Why internet safety matters

Teenagers use digital technologies for everyday activities like keeping in touch with friends on social media, relaxing and doing schoolwork. They also go online to look for support for physical or mental health problems, and sometimes to experiment with different ways of expressing themselves.

Because they’re online so much without your supervision, teenagers need to be able to identify acceptable and unacceptable online content independently. They also need to know how to behave respectfully online and avoid online risks.

Internet safety risks for teenagers

There are three main kinds of internet risks for teenagers.

Content risks
For teenagers, these risks include coming across material that they might find upsetting, disgusting or otherwise uncomfortable, especially if they encounter it accidentally. This material might include:

  • pornography
  • real or simulated violence
  • hate sites
  • terrorist sites
  • harmful user-generated content like sites about drug use, self-harm, suicide or negative body image.

Contact risks
These risks include coming into contact with adults posing as children online or with strangers who persuade teenagers to meet them in real life, or being the victim of an online scam.

Conduct risks
Conduct risks include behaving in inappropriate or hurtful ways, or being the victim of this kind of behaviour. Examples include:

  • cyberbullying
  • sexting
  • misusing people’s passwords and impersonating people online
  • making unauthorised purchases using other people’s financial details
  • creating content that reveals information about other people.

Another conduct risk for teenagers is having trouble regulating online time, which can develop into internet addiction disorder.

Protecting your child from internet safety risks

Although your child is probably an independent internet user now, you can still help him to keep building the skills and knowledge he needs to identify and manage internet safety risks.

Here are some basic things you can do to protect your child from internet safety risks:

  • Create a family media plan. It’s best to negotiate your plan with your child. Your plan could cover things like screen-free areas in your house and what online behaviour is OK.
  • Talk with your child about upsetting and inappropriate content. If you can talk with your child in an open and non-judgmental way, she’s more likely to talk with you if she comes across something disturbing online or has a bad online experience.
  • Stay in touch with what your child is doing online and how much time he’s spending online. This will help you to spot when your child might be having problems online.
  • Ask your child to ‘friend’ you on social media. Friending your child means you can follow what she’s interested in and who she’s connected to online. Younger teenagers might be OK with this, but older teenagers might prefer not to friend you.
  • Encourage and remind your child to explore and use the internet safely – for example, it’s OK to remind him to check his privacy settings.
  • Find out how to make complaints about offensive or illegal online content.

Technical internet safety tools like internet filters can actually increase risk for children over 14 years. If children are using filters at this age, they might not be developing the skills they need to avoid disturbing content. They might take risks either accidentally or on purpose when they use the internet in unfiltered environments.

Helping your child to identify and manage internet safety risks

It’s important to help your teenage child manage internet safety risks for herself. This lets your child build digital resilience, which is the ability to respond positively and deal with risks she comes across online.

You can do this by:

  • being a role model for healthy internet use
  • talking with your child about online content and behaviour
  • reminding your child about privacy and personal information
  • teaching your child about online purchases.

It’s all about trusting your child to become a responsible digital citizen.

Being a role model for internet use

All children – including teenagers – do as you do, so being a role model for your child is a powerful and positive way to guide your child’s behaviour when it comes to internet use.

You can be a role model for safe and healthy screen use by using the internet in the way you want your child to use it – for example, by not having internet-connected devices in bedrooms or bathrooms, or not using your phone during mealtimes.

It’s also good to model positive technology use like sending supportive messages to friends.

Talking about online content

Talking openly about your own internet use and encouraging your child to do the same will help your child feel able to talk to you if he has a bad experience online. It’s also good to talk about the kind of content that makes people feel good.

You can get your child talking by asking her to explain the apps, games and content she’s interested in, so that you understand why she uses them. You might say, ‘Snapchat posts disappear quickly, but a screenshot can capture what’s been said. Is that right?’.

It’s good to encourage your child to develop a sense of what he likes and doesn’t like online and to defend his choices with friends. For example, you could say, ‘It’s great that you chose to block that content and didn’t get involved in that online argument’.

Talking about online hoaxes and fake news with your child will help her develop the ability to tell whether a website has good-quality information. Hoax-Slayer is a site that can help you and your child uncover online scams and hoaxes.

And if your child isn’t sure about a site’s credibility, he can ask himself, ‘Whose interest is this in?’. The answer can help him work out what sites and offers are dodgy. This is all part of digital and media literacy.

Taking care with privacy, personal information and personal safety

You can help your teenage child look at and choose appropriate privacy, location and safety settings on any devices, programs or social media that she uses, and explain why it’s important. For example, you might say, ‘Employers often do online searches to find out about job applicants. Make sure that anything you make public online is OK for future employers to see’.

It’s also important for your child to be careful about sharing personal information. Remind your child not to give out his name, address, date of birth or other identifying information to people he doesn’t know in person.

And it’s a good idea to update ‘stranger danger’ advice with your teenage child as she moves towards adulthood and comes into contact with online dating. For example, you might say, ‘There’s always a risk if you meet someone you only know online. It can lead to dangerous situations – for example, the person might want to hurt you’.

Making online purchases

If your child is starting to shop online, it’s important for him to use reputable shopping sites, check customer reviews, look into the transaction and security software the site uses and so on.

You could talk with your teenage child about shopping online, and explain the risks associated with online transactions. For example, you might say, ‘Have you done a web search and checked the online ratings to make sure it’s a reputable site?’