Digital Safety for Teens & Preteens

Parent Q&A

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  • My daughter is starting high school, and it seems like all of her peers have and are communicated through Instagram. I have been pretty strict about not allowing her to get it because of concerns about its addictive ness, possible bullying, body image minefields, etc etc. but at this time, I think I’m denying her an essential tool that all of her friends will be using to communicate.

    SO- I’m wondering if there are any courses out there (preferably zoom) or literature I can assign prior to letting her get the app (some sort of training)? Any recommendations for internet safety contracts that are designed for teens?


    Good questions! I applaud you for being thoughtful about your daughter's use of Instagram. If she's not already on Tik-Tok, that will quickly follow. Yes, these platforms, and others like them, are essential tools for teens to be social. My daughter has kept in touch with middle school friends this way. She also found her college roommate and has built a relationship with her over the summer through the entering class's Instagram group. It's important for young people to learn to use these platforms appropriately and effectively.

    My daughter is about to head off to college. When she was in late elementary school, her uncle wanted us to get an Instagram account to share family photos. I set one up and we used it together for years. She set up a personal Instagram account in eighth grade. I didn't require a contract or coursework. I did require, since I paid for the phone and phone plan, that any account be set up as a private account, and that I follow any social media accounts she set up with the understanding that I would not like or comment on any of her posts. She also follows my social media accounts. We frequently talk about what we see on our social media in a casual way. It's been quite healthy. She comes to me with all sorts of things she sees—healthy and positive, and unhealthy and harmful. Generally, I listen and offer advice only if she asks for it. She's been appropriate in her use of social media and manages her time on it relatively wisely, even if she has had episodes of over-indulging.

    My son is another story. I used the same approach with him. I also tried courses and contracts.

    Know your kid. Treat them with respect and rely as much as possible on your relationship with them, rather than courses and contracts. As they enter the high school years it's healthy for them to build autonomy with you in more of a mentorship role, and less of a manager role. If they get into some trouble, take a deep breath and handle the situation with compassion. Problems on social media generally don't come out of the blue. There will be warning signs, so pay attention, and don't hover or pry.

    It can be a scary world out there, but the vast majority of kids do just fine. (And I have one who is not doing just fine, so I'm not a Pollyanna.)

    I have a rising Junior (girl) who does NOT have Instagram (or any other social media).  3 years into HS, she still asks me to get it from time to time, and I say no, then we move on. Our agreement when our kids got their phones was NO SOCIAL MEDIA, PERIOD.  Do her friends all use Instagram? Yes, they do. Does she sometimes feel left, out? Sometimes. But they also text and Facetime and so does she. Do I feel badly for her? Absolutely not. There are SO many studies out there that show how bad this is for teens (and girls in particular), like this one: Managing the Effects of Social Media on Teen Girls | [email protected]. Trust me, there are happy kids out there without it, Instagram is one tool of many to communicate, so you are not denying her the ONLY tool. My kid never stays up late or wakes up early to see who 'liked' her post and how many views it has, she wakes up and goes to school and socializes with her friends in person and no one cares whether she has it or not, and it's not what they talk about. She's the most well adjusted and happiest of her friend group I believe for NOT having social media. Please do some research before you make that move! Good luck!

  • Family Education and Digital Citizenship

    (1 reply)

    We're looking for a speaker to talk to families at my kids school about digital citizenship, internet saftey etc. Does anyone know anyone or have any recommendations? Common Sense Media is not an option for us unfortunately. 


    I just went to see a screening of the documentary "Screenagers".  While it is not in depth in these topics, it is a good starter for the current issues with the challenges facing parents, kids, and families in our digital age.  You can google them to see where screening in your area are being held, or maybe contact them to host a screening.  I wish there were more resources out there on this topic, as it is one of the biggest issues facing our modern age.

Archived Q&A and Reviews



Safe email for 11-year-old?

Feb 2009

My 11 year old is wanting an email account and I'm wondering if any providers are safer than others in filtering out spam and phishing emails.

We use Gmail for our 12-year-old. They seem to do a good job of screening out spam, and you also have the option of having a copy of every e-mail received forwarded to your own mailbox. eh

For safe email for kids check out Zoobah. You can set filters for just about everything, have copies of ingoing and outgoing sent to you, or not. And the cost is about $1 per month. You can adjust the spam filter too. My child has never gotten any kind of junk, solicitations, or inappropriate emails. They have a different 'look' for kids and for teens. We love Zoobuh! anonymous

Internet Safety for 14 Year Old Daughter

March 2008

Hi - I'd really appreciate advice on the following issue, which is how to protect my daughter from potential sexual predators while she surfs the net and goes on sites like Skype. Last evening, after a really boring Sunday at home all alone (by choice, after rejecting the few ideas we had of things to do), our daughter was spending time on Skype, as she often does. Until now, her conversations have been limited entirely to her best girlfriends, who are also in 8th grade. We have two computers networked together, in my office (she does not have a computer in her room) and I came into the office and began to check my email and noticed (thanks to an icon on my toolbar) that she was on Skype chatting with someone whose name I didn't recognize. Asking her about it, she said, oh it's just some nice person (she assumed a female) who shared her interest in movies. They were comparing notes about favorite films and in the course of so doing, my daughter revealed that she's 14 and lives in California, and the other person shared that ''she'' was 27, living in Thailand, doing ''volunteer work.'' She asked my daughter if she had a camera (!!!) and then my daughter asked me if we had a Webcam in our new computer. I quickly insisted that she stop the conversation and she resisted that and continued chatting for another 15 minutes or so, until I really forced her to leave the computer and get to bed (by now, almost 10:30 pm on a school night). I then blocked the name of this unknown person from her Skype messages but am new to Skype and am not sure whether or not it worked. I'll check later today. Our kid has always and only been around trustworthy adults and is trusting, naive and vulnerable. She's also a stubborn, increasingly independent teenager who doesn't want to be given rules or have her freedoms curtailed. The red flags were, to me, immediately obvious. So I'd really like some guidance navigating these new waters. I don't really know how to set parental controls in all of the places she might visit; I don't know how to impress upon her the cunning of all of the nuts worldwide who are surfing for young vulnerable teenage girls (or boys for that matter) online. I've been looking for some clear guidelines online and have checked the Digest archives for a past discussion on this, but neither has offered the concrete help I'm hoping to find. Your insights into how to protect our daughter while still allowing her a lot of freedom on the internet would be invaluable. Many thanks.

Rather than trying to put barriers on the computer, we worked with our daughter on explaining what is dangerous and why.

We established only simple, basic guidelines - no addresses, no phone numbers, no meetings. And for a long time we had an old New Yorker cartoon taped by the computer -- a big old Labrador at a desk with a computer, labeled: On the internet, no one knows you are a dog. If you don't know someone, for all you know they are a dog. All you have are words on a screen or pictures anyone can post.

But you will not always be on hand to monitor your child's actions, and there is no system that is fool-proof. Even if there were, there is always access to other people's computers to worry about. The conversation you reported does not necessarily mean she was dealing with a predator. It could have been an actual 27 year-old lady who doesn't have a good sense of how sensitive it is to deal with teenagers.

What you want is for your daughter to be clear on when a conversation should start the alarm bells ringing. She doesn't need for you to block this lady. All she learns from that is that you are ''mean.'' What she needs is an internal ''three strikes'' guideline for dealing with strangers. The question about a camera is strike one.

An important point to remember: the kids who get into the kind of desperate, scary trouble that makes headlines don't have someone reach into the computer screen and grab them. Instead they agree to pose for pictures they shouldn't, or to go meet strangers, and the like. If your kid is clear on issues like these, the computer isn't going to take her anywhere dangerous. also a mom

I am surprised about this issue. I will check this site too as we also have a webcam for our daughter to talk to her grandfather - but only on a private site - i am now going to have our computer guru limit the camera to just that - glad you raised the issue

I only have one thing to say about your limit settings - teens need them - this is one example of where parents need to be VERY clear and simply do what's right - take her off the site ALTOGETHER - you would do the same thing if she was being propositioned in a public place - in other words, if she was been harrassed in the park - wouldn't you go pick her up and put her in the car and drive away? Hope you tighten the reins a little - although the experience will have taught you both a lesson about how easy this happens. Maddie

Cyber safety for 'tweens

August 2006

As my kids get more savvy using the internet I am curious about how other parents are keeping their kids safe. Do you monitor your kids computer usage? Do you control their internet access? if so, how? Do you allow your kids to shop online at places like iTunes? Also, can you recommend a cyber safety seminar that can help me better understand the issues and how to address them? Thanks
technically clueless mom

1) The kids' computer is in a public place (kitchen desk) where we can see what they're doing, or at least check in easily.

2) We had a talk with our kids about internet safety; we want them to be partners in intelligent use. They understand why they should:
a) never use their email address to sign up for anything, including petitions, website sign-ins, etc. b) never open up email attachments c) never respond to email from someone they don't know d) never go to a chat room e) never forward chain letter emails or other internet garbage from friends. (They know how to check & for the multiple internet hoaxes and they have become adept at debunking the junk their friends send them)

3) If they want iTunes or other internet purchases, they ask me and I sign in with my account and deduct it from their allowance.

We tried a software filter/timer. My 10 year old then put together a hilarious PowerPoint presentation entitled ''why we should remove Content Barrier X from the computer'' which was very persuasive. The program prevented access to innocuous sites, blocked friends' emails and failed to correctly time usage.

Rather than being the ''internet police'', I am focusing on partnering with the kids in becoming savvy about internet use and abuse. This includes thinking about the choices their friends make in terms of websites and emails. They've let me know about a 10 year old who was corresponding with a stranger, an 11 year old visiting porn sites, a 13 year old forwarding malicious gossip, etc.

At the same time, I can't always rely on their good sense - I ''trust, but verify''. I occasionally check the ''history'' on the browser to see that they're not on inappropriate websites, and check their email inboxes (and trash) just to be sure they're not getting/sending to/from strangers.

I've talked to my 16 year old niece and gotten some good advice from her as well. So far my kids are not asking to do a MySpace account, but the 13 year old does have friends who have one. You might check out previous BPN postings about this issue and internet safety in general. Natasha B.

Last year I went to an internet safety meeting that was highly informative. The presenter was Officer Steve DeWarns, his phone number is 707 480 0327, his website is and his email is sdewarns [at] He was most informative and of the 2 classes I've been to, the most effective public speaker. I would highly recommend him to speak at your child's school and he does assemblies as well geared to 5th and 6th graders. I would book him early though because he is in high demand and he does this as a 2nd job (he's a full time police officer) formerly technically clueless mom

Limiting 12-year-old's access to email & chatrooms

Sept 1999

My 12 1/2 year old, 7th grade daughter has suddenly become very interested in communicating with her friends via email. What rules, guidelines, limits, warnings, check-ups do you recommend to keep her safe?

They all have free email addresses through aol. Now they want to get Netscape Instant Messenger. What is available along with these that I need to know about? One mother told me that if you get your own email address, you are then able to get into internet sites limited to over-18. What is Chat Room Navigation? What else should I worry about?

It's terrific to have a place like this to come to ask this type of questions. Thanks in advance. Barbara

Our family changed from pacbell to aol because I could set up my son with his own message center and limit his access to certain areas/subjects on the websites. He was getting into areas of the website which were not acceptable. However, I first started with the age group under 12 but then had to move to the next level. He can get instant messages from a friend.

Re: Internet concerns- AOL has parental controls you can set up that limit access to certain web pages. You can also set up a control that restricts who sends your child email. This one's tricky because I believe unless someone's on your list the email is blocked. This would eliminate some emails from friends (no horrible catastrophe). THe controls regarding the web are also a bit weird. My 13 year old son couldn't access the Stanford University web page to look up information about their summer music programs because Stanford also has information about sex or nude art or somesuch somewhere on their pages! Instant Messenger is like an internet phone call where you talk in real time with people via the computer. This is not an open chat room where anyone to chat with your daughter. My general approach is to accident proof the child rather than trying to make the world risk free. Set up some suggested guidelines and check in regularly about what she's discovered surfing the net. There are some good search tools you can show her so she can use the internet to answer questions she's curious about. Ultimately that's more compelling than pornography sites or whatever else you fear she'll encounter.- WR

You might check out a web site: It contains A Parent's Guide to the Internet and has some good advice for parents and for children. You can purchase screening software, e.g., Flashnet has something called Cybersitter, which they say will screen out 80-90% of the objectionable material. AOL may also offer screening for free. Even with the screening, your child should be instructed to immediately delete, without opening, any incoming e-mail with an address that she does not recognize. You should also monitor her use, with random checks when she is online, and consider putting the computer where the screen can be easily viewed by you or other family members.

In my opinion, one of the biggest dangers of internet use by teens is that they can become addicted to online chatting. Picture a teen's typical use of the telephone multiplied many times as several friends can be online at once, chatting back and forth. I would suggest setting time limits from the outset--e.g., no more than 30 minutes per day and only after all homework is completed. I have found my own child online aftter midnight, when I thought she was asleep, still chatting with several of her friends!

Whatever limits you put on phone calls, you should put on chat rooms. In terms of surfing the web, I apply TV rules. TV watching, video games, and playing around on the computer all count toward my kids' 30-minute daily quota, which is low right now pending the first progress report. If grades go up, so does the daily quota.

My kids are older than yours, so this may not apply to you, but I give my 2 boys (14 & 17) a lot of freedom about what they do on the web. For example, after a discussion on this list a few months ago, I told them that I'd heard from other parents that teenage boys look at pornography, it's pretty normal, and that I am not going to forbid it. I gave them my views - that I think it might give them the wrong idea about what real women are like, and that I think it's mostly pretty demeaning to women. I told them I do not want to ever want to come across it accidentally on the computer, just as I don't want to find Playboys lying around the house. But as long as they do it privately, I won't say anything about it. This has worked out really well, and they keep their own Bookmarks separate from mine. Incidentally every once in a while I secretly check on what they are doing by looking at their bookmarks and history. It's about 80% sports, games, and music, 20% porno sites (pretty much run-of-the-mill T type stuff).