Parents have both a right and the responsibility to be totally aware of their child's online life, and the earlier you make that clear to your child, the easier it will be to enforce. A 2010 Pew Research study revealed that “the bulk of kids…are getting cell phones at ages 12 and 13 – right as they transition to middle school” and a 2013 study found that 95 percent of teens are online. And while the true incidence of sexting with explicit photos is probably less than 5 percent of kids online, we also know that at least 10 percent of kids report an unwanted sexual solicitation.
Here are two good reasons why parents need to stay on top of their kids’ online activity: Neither young children or teens are a match for a skilled predator; and adolescents have a mature sex drive managed by a not–yet-mature brain. And if you still need convincing, read this report prepared by the Crimes Against Children Research Center and see how many of the cases reported to law enforcement were uncovered when parents checked their kids’ phones!
Parents of young kids can set a precedent starting when their kids use their first electronic devices. Certain security measures are low-tech, like keeping the device chargers outside of the bedroom in order to keep devices off the bed, setting all passwords yourselves, and checking devices daily. The most readily available of the low-tech options is parent-child communication. Let your children know why you intend to monitor their on line use; little ones should not have independent internet access until at least age 12. Their first experience of your limit setting can be when they learn that your plan only covers a certain number of calls, or of you programming their phones limiting the numbers that they can call or receive calls from.
Continuing conversations about online safety provide countless opportunities to discuss your family values around relationships and sexual health, and safety with young teens and adolescents. Discussions about unanticipated solicitation, sexual and otherwise, lead right into a conversation about respecting other people’s boundaries, and being empowered to hold their own. A dialog about predators opens the door to conversations about the importance of really knowing someone -- online or in person -- before placing full trust in them. And when you get to the talk about sexting, don’t stop at the tech-based reminders that photos exist forever and can be shared beyond the intended recipient. Try having a discussion about how normal it is for young people to be confused about making any decisions about sex. Chapters 5 and 6 in my book, The Sex-Wise Parent will be helpful.