Parent Policing: Helping your Teen Stay Safe Online

Whether it’s a computer, smartphone, tablet or even an iPod, teens today have almost unlimited access to smart devices and the Internet. A 2015 report found that 92% of 13-17 year olds reported using the Internet on a daily basis. While 12% of teens report going online once a day, more than half (56%) access the Internet several times a day, while 24% report usage as “almost constant.” Since the Internet is a “space” where children and teens spend large portions of their time, monitoring the safety of this space is a major concern for parents regardless of whether your child owns his or her own device.

What types of dangers exist online?

Three of the most common online risks include harassment or cyberbullying, sexual exploitation, and exposure to inappropriate information. Thankfully, parents can use similar methods to address all three risks and help ensure their teens are smart, safe users of the Internet.

What can parents do to keep teens safe online?

Parents can help their youth lead safe digital lives by helping their teen become responsible and savvy about making their own smart decisions online. It is easy to respond to risky situations by trying to limit your teens’ access to the mobile devices; however, today’s teens are pretty skilled at gaining access to these tools despite possible barriers. As such, it is important to work with your teen to make sure they have the information and skills they need to make smart choices and protect themselves as they engage more and more with the technology around them. Parental guidance of this kind falls into four main categories: Education, Awareness, Monitoring and Safety Planning. Using all four approaches can ensure the best experience for you and your teen.

  1. Education: Staying Informed and Up to Date

Staying informed about current online trends is one of the most important things parents can do to keep youth safe online. However, technology is fast-changing and it can be difficult to keep up or even detect risky behavior. For example, you may have heard that chat rooms are an online space where young kids engage in risky conversations with strangers that led to dangerous in-person meetings. While this has been true, new statistics find that this trend is on the decline. Instead, teens are using video chatting for similar purposes and video apps, such as Snapchat, may delete any evidence of the conversation. This “disappearing” trend comes in all forms as well. There are now apps that allow for text exchanges to disappear after being read (e.g., YikYak), and apps that masquerade as utilities such as a calculator, but actually serve as a social networking tool (Calculator%). Indeed, 70% of youth report using tools to hide their online activities from parents. While this can seem overwhelming, continuously researching new apps, social media and online trends can help you know what to look for when it comes to your teen’s use of the Internet.

Here’s a tip for staying informed: Frequently conduct online searches for “dangerous apps for youth.” While there isn’t a comprehensive site that keeps track of this information, news websites and blogs frequently describe new apps and social networking sites that are trending with youth.

  1. Awareness: Important Conversations with your Teen

Research shows that youth who perceive the Internet to be a safe place are more likely to take risks online. Teens often feel confident behind their keyboards and may make decisions without thinking about the “real life” impact the digital world can have.  Additionally, risk for unsafe use of the Internet increases as time spent online increases. Help your teen understand the risks so he or she has the tools to make safe choices. As parents, it is important for you to have honest, open conversations with your teen about the risks of the Internet. Use current news stories or personal experiences to show youth how certain behaviors online can lead to bad outcomes, and don’t sugar coat these risks. When stories in the media address this issue make sure to talk with your youth and ask them open-ended questions to get them thinking about how safe (or unsafe) their own choices might be. Make sure your teen understands that:

  • Everything that gets put on the Internet, stays on the Internet, even things that are meant to “disappear.”
  • It is impossible to be truly anonymous online, so the things that are said and posted become a part of your social identity – that is, the information and image of yourself that is available to others via social media and other internet tools.
  • Even though nobody is truly anonymous, people can fake their identity: this means that it is impossible to know who a stranger truly is online.
  • Sharing private information including name, age, address, school, etc., is not safe online because predators can use this information to find individuals without their permission.
  1. Monitoring: The What and Where of Internet Usage

“Keep the door open” or “I’m calling to make sure their parents are home” are phrases parents have used for generations to monitor the safety of their teens. Similarly, there are a number of ways parents can monitor their teen’s online activities. First, determine what level of monitoring is necessary for your child based on his or her level of maturity, understanding about risks and mobile usage.

Your family can create rules about when and where devices with internet access may be used. This could mean placing the family computer in a public space of a house rather than in a teen’s bedroom. Additionally, you can agree on rules regarding use of mobile devices in bedrooms or late at night. If you chose to use an app to monitor your teen’s usage, make sure to do some research about what kind of monitoring the app does. Some apps allow you to block access to sites (e.g., gambling, porn, etc.) while others actually track which apps are being used, when, and what kinds of messages are sent (e.g., TeenSafe). While these monitoring apps are handy, most teens are very tech savvy and may be able to work around the app! Your eyes and ears are still the best monitoring tool.

Research finds that adults who create “shared experiences” with their teen around Internet usages actually help decrease the chance of risk-taking online. This means doing things together electronically with teens (e.g., connecting on a games app such as Words with friends or having your teen teach you how to use your devices). An important part of monitoring and sharing experience involves privacy settings. To begin, it’s important to know the rules of certain social networking sites. For example, you must be at least 13 years of age to make a valid Facebook account. If your child is under 13 and using Facebook, they had to lie about their age. This could be an important cue that your child is beginning to take “risks” online. Then, all apps have different levels of privacy settings that can be tricky to navigate. For example, some apps automatically post your location and this is a setting that must be turned OFF if you do not wish for strangers to see this. Discuss the risks of “checking in” to places online and making your location known on social media with your teens. Sit down together with your teen to figure out privacy settings, discuss why certain restrictions are important, and set the privacy settings to something with which you are comfortable. This process can be an important learning experience for both parent and teen. Check in on these settings regularly to make sure your teen or the app developer have not altered them. Find more information about how digital media can be used as a positive way to connect with teens at eParenting® High-Tech Kids.

While prevention is the goal, parents should also keep an eye out for behaviors that are often associated with risky online usage. These behaviors include:

  • The teen uses phone late into the night.
  • Your teen quickly tries to hide screens when adults or others enter the room.
  • You notice phone calls or text messages on cellphones or home phones from unknown numbers, at odd hours or in odd frequencies, or from strange locations that are far way.
  • Your teen begins to receive packages or letters in the mail from unknown places.
  • Your teen seems abnormally withdrawn from social surroundings.
  1. Safety Planning: Knowing What to Do in Times of Danger

Regardless of how prepared you or your teen are to use the Internet safely, there is always the possibility that others online will act inappropriately. Discuss with your teen what types of behaviors are or are not acceptable with people online. Does your teen know how to identify cyber-bullying? When does chatting becoming an “invitation” for other things? Identifying such information can help your teen be alert to potential risks that exist. Beyond knowing how to identify risks, teens should have a plan of what to do if they experience something threatening online. For instance, has your teen practiced what they would do if they were asked by a peer (or someone else) to sext? Just having a plan makes it easier to act if something happens. Identifying an online safety plan with your teen might include the following steps:

  • Help your teen identify a couple of adults they would feel comfortable going to if they felt threatened online.
  • Plan what information they can and cannot share online. Avoid any information that can help strangers locate them such as names of schools attended, clubs, etc.
  • At least at first, require that your teen provide you with their username and passwords for all sites that they frequent. This is important for monitoring their activities as well as being able to find important information should they ever be missing. You can be upfront with teens about under which circumstances you would login to their sites (e.g., regular monitoring, in case of emergency, etc.)
  • Make sure your teen is aware of anonymous tip lines such as or 1(800) 843- 5678 that they can refer to if they suspect someone may be trying to exploit them online.

The Internet and mobile devices are a regular part of teen life. The Internet has many benefits. In a time of exploration, teens can safely use the Internet to connect with others, access information, learn about different cultures and perspectives, seek advice from peers, and construct their own identities. However, teens are still developing the cognitive skills needed to make smart, safe decisions. With the freedom and vastness of the Internet come real dangers. By staying informed and aware, parents can play an important role in monitoring their teens online and helping them learn the skills to be safe on their own.


Article by Dayana Kupisk

dkupDayana is a graduate student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dayana previously worked as a life skills coordinator at a residential living program for teens and young adults. She has one older brother, and, for the first time in her life, is living in a different state from her parents.