Nurturing Digital Resilience: Talking to Kids About Relationships Online

While the internet offers vast opportunities for learning and connecting, it also presents potential risks, especially when it comes to sharing personal information. Particularly in chats, relationships, and dialog with other individuals in gaming communities, Discord servers, and private message threads, kids can be vulnerable to uncomfortable and dangerous situations. As children become more active online, it is imperative to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills to navigate the virtual world wisely. By initiating these discussions early and maintaining regular communication, we can empower our children to make informed decisions and cultivate a strong sense of self, safety and well-being.

Start Early, Communicate Often:

Begin conversations about online safety before granting regular access to digital devices. Create an open and non-judgmental environment where children feel comfortable discussing their experiences and concerns. Start by discussing what is appropriate and inappropriate to share online, emphasizing the importance of privacy and personal boundaries. While it can be tempting to rely on the parental features and settings for apps and devices, studies show that kids report safer interactions online if they are able to engage with “offline support systems” such as conversations with trusted adults. This foundation will help establish a solid framework for future discussions. Regularly acknowledge the information available online and consider conversation starters such as, "Sometimes people use the internet to find answers to their questions about puberty and bodies. Is there anything you want me to know - or questions you have - about answers you’ve found on the internet?” By initiating these discussions proactively, parents can establish trust and provide guidance for responsible online behavior.

Interview a Trusted Adult:

In our work at Health Connected and My Digital TAT2, we encourage teens to interview a trusted adult regarding sex, their bodies, and their relationships. Be prepared to answer interview questions with honesty and age-appropriate language. We notice that parents are not often ready to have these conversations, and they are afraid that if they bring up topics such as sex or relationships that they will be exposing their children to something they haven’t yet heard about. By engaging in this interview-style conversation, parents can address concerns, clarify doubts, and reinforce positive online behavior, all while letting the child direct the inquiry with their own questions. Having consistent, regular open-ended conversations about their online lives ensures that children have guidance and support while exploring the online world. This exercise is a chance to model how to search for information - for example, what safe, appropriate, and accurate websites do adults use when they don’t know the answer to a question? This exercise also helps bridge the knowledge gap between parents and children, creating a safe space for open dialogue. By fostering an open and non-judgmental environment, you encourage your child to turn to you for advice and help when they encounter challenging situations online.

Setting Boundaries and Understanding Power Dynamics:

One important aspect of online safety is discussing what is appropriate to share and what should remain private. Discuss with your child what is appropriate to photograph and share online, ensuring they understand the importance of respecting personal boundaries. Help them understand that certain personal information, such as pictures of their bedroom, school, or home, should not be shared, especially if it may compromise their privacy or safety. Encourage them to seek permission before sharing someone else's photo and remind them that consent is crucial in digital interactions. Remind your child that sharing personal information with friends online is not compulsory for a healthy friendship. Discuss scenarios where someone asks for personal information or photos that may compromise their privacy, and practice declining these advances. Teach them to recognize these situations and make informed decisions about what is appropriate to share online.

Addressing the Pressure to Share Nudes:

One of the most critical topics to discuss with your child is how to say "no" to pressure regarding sharing explicit content, such as nudes. Make sure to emphasize the importance of consent and the potential consequences of sharing such personal and private images. By discussing power dynamics, even among peers who are under 18, both inside and outside of school, you empower your child to make informed decisions and understand the potential risks involved.

It can be useful to reference resources such as One Love's "10 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship" to help facilitate these conversations. Emphasize the significance of respecting personal boundaries and the importance of saying "no" when faced with inappropriate requests, or even requests that just feel uncomfortable.

Living Your Values in the Virtual Space:

Engage your children in conversations about their virtual lives and how they align with their personal values. Explore the concept of healthy relationships in both online and offline contexts. Encourage critical thinking and empathy by discussing the impact of their online actions on themselves and others. By guiding them to make thoughtful choices, you empower them to navigate the digital landscape with integrity and respect.

Engage in discussions about how your child can live their values in the virtual space. Talk about the importance of treating others with respect, empathy, and kindness online, just as they would in face-to-face interactions. Encourage them to be mindful of their digital footprint and consider the potential impact of their words and actions on others.

The Importance of Media Literacy and Health Education in Schools:

Media literacy programs, particularly combined with Health Education, play a vital role in teaching children critical thinking skills when it comes to online sharing. However, these programs often lack adequate funding. It is critical to address the need for increased investment in school programs to empower children to filter out harmful content and actively participate in positive online discussions, particularly when it comes to relationships. Many states have nonprofit organizations, health education groups, and even law enforcement programs that are geared to educating kids in school in order to address these types of issues as kids grow, change, and build relationships.

In an increasingly interconnected world, it is essential for parents and families to guide their children on the responsible use of personal information online. By initiating conversations before regular digital device access, discussing healthy relationships and consent, and promoting media literacy and health education, we can empower our children to navigate the digital landscape with confidence and resilience.

Written by

Alexandria LeeNatali and Jennifer Mineer

Alexandria LeeNatali is the Executive Director of Health Connected, a San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit that provides comprehensive sexual health education programs for youth, parents, and education professionals.

Jennifer Mineer is the Executive Director of My Digital TAT2, a California nonprofit that works with communities of intergenerational tech users such as schools and healthcare facilities by empowering students, families, and educators to understand the role of technology and the impact of their online presence.