Life Skills

Staying Safe and Smart Online

It’s a lost cause to try to keep your middle schooler offline all together. But while you still have some influence over them, it’s a great time to set boundaries, expectations, and help them develop the tools to live in the digital world in ways that feel safe and smart.

If the idea of your child being thrown to the wolves of Snapchat or TikTok or whatever-the-kids-are-on-these-days has you up at night, you’re not alone. Just a few short years ago, parents could still keep their kids away from social media if they chose to, or at least delay participation until they were closer to adulthood. That feels less possible now. Social media is part of our kids’ world. And even if your tween isn’t yet on social media, they’re still connected online and sharing messages and photos with friends via text or messaging apps. Middle school, when kids are still reasonably compliant with their parents’ guidance (LOL), is a great time to help your child build the smarts to stay safe out there.

Here are some tools you’ll want your tween to add to their online safety toolbox:

1

You set the rules. What devices they have access to, how often they’re allowed to use them (and when and where), and where they’ll store those devices—that’s all up to you. Consider drawing up a contract with your child so you’re on the same page about technology use. (Here are some tips for managing phone access with your tween.)

2

Know your privacy settings. Most social media accounts tend to default to public or open settings. Make sure your kid knows how to lock down their accounts so only their approved friend list (and YOU, of course) can see their content. And your tween should know that they should never share personal information like their address or phone number online, even if they’re asked for it by someone they think they trust.

3

Look for safe spaces and communities. Kids can feel pressure to be part of every online space just because their friends are. But keeping up with everything is inevitably stressful. And while there’s plenty of toxicity on social media, there are also opportunities for tweens to connect in positive and meaningful ways if they’re looking in the right places. Encourage your middle schooler to consider where they feel safe and happy online. Maybe they’ve connected with other kids who like the same games or books, or have similar academic interests. If they can focus on connecting in those spaces, and let go of other accounts or communities that feel less positive, they’ll be happier and safer.

4

Report bullying right away. Your tweens should know how to block another user if they ever need to. They should also know that they should talk to you about anything at all that makes them feel uncomfortable online, whether that’s behavior directed at them or stuff they witness toward other users. The same goes for messages that make them uncomfortable via text or other messaging apps—even if those messages come from friends or classmates (which can make it harder for tweens to know how to respond).

5

Consider the future. It might be hard for your 11-year-old to imagine that what they say on the internet today might matter a decade from now when they’re applying for a job. But now is the time to try to help them understand that. Ask them to consider whether they’d want the entire school—not just their friends—to see something they’ve posted. What about their extended family, or teachers? The goal isn’t to make our kids self-conscious, of course, but to nudge them to consider what it means that nothing on the internet is ever truly private or erasable.

6

Last, for parents: Learn about the types of social media your child is using. If you don’t know the difference between TikTok and Instagram…there’s no time like the present! Check out Common Sense Media’s “Ultimate Guides” to different social media platforms to understand how they work, so you can be better prepared to make sure your tween is safe.