In a world full of technology for kids where teens, tweens and sometimes even younger children have smartphones, and communicating through three-second pictures is the norm, parenting today’s tech-savvy kids can seem overwhelming. 

Having conversations during key moments can help you become a better digital parent. Here are six conversations about online safety you should not miss:

1. Technology for kids: Smart rules for your kid’s first smartphone

Experts recommend involving your child in this discussion and creating a technology contract for the family.

For instance, your child’s responsibilities could include knowing what to do if they receive an inappropriate text, photo or video. Other good rules include not answering unknown numbers, not sharing or posting inappropriate materials and not participating in cyberbullying. Let them know that Bark will be monitoring their online interactions and alerting you to any issues they are having, put it in the technology contract along with consequences for not following family rules.

This talk could take place as early as elementary and middle school age. About 78% of teens ages 12-17 are cell phone owners, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Establishing guidelines early on for their digital communication will simultaneously give you as the parent the ultimate authority while allowing the child to take ownership of the rules.

2. Your child’s first social media account

Similar to smartphone ownership, many children can have a social media account as early as 12, according to Pew Research Center. This tween age group is encountering multiple forms of technology seemingly all at once.

A key factor in discussing social media safety with a child is not treating social media like it is completely off limits, according to tips from the University of Texas at Austin Center of Identity. Instead, one approach is to walk them through your own social media profiles and create an account with your child. Go over privacy and blocking settings to show them that these settings allow some control in helping to keep them safe online. Make the learning experience fun as well as simple and concise.

Kids should also understand the importance of keeping their online gaming accounts secure. This means choosing not to give login information even to a close friend.

Parents also need to establish boundaries with their child about communicating via video chat or texting, and explain to kids which kind of communication in the gaming world is acceptable. It’s also important for parents to have a grasp of what conduct certain gaming systems allow, in order to keep their kids accountable.

3. Define inappropriate vs. appropriate

Kids need to understand that what they post online creates a digital footprint — meaning anything they write, like or comment on is creating their long-lasting persona.

Not only is it important to discuss your child’s actions online, but also the actions of those they follow. If you follow your child on social media, and something questionable comes up from another user, ask them about it and gauge their reaction. Do they know it’s over the line?

According to the Family Online Safety Institute, understanding the dangers online can feel a lot like heading toward a multi-lane highway on a tricycle. It seems impossible to know all the possible dangers ahead.

We offer technology that help parents work with their kids to keep them safe online and protect against cyberbullying, sexting, and signs of depression and self-harm. Bark’s services are structured in a way that parents are notified of suspicious activity, while allowing their child to have independence.

While many parental monitoring companies offer protection, the method is usually to block suspicious activity on social media, text messaging, and email, which teens will find a way around, said Carrie Goldman, an advisor with Bark and author of “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.”

“The (teens) may not be flat out accessing apps that they know will be banned, but they have other ways of getting around it,” she said. “Bark can help parents find out when kids are sneaking around the system.”

4. Acknowledge kids will make mistakes

Any discussion about online behavior should center on cautioning your child, but also letting them know you are always there to help them if anything happens.

Telling your kids that they will make mistakes in life, such as sending an inappropriate text, is the most important discussion to have with them, Goldman said. Kids need to know they can come to you.

“I think that when parents only say to their kids, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that,’ what happens is that when the kids do something, they’re afraid to come tell us because we’ve only told them what not to do,” she said.

5. When your teen gets a driver’s license

Entering into this stage of parenting can be a little unsettling, especially knowing the risks involved. One of your biggest defenses as a parent is to model good driving practices to your child while they are still young.

More than eight people a day die in traffic accidents that involve distracted driving in the United States, which makes having the discussion around car safety even more vital. Distracted driving includes activities such as talking on a cell phone, texting and eating.

Dennis and Barbara Rainey, co-founders of FamilyLife, a non-profit corporation, suggest having clear consequences in place if irresponsible driving occurs. For example, a child may be responsible to pay the price of their ticket. Know what you will do before these situations occur and communicate this with your kids from the beginning.

6. What to do about cyberbullies

About 34.4 percent of students between the ages of 11 and 15 admitted to being cyberbullied, according to a 2015 survey. Of that percentage, 21 percent said it happened one or more times in the past month.

It is crucial for kids to know that saving the evidence is the first action that needs to be taken, Goldman said. Let your kids know they need to inform a trusted adult when it happens.

Sometimes kids need to step away from the computer and cool off, and as the parent, help them understand what next steps should be. It could be helping them know the right situations to block someone or remove them from your friend list. Sign up for Bark and monitor your kids’ online interactions for potential risky behaviors.

With these six conversations, parents can feel less overwhelmed about technology for kids, better navigate this stage of life with their kids and keep them safe in today’s digital world.

Teen sexting image of kid holding a phone

**This blog post was updated April 8, 2022.**

If you’re worried about your teen sexting, you’re definitely not alone. This issue is one of the most common concerns for families raising kids in the digital age — and with good reason! But talking about sexting can be super awkward, not to mention stressful and just plain… hard. It’s so important to start and keep having these types of conversations with your kid, though. 

That’s why we created some conversation starters to help your family start discussing the different aspects (and dangers) of sexting. For easy reference, we’ve also gathered many of our other blog posts on this topic, so you can learn as much as possible about the hows, whys, and wheres of sexting in the 21st century.

No matter what, be sure to approach this topic with empathy — recognizing the powerful pressures, anxieties, and influences kids today can experience.

The Prevalence of Sexting Today

Have you heard the saying “sexting is the new first base?” For parents, this can be a pretty scary thought. When we were younger, dating usually came before any sort of overtly sexual activity. But for today’s kids, the order can be reversed — a couple may send nudes before ever meeting in real life! 

The numbers back this up, too. Bark’s 2021 annual report on kids and technology found that 68.97% of tweens and 90.73% of teens encountered nudity or content of a sexual nature while online. 

Teen Sexting: The Dangers and Issues Facing Kids

Emotional effects

One of the most obvious — and common — dangers of sexting for kids is that they may not be emotionally ready to handle the exchange of sensitive photos. Sexts are easy to dash off without thinking, but the repercussions can be long-lasting for kids. Emotions like regret, shame, and even anxiety and depression can be commonplace after sexts are sent. 

Sextortion

Once someone has received nudes, they may threaten to send them to family members unless the other person agrees to certain demands. This is known as sextortion or sexual blackmail, and it can be incredibly dangerous. Shame and embarrassment may lead to teens doing anything to prevent photos from being leaked, including performing sexual acts, paying money, sending additional photos, and more. 

Revenge porn

Revenge porn occurs when someone posts online pornographic materials (video or photographs) of another person without their consent. These could be pictures taken without the person’s knowledge or with the person’s knowledge during a previous relationship. Later, these pictures are used as “revenge” for breaking off the relationship.

Depending on the state where your family lives, your child could face legal consequences for sending or receiving sexts. When sexting involves minors, it may violate child pornography laws — even if the messages are only exchanged between two kids. It’s a complicated subject, but it’s important to know what the laws are in your state.

Conversation Starters

Talk about how technology is part of the driving force behind sexting

“When I was growing up, nudes weren’t really a thing, unless someone had a Polaroid camera, because those developed instantly. Regular film had to be developed at stores like CVS or Walgreens. Why do you think nudes have become so common today with people your age?”

This question will help your child think critically about how technology has influenced the act of sending and receiving nudes. You can even add something like  “My generation would 100% have sent them if we had had phones” to help them feel less like their entire generation is being judged. 

Relate to the pressures kids may face to sext

“Back in the 1980/90’s, the pressure to [insert a personal pressure you faced here] was super strong. I felt like if I gave in, I’d be judged by one crowd of people, and if I didn’t get involved, I’d also get judged. Can you tell me about the pressure to sext at your school?”

Just because sexting wasn’t common for our generation doesn’t mean that we didn’t face social pressures — they were just different. Connecting with your child over the hard parts of growing up can make them feel closer to you. The more details you can provide, the better!

Discuss some of the dangers without fear-mongering

“For people who send nudes and then break up, what do you think happens to the photos? What’s the best possible outcome? What’s the worst possible scenario?”

Even though all of the fears you have about your teen sexting are probably valid — after all, you have decades more life experience — kids can be apt to brush off these fears as “overreacting.” To help avoid this, talk about the more practical ways that sexting could come back to bite them — not just the worst-case scenarios. It may get their attention in ways they haven’t yet thought about. Which is natural! They’re kids, not adults with tons of life experience. 

Explain how digital images can last forever on the internet

“Remember the slap that took place during the Oscars with Chris Rock and Will Smith? It went viral, right? No matter what happens, from now on when you google Will Smith, that image and video will come up. He’s been in dozens of movies, but that one night is going to be at the top of Google search results for a long time. The same can happen with any photos of you that are attached to your name. Can you think of a way that someone else could share a photo of you that would be beyond your control?”

This example uses a recent current event to showcase how images and videos live online beyond the control of the people in them  — no matter who you are. This can apply to sexual content but also any sort of digital information about your child. It could also come back to negatively affect them in the future when schools or employers search for their name on the internet.

Helpful Resources

October is National Substance Abuse Prevention month. Awareness months can be excellent way to bring up tough topics with your kids. According to statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, most people use drugs for the first time when they are teenagers. While there has been a decline overall in some substance abuse by teenagers in 2015, they are still reporting use of alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. Below is some information that can help you discuss and educate your child on substance abuse prevention.

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is the harmful use of psychoactive substances, this includes alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs. Use of these substances can lead to dependency, difficulties controlling use, and a higher priority to the substance than to other activities. The toll for substance abuse is not only to the individual, but to those around them and their communities. Hospitals and emergency rooms are affected by the physical trauma of the negative decisions of those who abuse substances, and jails and prisons deal with the fallout of impaired decisions because of this issue.

Warning Signs

Some of the physical signs to be aware of if you suspect your child may be abusing substances are:

Behavior signs that may indicate substance abuse are:

Psychological warning signs of substance abuse include:

A lot of these warning signs will seem familiar, because they are also often linked to warning signs of mental health conditions. That is because drug use in adolescents frequently intersects with other mental health issues. Some children may begin taking drugs to deal with depression or anxiety, some children develop mental health conditions because they are abusing substances. Effective treatment requires addressing the substance abuse and mental health conditions at the same time.

Prevention and Education

Studies have shown that education and prevention aimed at children and teenagers is the best course to curb substance abuse in general. Explaining to your kids the risks involved when drinking or consuming a substance that impairs judgement provides them with the best possible information to make informed decisions. Remind them how addictive substances can become, and that this dependency has a huge impact on people’s lives, their families and communities. Impaired judgement can lead to car accidents, consumption of tobacco can cause certain types of cancer, and alcohol poisoning can cause death.

Share your state and local laws with them, remind them that there are criminal penalties for underage consumption of substances. For example, even if marijuana is legal in your state, that is only for people 21 and older; furthermore, it is still illegal on the federal level. Additionally, the consumption of illegal substances has a negative impact on a developing brain. Cannabis use by teens has been linked to abnormal changes in brain structure related to memory and the earlier a teen starts smoking the worse the effects on the brain.

How to Say No

But it is not always easy to just say no. Unfortunately in our culture, the word no is not always readily accepted or respected. And some kids have a hard time saying a hard no, they don’t want to come off as uncool or judgmental. Even as adults, we struggle with this. Tweens and teens are in need of more phrases at the ready, and actionable responses for when the need arises. For example, if they are at a party that has alcohol and they can’t get a ride home immediately, they can find a cup and fill it up with water, stemming peer pressure before it can begin. Below are some suggestions on how to say no, let your child know that you are willing to be the “bad guy” and they can always blame you for why they are saying no.

Suggestions for how to say no include:

Remind your kid that you expect them to find ways to say no and to not abuse substances, but that you will always be there for them if and when they mess up. Explain that you do not condone such behavior, but that you are willing to  come and rescue them from any uncomfortable situation they find themselves in. Discussing and educating your kids on how abusing substances can make a negative impact on their lives is the best way to prevent substance abuse in the first place. Bark can help by monitoring your child’s social media accounts and alerting you to any messages about drug content.

Resources:

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Common Sense Media