Have you talked to your teens about the dangerous parts of the internet? Here's what parents should know.

By Christina Wood

Your teens are good kids. They get good grades, have friends you like, and stay active and interested in life. You aren’t worried. But they have a smart phone and a laptop. Like many teens, according to Pew Internet, they may be connected “almost constantly.” So, unless you’ve talk to them extensively and often about their digital lives, you may have no idea about what they have seen – or are about to see -- online.

Dr. John Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety is a clinical psychologist who has worked with many kids whose lives have been ruined by stumbling inadvertently into something nasty online. “I worked with a boy who was doing research for a paper,” he says, offering an example from his practice. The boy was in the seventh grade and a good student. He was home, working on a research paper for history. “He stumbled upon Pornhub,” says Duffy. “Because it was linked from a history site about politics. He clicked the link and very quickly became obsessed.”

He knew his parents wouldn’t approve. So he didn’t tell them. He believed no one would find out and that his porn obsession was hurting no one. “But he was using a tablet that was school property,” explains Duffy. “Eventually the school did an audit and saw what he was doing. He was expelled.”

The Psychological Damage Is Worse than You Think

Getting expelled is, obviously, bad. But if you consider, as well, the psychological damage of this porn obsession, the situation is worse. “Children will tell you that it’s no big deal,” says Duffy. “But it is very psychologically damaging. Kids are alarmed, freaked out, and upset by what they see, especially on porn sites.”

And porn isn’t even the worst of what kids can stumble into. “There are sites on the dark web where they show people dying,” says Duffy. “There is video of people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and getting shot. There is dashcam footage of people getting injured in car wrecks.”

This boy’s parents assumed, since he was home studying, he was safe. But parents of teens in the information age need to be aware that–with the click of a mouse–a teenager can go from Instagram to watching something they can’t handle. “Most kids just want to play Fortnite, scroll through Insta, and see what's happening on Snapchat,” explains Caroline Knorr, Parenting Editor at Common Sense Media. “Unfortunately, they will also come into contact with hate speech, porn, mean comments and other unsavory aspects of the internet.”

But, other than sign your teen on for years of therapy after they have been traumatized online, what can you do?

Talk to Your Daughter

If you are a normal human who hasn’t ventured too far into online nastiness, keeping your teen safe from may be a terrifying proposition. How can you talk intelligently about something you know little about?

It may be tempting to snatch the phone or laptop away, accuse your kids of mischief, or to pretend this is only happens to other kids. But that would be doing your youngster a disservice. They need help managing this. If it terrifies you, it will certainly terrify them. There has never been a time in history where access to so much knowledge – and so much filth – was so readily available.

Getting in front of the problem is not as difficult as it seems. This is like having the sex talk, except on a subject you know little about. Fortunately, though, you have an expert on living with technology as a teenager right there in your house. All you have to do is ask. “How many of us go to our kids and ask them to fix our phones,” says Dr. Rick Capaldi, Dr. Rick Capaldi, author of 21st Century Parenting: A Guide To Raising Emotionally Resilient Children In An Unstable World. “It is amazing what a kid will tell you if you ask.”

The trick here is to listen to the answer without freaking out, lecturing, laying down the law, or responding with punishment. “You have to ask from a place of genuine curiosity and refrain from responding with a police action,” says Capaldi.

Your goal should be to offer help and guidance, get a sense of what’s going in in the otherwise invisible world of your kid’s online world, and to become a resource your teen can turn to if they encounter something scary or dangerous.

“I have seen parents jump down their kids throat for doing exactly what every other kid does and has always done,” explains Duffy. “That isn’t going to work. And it isn’t going to provide your teen with the adult resource they need.”

So bring it up. Start a conversation. Keep your cool. Become the family that can talk about anything be it sex, online porn, hate speech, propaganda and fake news, conspiracy theories, mean people, and human trafficking. It will bring you closer and it will keep your kids safer.

Not sure what to ask? Here are some talking points.

It doesn’t really matter where you start. It matters that you start talking about this early and often – just as with the sex talk. But here are a few ideas to get this conversation rolling.

This is the browser you use if you want to access the Dark Web, the part of the web that is not indexed by search engines. The Dark Web is where a smorgasbord of online crime happens. You can buy stolen identities, hacked accounts, drugs, and more. It is a hotbed of criminal activity. But it also has a legitimate side. It’s where people who live in oppressive countries go to talk anonymously. Asking about the Tor browser is a sneaky way to find out how much your kids know about the Dark Web. If they know nothing about it now, it’s likely they’ll find out. So it’s a good idea to talk to them about the dangers out there before someone else takes them on a tour.

Ask this question to start a discussion about misinformation and the reliability of sources. There is a lot of misinformation out there. It ranges from silly legends to outright propaganda to conspiracy theories. It is very important to teach kids – and ourselves -- to evaluate the sources of information to avoid being controlled by crazy conspiracies or to fall into false belief systems. Once a person believes a falsehood, it is hard to bring them back to reality. Prevention is important here.

You might be shocked by some of the tales you might here in response to this one. Maybe your teen is a defender of the weak, someone who has strong opinions about human rights, or has, in fact, been on the receiving end of online harassment. It is shockingly common. “Make sure they know how to block and report people who are threatening or obvious loose cannons,” suggests Knorr.

You should absolutely use a filtering system such as the Circle by Disney or the filters that come with the router you have. (Newer routers have built-in filtering that allows you to block pornography, hate, and other hazards from getting to your kids’ devices.) But don’t do it without talking to your teens about it. Explain that you are trying to keep them safe, not to keep them from the information or people available to them. Filtering the dangerous stuff while they are using your Internet connection is like putting on training wheels until they are old enough to handle the unfiltered world.