Together We Can Prevent the Sexual Abuse of Children
Online Safety Planning During COVID-19
Dear Prevention Community,

First and most importantly, we hope all of you are well and that those you love are safe. As so many things are being impacted in our lives and our children’s lives, we know that there are so many day-to-day worries on our minds. 

At the same time, Stop It Now! is asking you to keep prevention a priority through it all. We hope to continue to contribute tools and strategies for navigating these unprecedented times. In this moment, more families are “stuck” at home, which gives us the opportunity – and the necessity – to strengthen our safety planning for children.  
See our previous email with advice for selecting emergency child care safely.
In particular, all of us – including children – are turning to the internet now more than ever for news, comfort, education and distraction. The internet is an unmatched tool for children, but there are innumerable risks that come with unfettered access to this world. From pornography to adults with unsafe intentions, from scammers to same-aged bullies, there is just so much online that is age-inappropriate or harmful to children’s development. 

Even in this difficult time, you can still Prepare for Internet Safety in your home. Our resource guide on Internet and Digital Media Safety Prevention may also help you as you find your family and loved ones online more often. 

And we are seeing heroes pop up in our Helpline box: adults who recognize youth users in adult chats and games are asking how to help that youth. Earlier this week, we heard from a young adult who is worried about a child’s misrepresentation of their age and mature sexual conversation online. They wrote to us asking what they can do to keep this child safe, especially since the child seems to be unaware of the incredibly risky situation they’re in.  (Read the full question and our response here on the Ask Now! Advice Column. )
But prevention is the best strategy. Here are 6 quick tips you can put into use today to keep children safe online:

  • Model healthy technology use. Children mimic the behavior they see around them. Be mindful of how and when you’re using your devices, especially now, when stress levels are running high. Try enacting some “screen-free time” consistently in a way that makes sense for your family, such as during dinner, two hours before bed, or for the first three hours every morning. 

  • Find out more about the parental controls built in to the computers, gaming systems, phones and tablets in your home. You can use these to limit screen time, block inappropriate material and enforce guidelines around internet and technology use. Know the controls’ limits, too. They’re not fail-safe, but they are a good tool in your toolbox.

  • Supplement controls with conversations. Talk about privacy, respect and appropriate online behavior. Let children know that bullying is not allowed, and that if they’re being targeted online they should come to you. Teach them that what they put out on the internet or in a text can’t be taken back, so always take a minute (or five) to consider whether they’d be okay with their classmates, parents, and grandparents all reading or looking at what they’re about to post. (If not, a good rule is to keep it to themselves.) Make sure they understand that they can never truly know someone online, so they should never share their last name, school’s name, birth date or address, and they shouldn’t use any email that uses their last name or school’s name either. Some parents find it helpful to have a set of rules specific for internet and technology use that address things like amount of time spent online, allowable content and encourages conversations if their child finds concerning material.

  • Check-in with the children in your life. What’s their favorite thing to do on their gaming system, tablet or laptop? Have them show you what they enjoy doing, and be curious about their online interests. If you have a free hour, ask them how to play their favorite game and spend some time learning it with them – and making mistakes. Make sure they know that you’ll periodically look at their internet history and want to know about any new friends they make online. Ask them if they’ve seen anything confusing or inappropriate they want to check-in with you about, and don’t shame them for sharing something that made them feel uncomfortable.

  • Consider their developmental stage and how this affects the way the go online. If they’re 6 or under, likely they’re using the internet passively: watching a show or movie, or playing an educational game with a parent. Normalize technology use out in the open, keep devices in a common area, and periodically look at what your child is doing. However, older children have access to the internet, tablet or gaming systems in ways that are more independent, so they require additional discussions about how to navigate the complex world they encounter. Consider how a child’s strengths and limitations also may affect how they interact online: for example, children with low self-esteem may be more susceptible to people who are manipulative, so use what you know about the children in your life to talk about “what-if” situations.

  • Finally, make sure that all the caregivers who are looking after the children in your life know what the technology rules are, along with the family safety planning rules. Continuity for children and youth right now can create a sense of safety and ease. When expectations are clear and consistent across the board, that can make transitions easier for children as well.
Even though so much is different, Stop It Now! Helpline counselors are still here to take your call during our regular business hours Monday through Friday 12pm-6pm EST at 1.888.PREVENT . If you’ve got a lot on your plate, you can also get in touch with us via LIVE chat or by sending us an email through our Get Immediate Help page . We’re continuing to answer your questions and concerns about children’s sexual safety and online safety planning, so don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
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