One of the trickiest parts of parenting is teaching our kids how to safely do things that have a great potential for harming them. It starts with teaching them to use scissors safely when they’re preschoolers, then sharp knives to cut their own food and, before we know it, how to drive a car. We don’t like it but we do it because we know the alternative—that they do these things without ever learning how to do them safely under our guidance—is much worse.
Whether we like it or not, our kids will grow up and use the internet with all of its potential cyberbullying, fake news and disturbing content. We could ban them from all of it while they’re still children, tweens and teenagers; or we can teach them how to use social media—and, more broadly, the internet—safely.
Remember when we thought “Stranger Danger” made sense?
We used to teach kids not to talk to strangers. A stranger could hurt you! A stranger could kidnap you! Strangers are dangerous. But then we realized that we talk to strangers all day—the host at the restaurant, the clerk at the post office, the woman in front of us in the grocery store check-out line. We were a walking contradiction.
Only a very small percentage of strangers are dangerous, and those people exhibit behaviors that can tip us off to this fact. And actually, a child is much more likely to be hurt by someone they know rather than someone they don’t. That’s why we started teaching our kids about “tricky people” instead.
We can think about online strangers the same way. Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, writes for the Washington Post that it’s better to teach our kids to recognize predatory behavior than it is to teach them not to talk to strangers online at all:
In today’s world, where kids as young as 8 are interacting with people online, they need to know the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate conversation. Kids are often pressured by their own friends to talk about sex, so they need to know it’s okay to tell peers to back off. Go beyond “stranger danger” and teach them what kinds of questions are not okay (for example, not okay: “Are you a boy or a girl?”; “Where do you live?”; “What are you wearing?”; “Do you want to have a private conversation?”).