Since my post “My 12 Year Old Was Blackmailed for Nude Photos” came out, I have had a lot of people comment and get in touch with me about issues their children — or children they know — have encountered online. For example, a friend got in touch about her nephew that was playing with another child that had a hand-me-down phone with the Wi-Fi code still on it and used it to access porn. They were six and eight.

And the woman who e-mailed me after reading the article to tell me that her 13-year-old daughter had been communicating with a sex offender for four months and was just about to meet with him when the mom found out. How did this happen when the child didn’t own a phone? Her daughter’s friend was kind enough to let her have access to SnapChat on her iPad, which her parents never monitored.

And the parent that contacted me telling me that her two sons had figured out how to connect their Xbox to the Internet and were innocently chatting with people all over the world. Based on the communication and the questions they were asking, she was convinced that these gaming players were certainly not the eleven-year-old boys they were pretending to be.

And the mother who told me the article prompted her to check out her daughter’s photo gallery where she found dozens of inappropriate pictures she had been sexting to some boys in her class. She had already blocked access to apps, but did not regularly monitor her phone.

And the grandmother who installed monitoring software — but did not set it up correctly — so her grandchildren were having unfettered access to the Internet. In her words: “Thank God I did not have a heart attack when I walked in and saw what that bull was doing to that goat.” Yes, I giggled at that one a little bit because I think I saw that video too, and I’m thankful that’s all that it was.

In today’s digital world where kids are often more savvy than the adults — and Internet access is everywhere — parents must use a combination of technology tools, conversations and education to protect our children.  If nothing else, the examples above underscored one thing to me: the Internet is a battlefield and it is taking good parents down.

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Our kids are on to us too. It’s not enough to just monitor, spy or control access. Don’t be fooled into thinking it won’t happen to your child.

According to McAfee’s 2014 study about Teens and The Screen, youth use social networking sites they believe their parents are not members of or are trolling. YouTube is the most frequented site, with 97% of respondents visiting the site or app on a weekly basis. YouTube was closely followed by Instagram, with 92% of respondents visiting the site or app on a weekly basis. That’s not counting that awful anonymous Ask.FM site or the Web-based messengers SnapChat and Kik.

So what should you do it you catch your child doing something inappropriate online?

  • Don’t freak out. When our kids get deep into trouble, they often make poor decisions because of the fear they have of facing the wrath of their parents. So, most kids don’t confide in their parents about cyberbullying, Internet stalking, sexting or seeing inappropriate content online for fear of losing Web access or worse yet, their phones. Treat using a cell phone or the Internet like you would approach drinking and driving – there is no instance about social media where they should be scared to tell you what they have done or contact you to help get them out of trouble. If you do find out that your daughter is communicating with someone they shouldn’t, or your son is watching something inappropriate, it’s not the best time to go bat crazy, because you don’t want them to be fearful of coming to you again — when it could be really important. Take the access or device away, take a deep breath, and think about it.
  • Make sure the punishment fits the crime. There is a difference between a nine-year old accessing porn and a young girl sending nude photos to a stranger. In the first example you may merely restrict access to the Net (or only allow access to Web-enabled devices when you are present) and the second obviously is much more serious with potential legal consequences. In any case, don’t overreact and say something like: “You aren’t allowed to go online until your 16!” We all know that’s never going to happen, so take your time to come up with a punishment that gets the message across. And remember, restricting access or taking a device away is not the only punishment option either. Treat it as any other broken trust issue. Regardless,I encourage you to sleep on it. Nothing makes a kid sweat like waiting to be punished.
  • Continue the conversations. You may think that your kid just broke the rules and didn’t listen to you, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes kids get themselves into trouble online without even realizing it, particularly when they are younger. It’s important to continue having the discussions about online safety even after you have restricted access and hopefully solved the issue. And keep the tone open and concerned, not shocked and angry.
  • Consider the overspill into “real life.” In the case of the young boy who was accessing porn, I think we can all agree that most kids are curious about sexuality and the body parts of the opposite sex. This is really no different from when a son finds his dad’s Playboy magazine hidden in a drawer. However, although we can’t quash their curiosity, we should channel it in more appropriate ways. When you catch your child doing something like this, use it as an opportunity to open a conversation, and more importantly communicate your opinions on the subject and values. “Do you have any questions you want to ask me about what you saw” or “I know you are curious, but I don’t believe that those sites treat women with respect.” In the case of finding out your child is sexting or communicating with a stranger, find out if she is trying to fill a void in her life or having problems socially. Predators often lure in kids who may be feeling insecure about something, such as their looks, social status or relationships.
  • Consider a third-party. It’s often a tough pill for us parents — especially those of us who think we have solid relationships with our children — to swallow, but sometimes our kids cannot believe that we understand what they are going through in today’s world. It’s often helpful to have someone other than you or your parenting partner discuss issues related to online safety with your son or daughter. It can be a younger teacher, aunt, cousin, clergy, neighbor or even a family therapist, should you need to go that route, but the most important thing to remember is to get the message through to your child.
  • Remember the point. There has to be a line between protecting our kids and teaching them to be responsible. It is irrational to think that restricting all access to the Internet will teach your kids how to be responsible digital citizens. Instead, we need to teach them how to be safe, demonstrate the dangers, communicate the rules and encourage responsibility. But these things do not have to be completed all at once. If your child runs into a problem online, consider going back a few steps. Allow them access to a cell phone that can only be used for phone communication (yes, they are still out there), put the computer in a central location, block access to apps and tell them you will be using monitoring tools until they earn your trust back.

Have you ever caught your child doing something inappropriate online? What advice can you give other parents?

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