Opinion: How to encourage respect and safety for your child while they are online

Both adults and youth have had to adapt the ways they communicate, connect and learn during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online schooling, lockdowns and quarantines have increased students’ need to rely on the Internet and social media to stay connected to loved ones and continue to learn about world news or school subjects.

Being exposed to the Internet and social media for positive reasons like social interaction and learning a new skill can have many benefits on a youth’s social, academic and emotional development. It can help them to succeed in a world that is becoming more tech savvy, reach out to friends and family and help them feel more confident in themselves and their abilities.

But rightfully so, parents, grandparents and teachers may be concerned with youth being exposed to the negative outcomes of interacting online.

Cyberbullying, harassment, accidental exposure to pornography, or situations of child exploitation by adults can and has, unfortunately, happened to youth online. Feelings of isolation, loss and disconnection can contribute to youth seeking connections online and being exposed to situations they are not prepared to handle, or that make them feel afraid, uncomfortable and harassed.

There is a need to balance a youth’s natural curiosity towards the Internet and all its positive results, versus the potentially negative consequences of interacting with others online.

You may know a youth in your life who could benefit from some guidelines or expectations about how to interact online in a respectful and safe way. You may be a parent, teacher or grandparent who does not know where to start with having some of these conversations with the youth. With their safety and development in mind, it may be best to start the conversation with how respect looks like online and offline.

How many times have you been asked to define respect without using the word “respect” in your answer? It is a concept we are all aware of, but youth can benefit from being told what respect is and what it looks like in real life and in online spaces.

To help with this, ask them if they know what the “golden rule,” is. The “golden rule” is simply to treat others how you wish to be treated.

In your conversations about online use, ask them to consider how they wish to be treated online and how they could be using their personal power — or ability to make something happen — to make sure others are treated with respect online.

Another expectation to share with the youth in your life is that they can talk to you about anything going on in their life, whether it is offline or online.

When youth feel the adults around them can listen to them without judgement, be there for them and seek to understand who they are growing into as people, youth are more likely to go to an adult when an issue comes up. We may not understand the finer details of the app they are on, or the game they are playing online, but when we encourage youth to teach us adults about what interests them, we feel more connected to each other and can help tackle issues online faster.

Social media and the Internet overall are everchanging and fast paced. We may not understand every trend, app or viral video that youth are into nowadays, but we can take steps to encourage children’s natural curiosity and increase their awareness of how to interact online in a safe and respectful manner.

If you wish to learn more about Internet safety, there are some great resources to look into to help continue your learning or help teach the youth in your life. MediaSmarts.ca is a Canadian resource with many tip sheets and activities for teachers and parents on developing media literacy and Internet safety skills. Cybertip.ca has some practical resources for tackling and reporting cyberbullying, sexting and online sexual abuse.

CASASC offers a 24 hour help line for those looking for support with dealing with sexual violence impacts. Call or text 1-866-956-1099, or webchat at www.casasc.ca for confidential support, information and referrals.

Kailee Mears is a prevention educator at the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre.