As a parent of three kids under the age of nine, requests for screen time and online gaming consume a lot of my time these days. Like most other parents, I am always weighing the risks and benefits of my children navigating online spaces independently – and it's a tricky balancing act.
A recent study of 18-20-year-olds in the U.S. found that 71% experienced at least one online sexual harm during childhood. As a parent, this is terrifying. I wish I could shield my children from these dangers forever – but we’re not helping our kids if we do not prepare them to navigate risks like these.
For eight years, I’ve worked at Thorn, a technology nonprofit dedicated to eliminating child sexual abuse from the internet. We conduct research to understand how kids are experiencing issues like online grooming, sending nudes, and sexting, and what the adults in their lives can do to keep them safe.
Here’s what we know:
1. It’s happening younger than most of us think.
- Kids report being asked for nudes online as young as age 9, and nearly 40% of teens think it’s “normal” for people their age to share nudes with each other.
- Even before puberty, kids are naturally interested in exploring their bodies and imitating older kids and adults. This is normal, healthy behavior – but the use of devices with cameras and access to people of all ages online can put them in unsafe situations.
2. Online relationships have different boundaries.
- Nearly one in four 9-12-year-olds reported having had an online sexual interaction with someone they believed to be an adult.
- For young people, categories like “stranger” and “friend” don’t translate online as parents expect. Children regularly connect with people they know only online through mutual friends, shared interests, and games — and they don’t consider them strangers. When interactions escalate from innocent to inappropriate, kids can feel overwhelmed and isolated.
3. Shame is one of the biggest obstacles to seeking help.
- 85% of kids who had their intimate images used as blackmail online said they avoided seeking help due to embarrassment.
- In an attempt to warn our children of the risks, we can inadvertently shame or blame them for the harmful action of others saying things like, "If your image gets out, it will be your fault for sharing it” or “You shouldn’t have sent it in the first place”. This approach can compound the potential for harm and lead kids to try to handle situations that are beyond their control.
Yes, children are likely to encounter these types of situations online – but there are steps you can take now to protect them. Build trust from an early age by talking to your kids about key safety topics to prepare them with skills before they encounter risky situations. Here’s what you can do today:
1. Start Early
- The early years are a critical time to start an ongoing dialogue about risky online situations, as younger kids tend to be more open and willing to share. You should begin talking about digital safety by age 7 – or even earlier, as many younger kids already have internet access via their own devices, shared family devices, or devices at school.
2. Listen Often
- Build a solid foundation of trust by approaching these conversations with empathy and understanding. Putting pressure on one big “ talk” makes things uncomfortable for everyone and may be less effective in creating a safety net.
- Parents can ask short, easy questions and invest in listening to their kids in moments when they’re willing to share about their online life and experiences so they’ll know when and how to encourage them to make informed decisions.
3. Avoid Shame
- Over 50% of parents say they would mostly or solely blame the child in the image if their nude was leaked. Parents and trusted adults can support their kids and help change our victim-blaming culture by affirming that their kids are never at fault if someone abuses, betrays, or tricks them.
The good news is that you are not alone. Thorn for Parents was developed last year in partnership with child development experts and NGOs, including FOSI, to help parents have more frequent, and judgment-free conversations with their kids about digital safety.
Now, when one of my kids asks for access to a new game or app, I take the opportunity to have a conversation about what online safety looks like in that environment. I speak openly about my concerns and what controls we need to put in place, using each request as a teachable moment.
Navigating these discussions can be overwhelming, but know that you are doing a great job and you don’t have to do everything at once. Start small, be patient, and remind yourself that small progress is still progress. Your child is listening, even if their body language suggests otherwise. There is no perfect way to navigate these conversations, so give yourself grace and know that this is a worthwhile journey.