resources from Bark and Qustodio.

I love tech. I’m passionate about it. I’m also passionate about people using it right. The reputation tech has now is fair, but we don’t have to be victims if we make the right choices. We can use technology in a way that’s positive, supportive, and secure.

Are there any statistics about digital safety concerns you can share with us?

CB: Since COVID, there has been an 815% increase in inappropriate extortion of children online and a 101% increase in predatorial behavior from kids.

In 2020 alone, there were over 100 million images online that we would classify as CSAM, and 33% (33 million) were self-produced. Thorn says we might have hit 1 billion by now. This is just what we know about.

Is there any other advice you’d like to give to parents?

CB: If your child likes to game, instead of asking, “Do you like this game?” try asking them one of these alternatives instead:

“How do you level up in this game?”

“How do you set the privacy settings?”

“How many followers do you have, and do you know these people?”

“Does anyone on this game make you feel uncomfortable? What do you do if they do make you feel uncomfortable?”


If you’d like to learn more about digital safety, read more about cyberbullying and check out more advice from Cathie.

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