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7 Practical Tips for Parenting Teens in the Digital Age

Teens spend a lot of time online. In fact, according to Common Sense Media, they spend nearly one-third of their day consuming media. Given about 89 percent of U.S. kids own a smartphone and 45 percent say that they are constantly online, it’s becoming increasingly important for parents to have open and candid conversations about appropriate electronic use.

Unfortunately, these discussions aren’t happening as often as they should. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 40 percent of parents report regularly speaking with their teen about what to share online and only 36 percent report frequently speaking with them about their online behaviors toward others. These numbers indicate that many kids are navigating online with virtually no parental direction, and that’s not a good thing. According to a survey by Kaspersky Lab, many parents aren’t aware of what their kids are doing online. Here are some key findings from the survey:

— 44 percent of kids ages 8 to 16 years have hidden their online activity from their parents; and the proportion increases as kids get older.

— 70 percent of parents whose kids have hidden their online activity are unaware of what their kids are doing on the internet.

— 14 percent of kids who cover their tracks online have locked a device with a password their parents didn’t know.

— 13 percent of kids have accessed inappropriate content when their parents were out.

— 10 percent of kids admitted to deleting their browsing history after each session.

— 22 percent said they have used anonymizers, or anonymous proxy tools, to make their internet activity untraceable.

— 14 percent reported that they downloaded applications that hid the apps they open.

[Read: A Parent’s Guide to Social Media.]

Surveys like Kaspersky Lab’s serve as stark reminders that parents need to have a visible presence in their kids’ online lives. By teaching kids early how to behave and interact online, we may be able to thwart problems like cyberbullying, which is associated with long-term mental health issues like depression and anxiety. With approximately 12 percent of U.S. kids saying that they have cyberbullied and 34 percent on the receiving end of that behavior, it’s apparent that we need to do a better job teaching youth how to behave online as well as what to do if they’ve been victimized.

Aside from cyberbullying, there are other online dangers, such as sexting and sextortion. Sexting is sending and receiving sexually explicit images, videos and messages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of kids ages 11 to 17 years said they’ve sent sexual photos of themselves, 27 percent said they’ve received them, and 12 percent said they’ve forwarded sexual images on to someone else (unbeknownst to the original sender). Although most kids don’t sext, those who do run the risk of their pictures getting leaked, which can lead to a mortifying, embarrassing and humiliating experience. Worse yet, those sexts could lead to sextortion, also referred to as revenge porn.

Sextortion is sexually exposing or coercing someone through the dissemination of explicit, embarrassing or intimate pictures. It’s basically blackmailing someone with their sexual media, and it’s a very serious offense that if caught could come with hefty legal consequences. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “sextortion is by far the most significantly growing threat to children”; and sadly, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 5 percent of youth report being victims of sextortion. Most victims know their perpetrator (and in some cases, it’s a romantic partner or ex-partner). According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, between 2013 and 2016, over 1,400 cases of sextortion were reported to the organization’s tip line.

From cyberbullying to sextortion, there’s a host of evolving online issues that make parenting more difficult in the digital age. Fortunately, there are some ways to stay connected and keep kids safe.

1. Begin conversations early. There’s no time like the present to begin speaking with your kids about their online behaviors. These conversations need to be a priority and occur regularly. Remember, teens spend more than a third of their day online, so it’s imperative that we take time to provide parental guidance to help them navigate the virtual world.

2. Stay current with what’s trending. Parents often report that they feel like they lack the technical skills to keep up with their child’s online behaviors, but respectfully, I’d say that’s simply not true. It’s easy to read parenting posts, set up internet alerts and stay on top of the technological trends of the day. You don’t need to be an IT expert to be in the loop and keep current regarding what your kid does online. Also, there are many organizations that offer assistance and resources to help parents feel less intimidated and more connected.

[Read: Sharenting: Do You Share Too Much About Your Children on Social Media?]

3. Write an acceptable use contract. Establish clear electronic device rules and guidelines as early as possible. Clearly identify unacceptable online behaviors as well as the consequences for violating the rules. Most importantly, be consistent with the terms of the agreement. If you don’t take the contract seriously, neither will your kid, and a good agreement will quickly turn into a joke.

4. Scour the internet. Conduct random internet searches of your kid’s full name and nicknames along with the location, like residential state or city, to see if you pull up any surprising information. Also, check for images and videos in case your kid was tagged in a post he or she didn’t know about. If you find inappropriate content, work with your teen to get it removed immediately. If need be, contact the service provider to help take down the content.

5. Set up safe passwords. Teach your kid to set up safe passwords containing uppercase and lowercase letters, out of sequence numbers and special characters (e.g. $, %, &, #). Teach them to never share their password with anyone other than a parent; and they should never use the same password for all of their accounts.

6. Teach the basics. Kids should understand that device ownership comes with a high level of responsibility. A great rule of thumb is for teens to treat others with the same respect and kindness online as they would offline.

7. Encourage your kids to report inappropriate behavior. In the event kids are victimized by cyberbullying, sexting or worse yet, sextortion, or if they are aware that it’s occurring, teach them to speak up and report it to website hosts and trusted adults. It’s important that we teach our kids to take a stand and not be bystanders.

We live in a day and age where kids need our help understanding the complexities of interacting socially online and offline. And they want our help perhaps more than we may even know.

According to the Kaspersky Lab survey, 75 percent of young people say they would like for their parents to speak with them about online dangers, 63 percent reported they would feel safer if their parents would talk with them about appropriate apps and websites, and 61 percent said they wanted their parents to restrict access to unsafe apps. Those numbers hold true with older teens, too.

The Kaspersky survey revealed 70 percent of 14- to 16-year-old teens would like for their parents to have conversations with them about online threats, and about half of them would even accept that some sites, applications and activities are forbidden. There’s no way around it: Kids want their parents to be involved, and likewise, parents need to be present as both adapt to living in the digital age.

[See: 10 Concerns Parents Have About Their Kids’ Health.]

On a positive note, the majority of kids are doing the right thing when they’re online. So, what we are currently doing to help our kids is definitely paying off!

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7 Practical Tips for Parenting Teens in the Digital Age originally appeared on usnews.com