Young girl on a computer in a dark room doing online learning.

Five things parents should know about online safety

Distance learning. Virtual school. Online learning.

Whatever you call it, there’s no denying novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed the way our children learn. As children spend less time in the classroom and more time on the computer, their education should include some basics about online safety.

“It always comes down to communication” said Channing Petrak, MD. As the medical director of the Pediatric Resource Center in Peoria, Dr. Petrak specializes in treating children who have been abused or neglected.

She says parents should start with an upfront conversation with their children about what’s appropriate – and what’s not – while they are using the internet.

Check for security

The first step to making sure your children are safe online is ensuring they are using secure platforms.

For online learning, parents can ask their child’s teacher or school district what they are doing to protect students online.

And talk with children about what they should do to protect themselves.

“Make sure your kids don’t share their IDs or passwords,” Dr. Petrak said.

Be wary of strangers

Some people may not be who they say they are online.

Sex offenders and predators can use social networking sites, e-mail and online gaming to contact and exploit young people. Talk with your children about the difference between talking online with someone they know and interacting with strangers.

“Someone might seem like another 12- or 13-year-old, but they are not. They’re an adult. If you don’t know them in person, you don’t know them,” Dr. Petrak said.

Don’t share things that should be private

Regardless of a website’s privacy settings, some things shared online may never go away.

Have an age-appropriate conversation with your child about whether it’s OK to share photos of themselves online, and if so what kinds of photos are appropriate.

Father and son using a tablet on a couch.

You can’t guarantee that a photo posted online or through an app won’t be shared with others, so inappropriate photos should never be shared, even in a private message. Talk with your kids about reporting inappropriate photos that they may receive.

And private information is more than just photos.

“Children have a very hard time understanding what is private,” Dr. Petrak said.

Be specific if you can. Information like an address, parents’ names and the like should not be shared online.

Treat others with respect

Have ongoing talks with your child about what it means to be responsible online.

Let them know you expect them to treat others with respect and avoid cyberbullying. They should also know if they are being bullied online – or if they see someone who is – that they can turn to you, a teacher or another trusted adult for help.

“If it makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it and tell a trusted adult,” Dr. Petrak said.

Check in early and often

Ask your children about what kind of messages they are sending and receiving and how they feel about them. These conversations can help set the tone and expectations going forward.

“Ask about what their favorite apps are and why they like them. It’s a way to have a discussion without seeming too nosy. Showing interest is always good,” Dr. Petrak said.

And if your kids make mistakes online, try to handle the situation with empathy. Being online is an important part of their lives, especially if they are using the internet to access online learning materials.

Use these mistakes as a teachable moment and, if needed, ask for professional help from your pediatrician or another trusted professional.

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale is a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Kids & Family, Wellness