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Talking With Teens About Online Safety: How You Make a Difference

Recognize both the benefits and risks of being online. The Internet may be foreign to parents who didn’t grow up with it. But most of today’s teens are digital natives and see it as just another part of their world. Like all parts of life, it has both benefits and risks:

Potential Benefits

  • Socialization and communication
  • Enhanced learning opportunities
  • Useful health and sexuality information
  • Self-expression and creativity
  • Cross-cultural communication
  • Involvement in civic issues and causes

Potential Risks

  • Cyberbullying and harassment, usually by peers
  • Sharing sexually explicit photographs
  • Inaccurate or harmful health and sexuality information
  • Exposure to inappropriate and illegal content
  • Sharing too much information
  • Sexual solicitations
  • Recognize links between online and offline behavior. Teens who are most vulnerable to risky behaviors online tend to be the same teenagers who have difficulty in other parts of their lives as well. In other words, teens who are generally making healthy, positive choices in other areas of their lives are most likely to be making positive choices online. The skills, values, and attitudes you develop in your family will also help to guide them in their online activities. On the other hand, if you have concerns about your teen’s behavior offline, be aware that these patterns could be a problem online as well. Teens who engage in risky behaviors offline are more likely to engage in risky online behaviors too.
  • Be a good role model. In 2012, one in five teens ages 13 to 17 wished their parents would spend less time using mobile phones and other devices.1
  • Empower your child to navigate the digital world. Equally important is educating and empowering youth so they learn to navigate digital worlds safely and are equipped with strategies to use when they do encounter challenges. Teens who are educated about the importance of online safety are more likely to take steps to keep themselves safe online than teens who aren’t educated.
  • Help your teen learn to critique online information. There is a lot of great information available online for young people to use while doing homework, caring for pets, doing hobbies, investigating private health or sexuality issues, and many other topics. But there is also bad information. Help your teen become a critical user of information by teaching skills for evaluating what’s online. Here are some questions to ask about things your teen finds on the Internet:
    • What authority, expertise, or credentials does the information provider have? Is the site generally a widely trusted site? Is it clear who is behind the site, or is that hidden?
    • What can you tell about the accuracy of the information? Is it current? Does it refer to trusted research sources or other sources of expertise? Is the information consistent with what you find on trusted sites?
    • Is there an agenda behind the information that is being posted? Is the site primarily promoting a particular product, point of view, or cause? Is a bias evident? Is it clear and straightforward, or does it seek to manipulate through its words, graphics, or interactive features?
    • Does the site design enhance or distract from your understanding? Is it well-organized, or do you have to really look to find what you need?
  • Set appropriate boundaries on Internet use. Options to consider include:
    • Limit daily Internet use. If using the Internet becomes the single biggest activity in your teen’s life or if it interferes with other activities (such as schoolwork, sports, physical exercise, family time, or other relationships), it is important to investigate. Excessive use may suggest problems in other areas of life (such as social isolation or loneliness) that may require immediate action.
    • Know the legal age restrictions for social media and other sites. The U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits sites from collecting information on those younger than 13 years old without parental permission.
    • Consider using filtering, blocking, or monitoring software, but recognize its limits. Software solutions help some with blocking exposure to certain online content. But, if they want, teens can find many ways around these barriers, such as using a different computer, using a smart phone, or figuring out the password. So installing and using software can be useful, but it should be seen as only a part of an overall strategy for keeping your child safe online.
  • Educate yourself and teens about online scams and fraud. Whether through e-mail, social networking sites, or on websites, scammers continue to look for ways to coax people into revealing personal and financial information. Others may simply be promoting inaccurate information, such as urban legends. Ask your teen to follow specific guidelines, such as:
    • Check with a parent before giving anyone personal information such as your name, address, school, phone number, or picture of yourself.
    • Never provide bank account information or a Social Security number unless you are 100 percent confident in the website (such as your own bank) and its security.
    • Always use caution before providing personal or financial information online, and teach teens to do the same.
    • Be skeptical of any websites that offer prizes or giveaways.
    • Do not enter an area of a website that charges for service without first checking with a parent.
  • Develop an exit strategy. If teens ever feel threatened online by a bullying friend or a predatory adult, what should they do? Talk about this in advance so they have options in mind if there should ever be a need. For example, they can end the interaction immediately and block the person. Insist that they tell you or another trusted adult if they have any concerns about someone they meet online or about any of the activities they are encountering, such as bullying or sexting. If the person keeps trying to contact the youth or continues with threatening behaviors, the situation should be reported to the police or other appropriate authorities.

Check out Talk with Your Teen.


1 Rideout, V. (2012). Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives: Common Sense Media. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/social-media-social-life-how-teens-view-their-digital-lives
Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on July 2, 2019