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.
2. Online relationships have different boundaries.
3. Shame is one of the biggest obstacles to seeking help.
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
2. Listen Often
3. Avoid Shame
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.