Creative Child

Keep Your Middle Schooler Safe Online

by Rebecca Eanes

Middle school has always been a trying time for kids. As puberty begins, middle schoolers must deal with some big physical changes. As their brains continue to develop, they become more self-aware and have a greater understanding of the world around them and how they fit into it. They’re also working through a period of major emotional and social growth, often dealing with peer pressure and bullies and navigating complex social interactions. In addition, research has shown that middle schoolers also often take a hit academically, showing that “students moving to middle school suffer a sharp drop in achievement that persists through grade 10. As if all of that weren’t enough for a child to handle, there’s a new set of difficulties that we didn’t have to deal with when we were middle schoolers, and that’s navigating the online world and learning how to stay safe in it.

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According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 76% of teens ages 13-17 are using social media, and there’s a growing number of tweens using it despite age restrictions. Moreover, 91% of teens text with their friends. With the rise of texting and social media use among tweens and teens, there comes a rise in cyberbullying. A concerning 60% of kids say they have experienced some form of cyberbullying and 90% don’t inform a parent. Therefore, it’s really important that parents keep an open line of communication with their children and remain engaged to help guide and support them in the virtual world.

In addition to cyberbullying, kids face the threat of online predators who try to lure kids into inappropriate conversations or even face-to-face meetings. These predators may send obscene material to your child or request that kids send them pictures. They may seek out information such as where your child lives, visits, or goes to school.  Online predators can lurk in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect, such as online video games like Fortnite and apps targeting kids such as TikTok.

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As if cyberbullying and online pressures weren’t enough for parents to worry about, suicide instructions are being found inside YouTube Kids and YouTube videos. Images and instructions for self-harm are also always just a click away. Children who deal with mental illness must be particularly careful online.

So, the question is how can we keep our middle schoolers out of harm’s way in a dangerous virtual world? Here are five tips for keeping them safe.

1. Talk with your kids early and often about online predators and tell them what they should do in specific situations. Remind them that, while most people are friendly, they must be on guard against predators. Teach them what to look for, such as someone who asks personal questions or tries to get to personal in any way, someone asking for specifics such as their name and location, and anyone they don’t know who is flattering them. Teach them to be wary of talking to anyone online that they do not personally know and to always tell a parent or trusted adult if anyone is making them feel uncomfortable. Also, make sure your child understands that people are not always who they portray themselves to be. Predators can pretend to be kids playing a video game or even use other real kids in order to get to them. If it feels fishy, don’t talk to them and tell a parent. 

2. Teach kids to protect their privacy by securing all accounts, creating unique passwords, and not accepting invitations or requests from anyone they don’t know.

3. Talk to them about how to identify online scams. Requests asking for money or asking to give you money are both red flags as is asking for personal information.

4. If your child is cyberbullied, remain calm and listen with empathy. Document everything and report the incident to the school administration. Take screenshots of cyberbullying that occurs through email, texts, or social media. Also talk with your child about reporting cyberbullying that they see happening to other kids. 

5. Pay attention to who your child hangs out with, what apps their using, and who they’re texting. Create your own social media accounts so that you can follow/friend your child. Look into parental control software. Set appropriate limits as there is a greater chance of bullying if your child has unrestricted and unsupervised access.

Open, honest communication is your best defense against online threats, but this requires a healthy, connected relationship with your tween or teen. Let them know that they can come to you with anything without fear. Work on building your relationship through positive interactions and quality time together, and always be a safe place for your child to come to.

Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of multiple books including Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of two boys. 

 

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