Teaching Boundaries in an Online World
Michaela Coglianese has been with Children’s Center for over five years, where she practices forensic interviewing and supervises the forensic interview team.
Guest post by: Michaela Coglianese, Children’s Center Lead Forensic Interviewer
Nowadays, talking about the internet is like talking about breathing. Everyone has a smartphone, a tablet, a computer, a smartwatch, or all of the above. If you ask a child or a teen about the “real” world, don’t expect them to instinctively know you mean the “offline” world. So much of our kids’ lives are happening online that it has become a real world for them. But do you know what your child is doing when they are online?
Internet can be helpful, but it can be also a pitfall of bad decisions that never really go away. Once something is posted online, it develops a life of its own. So what do we want to teach our kids?
First, we want to start young. Research tells us that younger and younger children (under ten years of age), have access or seek inappropriate material online. We encourage parents/caregivers to sit with their children when they watch TV to help explain and contextualize what they see and believe. Parents/caregivers should do the same when kids are online. Teach them that things online might not be true or accurate (just like you would if you are explaining any of the cartoons or action movies), but that anything done online can stay there forever and is hard to get rid of.
Education about the internet and especially the sexually inappropriate aspects of the internet should not be done without a proper education about body boundaries and body safety rules. We need to help children understand that it’s not ok for others (both children and adults) to look at and touch our private parts, to ask or take pictures of our private parts, and it’s not ok for us to do this to others. Then this can expand into the online world and how people online should not be asking for naked pictures of us, nor should we ask that of others.
As noted above, education about the internet should not be put off until the child is a teen, as by then it’s highly likely they will not only come across sexually inappropriate materials but will also have experienced being asked to send nude/ sexually explicit pictures of themselves. Anecdotal evidence shows that children as young as 9 years old might be asked to send pictures online.
It’s also important to create an atmosphere of openness about being online. Establish a culture of openness about search history early-on by regularly checking their online activities and emphasizing the need to keep them safe. You might also require that they use their devices in a common area with others around. If you start young, it is possible to build self-regulation as your child grows older and becomes more independent.
Sometimes as adults, we have a strong reaction when we see that a child accessed pornography either purposefully or on accident. Our go-to is to threaten and punish by removing a device. However, this might create an excitement of something forbidden that might entice children to find other avenues to access inappropriate material. Instead, it’s more beneficial to talk about family values and expectations. One of those expectations should include not looking at pornography.
While it might be a bit uncomfortable, we suggest that you come up with a “porn plan” for your family. This plan should include- a designated adult who the child/ teen can approach should they come across something that is sexually inappropriate/ explicit. The expectation for the child would be that if they come across something they don’t understand, or it makes them feel uncomfortable, they will seek out this adult for help and guidance.
This person should be able to talk calmly with the child about what the child has seen and how it may or may not reflect relationships in the real or offline world. It is important that this designated adult is aware of this responsibility and is comfortable talking to children about it in an age-appropriate way and without being punitive.
For more information on internet safety for kids, see these great resources:
- Protect Young Eyes https://protectyoungeyes.com/
- Common Sense Media: Age- Based Media Reviews for Families commonsensemedia.org
- Family Online Safety Institute fosi.org