Guiding online activity requires open communication

What adult has not heard the sigh from a young person who has just been reminded of the need to be cautious around others they meet?

The sigh is often followed by the young person's frustrating reassurance: "Don't worry, I've got this." The drive for independence is a natural part of human development, as is the adult inclination to protect and support our young people. While admonitions to not talk to or take candy from strangers was never enough to equip our youth with the skills they needed to stay safe, today's world demands skills to navigate not only in-person encounters but encounters online as well.

A quick review of websites reveals plenty of effective online safety strategies to share with young people. One successful tactic that parents often choose is to create a "top five" set of rules for online interactivity. Some of those rules may be:

1. Never post personal information or photographs.

2. Always use the most secure level of privacy settings.

3. Never share passwords and change them often.

4. Remember people online may not be who they say they are.

5. If anything seems wrong, scary or weird about a conversation or meeting online, trust your gut and go to a trusted adult for help.

Creating a top five is a great start. It is simple enough for young people to remember and manageable enough for an adult to monitor and support. Earlier this year, pediatric psychologist and researcher Claire Coyne from Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago shared the results of a poll conducted with 2,000 parents regarding their concerns and challenges about parenting in the online age of social media.

One thing she reminded adults was, "Parents also need to think about what they are modeling for young people in their home."

Clearly examining one's own adult behavior is more challenging than creating and sharing a top five list of safety strategies. Adults may begin by considering their online use in terms of time spent and adherence to the same safety practices expected from young people. It is important to remember that adults are not immune to online exploitation and influences that can negatively impact their physical, social and mental health.

The Lurie poll of parents revealed that 45 percent of parents shared concerns that because of online activity their young people were becoming sexualized too soon and 41 percent expressed concerns about exposure to sexual predators. These are reasonable concerns and require adults to consider whether they are "askable" adults. It may not be easy to discuss sexuality with tweens or teens, but it is vital for their safety and health. Young people have to have an "askable" trusted adult in their lives. These adults do not need to have all the answers but rather need to be willing to listen and work together with the young person to find information and solutions.

Young people who have trusted adults in their lives may still respond to safety reminders with, "Don't worry, I've got this," but having ongoing meaningful communication, even about sensitive topics like sexuality, makes it more likely that those young people are right, they've "got this." It also makes it more likely that when those young people are unsure or in trouble, they will seek and trust rather than dismiss their adult's input and counsel.

- Betty Barsley-Marra is a health educator at Candor Health Education in Hinsdale.