Is your child safe online? Sexting, cyber-bullying and more

Jul 19, 2011

Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, chatted about issues such as sexting, cyber-bullying, parent-child contracts for internet usage and more.

What things can my wife and I do to protect our eleven year old daughter and not stifle her social development. She is very computer literate and has a good set of friends. We currently monitor her computer with parental tools, read her email and chats. These were a condition prior to our allowing her to have an email account. However, we worry that our ability to monitor her technologically will fall short unless we arm her with some other skills as well. So how do we prepare her for the possibility of issues with on-line without 'freaking her out?

Great question.  It's a good idea to combine tech tools like filters and monitoring devices (don't forget the History button!) as well as simply talking through issues and potential problems with her.  We also recommend using a Family Safety Contract to begin the conversation and to reach agreement on some basic do's and don'ts online.  You can get a contract from our website at and look under Resources.   I think it's great you are already talking things over with your daughter.  Ultimately its the filter between her ears that will be the most important tool she will ever have!

One of my pet peeves is people using the term "bullying" or "cyber-bullying". It makes the behavior sound bad, but no more annoying than a pinch or a tease. Instead, why not call it by the word we'd use if an adult engaged in similar behavior? If we use terms like harassment, assault, abuse, stalking, impersonation, etc., maybe kids (and some adults as well) will stop treating the problems with kid-gloves. Your opinion?

Great comment.  Bullying is the same whether it is done online or offline.  I prefer the term harrassment as it more accurately describes what's actually going on. 

How do you feel about censoring offensive and/or obscene websites such as 4chan,, and the like? Should preventing kids from visiting these be mainly the role of parents, or do government regulations have a place at the table?

I am deeply opposed to government censorship.  One person's offensive comment is another person's whistle blowing revelation.  Also, think of the Arab Spring.  Who's to decide what is "good" speech?  Far better for parents and teachers and other concerned adults to provide guidance and advice about what is acceptable behavior and to model that themselves.  And, of course, use filters and block what you as a parent consider to be against your own family values. 

Can you recommend a program we can install on our children's computer to block certain websites, results in google search, etc. that will make sense for our 9 and 12 year olds?

You should know that all of the major operating systems, search engines, ISPs and even mobile carriers have free or nearly free parental controls already built in.  If you use Microsoft's Vista, look for the Family Safety Settings.  Most people are not aware of the fabulous content controls in Google.  Click on Preferences and go to Safe Search and choose the level that's right for your family.  And, most importantly, ask your cell phone provider how to set up their controls on your child's handset.  The most useful one being the time limit controls that actually turn your kids phone off at night or during homework time!

Aren't our laws too archaic and puritanical? If a teen takes a nude photo of herself and sends it to her boyfriend, why should anyone be put on trial?

I rather agree with your point.  We support the moves by a number of states that are changing the way "sexting" is considered - from a case of child pornography with all the huge implications of that charge - to a misdeamenor, which makes the point that this is a serious issue, without criminalizing a rather stupid or naive action by your kid.

Ten years ago I attended an education conference where an expert on kids and computer safety told us that one of the best ways to keep our kids safe online was to place the computer in the most public spot in the house, a place where they knew that at any moment anyone could be standing behind them, reading the screen over their shoulder. It was advice that made a lot of sense at the time. But in these days of smart phones and iPads, is it possible to apply that same wisdom in a new way?

I hear you!  I was one of those suggesting the living room option for the PC.  It does still make sense, but we now have kids walking around with the Internet in their pockets.  It's also true that almost anything with a screen is now connected to the web.  It's important that you do your homework before buying your kids any new devices and ask the sales folks or look up reviews on the web to determine the best ways to set up controls and time limits.  And don't forget to sit down and talk with your kids about potential problems.  Our favorite tools is the Family Safety Contract that you and your kids can discuss, sign and date.  Check it out at and click on Resources.

My 15-year-old daughter posted a profile picture of herself in a bikini on Facebook. We spoke with her, gave her the opportunity to take it down and when she didn't, we did it for her. We spoke with her about the reasons for our decisions but she was very angry. How would your conversation go if you were us?

I feel your pain!  I also have a teenage daughter and we've had plenty of conversations about her online behavior.  I think you just have to state very clearly and simply how you feel about what she's done and what you'd like her to do about it, knowing that at 15, she may very well not do it!  She will hear your values and it will go in, even if what she does seems to contradict what you've asked her not to do.  You could always say that there will be consequences in the future if she does this or worse again.  Like taking away her online priviledges for a day or more.  Keep it relevant, respectful and related.  And don't take it personally!  You and she will survive the teen years, I promise!

How big of a role do you think parental punishment should play in regulating and correcting children's online behavior?

I think it is very important to sit down with your kids and set the parameters for their online use.  Do this from a young age and repeat every year or so.  Use a parental safety contract if that helps.  And if your kids cross the line, then use consequences that they clearly understand, even if they hate to have them imposed. 

Most of the advice I have read or have seen online is for parents whose children are not yet online or in the early stages. Unfortunately at our house the car is out of the barn and we did not, for example, require our kids to have us as friends on fb and now its too late e.G. 16 and 14 we have basic safeguards inplace like no computers in bedrooms and we have to sign in for them to use the laptop and we discuss cyber issues and examples of things that should not be done. What advice do you have for parents of older teens who think they are invincible anyway?

As a parent of a 25 year old and a 15 year old, I completely get where you're coming from.  It's never too late to create some groundrules and set up expectations about how your older kids use the web in your house.  But it will have to be done in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.  Ask them to work with you to create a set of rules.  Try not to use fear tactics or threats, but do convey your own values as a family and how you trust them to live up to those values.  And don't forget to learn as much as you can about the web, smartphones, apps and the like.  Come from a place of some understanding and expertise.  And ask your kids to show you around their favorite online spaces and places.

To be honest, I am less concerned about my kids "safety" on the internet than I am in them completely wasting their time and destroying their high school GPA because they cannot remain focused on the computer. Looking back, if I could have found a school that forbid computer use for homework, I would have enrolled my kids in a heartbeat. (I have spoken with several long time high school teachers who have seen a decline in quality work since schools have started posting everything online and expecting students to work on the computer.)

I think you touch on an important point.  While I'm a big believer in using tech in education, I do see the potential of time wasting and distraction that unfocussed use of technology can bring.  There are a number of tools that let you block social networking sites and the like while your kid is doing their homework.  It's also advisable to have them switch off their phones and put their devices in a closet while their working.  You can also have their phones switch off (except for contact you and emergency services) during the hours they are at school.

I think you analysis of sexting and sending pictures is flawed. So let's say a teenager takes a picture of herself and sends it to her teenager boyfriend. . .you suggest it's ok if that' not considered child pornography and should only be a misdemeanor. What if that same pic gets inadvertently or purposefully expropriate by an adult? Does it then magically become childe pornography? If it's child porn when I view it, it should also be child porn when it's made. God forbid we expect our teens to act with decency and modesty. Some parents think that expecting that is tantamount to child abuse. I don't, I call it good parenting. Your thoughts?

I think we need to get some perspective.  A photo of a teen girl in a bikini is not child porn, nor should it be prosecuted in that way.   If a teen sends a naked photo of him or herself, that, too should not be considered a criminal offense.  It should be challenged, and their should be consequences for his or her actions - in court if needs be, but that same kid should not have a tag of sex offender follow them the rest of their lives.

I recently overheard my cousin talk to her 9 year old daughter about safety online. She framed the discussion the same way she would frame a discussion about physical safety: There are bad people that want to steal children, so don't talk to anyone you haven't met personally, don't believe people if they say "I'm a friend of your mom/aunt/best friend", tell me if a stranger starts messaging you, etc. I realized there are many parallels between online and "real world" safety, and I'm more capable of tackling this problem than I thought.

Yes!  i totally agree that you can use common sense language from the offline world to apply in the online space.  After all, our kids hardly know a distinction between the two.  And, of course, you as a parent are capable of tackling this.  Many parents are still too afraid of the technology and think they have nothing to say to their tech-savvy kids.  That's not true.  Go online with your kids.  Ask them to show you around. 

I think you misunderstood the question - I think the crux of the question was 'should parents be held responsible (i.e. punished) when their (minor) children misbehave online?'

Well, it depends on the behavior.  Are you suggesting that parents be hauled into court and punished in some way for what their kids have done?

What is the status of legislation regarding child pornagraphy and sexting? I know it is currently more than a misdeamenor.

The states vary widely on this.  Some have made some progressive moves to make sexting a misdeamenor while others are taking a more criminal approach.  For an updated list of what each of the states are doing, have a look at GRID - the Global Resource and Information Directory that we at the Family Online Safety Institute publish for free.  You need to sign up for it at and then scroll over the interactive map of the US and you can search by state.

From what I can tell, the largest area of concern is a phenomenon known as gangstalking. This is when an organized group of people use social networking and extend that interaction into everyday day life with the objective of harming a defined victim.

It's true that kids online lives bleed into their everyday lives, particularly at school.  What's happened on Facebook the night before is often played out the following day.  It's important that parents, teachers and school counsellors are aware of these new dynamics and talk with their kids and students about it.

As for the behavior you describe, it's important to tell your kids about how to report abuse when it happens online.  Facebook, YouTube and most of the social networking sites have powerful reporting mechanisms that can quickly handle the abusive and harassing messages that can flood into a kids's page or profile.

A child or teenager creating and distributing an inappropriate or nude picture of themselves is terribly sad and disgusting, but as Stephen suggests, this is not child pornography. They have not produced sexual content for the consumption of adults or for wide distribution, as pornography is intended for. It is important to realize that sexting is often meant to be "private," but ends up not being so due to abuse by the people that receive these messages. These people should also be prosecuted for a misdemeanor of distributing sexual content, and the action of spreading private images that are not yours are closer to pornography distribution than the original privately-intended picture. Stephen, your thoughts?

I agree.  A teen's naive action can be grossly exacerbated by others who want to spread images that they've come across in a hurtful way.  The bystander issue also comes into play here.  Kids or adults who come across these images of others, but don't do anything about it.  It's important that we stand up to bullying in any form and report stuff that we know to be harmful or hurtful.

There's a lot of nasty stuff out there on the Web, and a lot of it is an innocuous search or mis-click away. Do you feel the best way to protect our kids from viewing obscene or otherwise objectionable material is to directly monitor what they do online, install a parental filter, or promote laws restricting what sort of material can be posted on the Internet?

I far prefer parental controls, family safety contracts, school policies, etc, to legislation in this area.  It is very hard to craft a law about what content a minor (and that's everyone from 17 downwards) can or can't access or post.  Can we expect Congress to make the fine distinctions about what kind of images are acceptable or not in this space.  We need to create a sense of responsibility in ourselves and in our kids about how we behave online.  The best protection is modeling good digital citizenship to our own kids rather than promoting possibly censorious legislation that may be out of date as soon as it's passed.

What do you do when your kids' friends post pictures of them (and tag them) and you're not comfortable with the images? (Bikinis, seductress-type pics, etc.) We asked our daughter to untag her self and tell her friend not to post. Sometimes, I wonder if we should call the other kids' parents. Or is it just a losing battle?

First of all, Facebook and other social networking sites allow you to untag yourself in other people's photos.  The easiest way to figure this out is simply to Google (or Bing) "untag photo on Facebook".

I think there are times when it is appropriate to talk with your kid's friends parents.  I've certainly done so and will probably do so in the future.  It's not an easy conversation, though, and be careful to use simple descriptions of what's happened without rushing to judgement about the other kid or getting too emotional when discussing it with them.  It's also best to do this face to face or by phone if you can't arrange to meet up.  E-mail is not a good way to communicate this kind of delicate issue.  And certainly not texting! 

It seems that there are lots of questions about how to deal with kids already on the computer however, what advice to you have for parents with kids who do not yet use the computer? We have 3 preschoolers who are told that the computer is for work, but with our oldest going to kindergarden in the fall that may have to change (although we chose the neighborhood school that introduces computers in the later grades).

It's never too early to talk with kids about staying safe.  But you will need to keep it age appropriate.  I think it's wise to talk with your kindergartener about what might happen or stuff they might see, while not frightening them with warnings about predators, etc.  Technology is ultimately a brilliant teaching tool and will be increasingly integrated into your children's lives as they grow.  The very young kids seem to already have an instinctive understanding of the technology anyway!

Thanks everyone for a great discussion.  Don't forget to keep the lines of communication open with your kids.  Use filters and family safety settings, particularly for the younger kids.  Sit down and talk through a family safety contract with your kids and keep it on the fridge or near a computer that they often use.  You can find that and other interesting stuff at our website:

And, final thought, the online world is where our kids are going to spend the rest of their lives.  It's instinctive to them.  Let us parents get more comfortable with the tools and the wild and whacky places our kids go to so we can better communicate our values and wisdom to them.  Best of luck!  Stephen

In This Chat
Stephen Balkam
Stephen Balkam is the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC. FOSI’s mission is to make the online world safer for kids and their families. FOSI convenes the top thinkers and practitioners in government, industry and the nonprofit sectors to collaborate and innovate and to create a “culture of responsibility” in the online world.
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