Whether for school or entertainment, children are getting online earlier and earlier these days, with some kids taking to the internet as early as age 3. The internet has become such a defining part of our lives that for many kids it’s hard to imagine a world without it, and while some parents prefer to keep the kids offline for as long as possible, the fact is that for most of them, they won’t be able to do so for long.

So how do you talk to your children about the internet and keep them safe online?

Start the Conversation

The first step to having a meaningful conversation about the internet with your children is to be proactive. As soon as your child starts using a computer, cellphone, or mobile device, it is time to talk with them about online behavior, safety, and security. Just as you would with a new toy or game, you should explain to them what they should or not do on the internet. Obviously, you won’t be able to go over everything, but it is vital to set some ground rules and expectations early on.

This shouldn’t just be a one-off discussion mind you. Look for opportunities in everyday life to talk to your kids about being online and how to go about it safely. Maybe they’re watching a TV show where a teen uses the internet, or perhaps they bring up a story of a friend playing video games online. These can be good opportunities to discuss how they can do these things safely or gauge how much they already know. New stories on internet-related topics can also be good conversation starters, giving you an opening to talk about cybersecurity, internet scams, or cyberbullying.

Sharing & Caring

Once your children have a basic understanding of how they should behave online, it makes sense to touch on more specific topics of importance. For instance, the internet is all about sharing things: information, pictures, etc., but there are some things that they absolutely shouldn’t be sharing online. Teach them the importance of setting boundaries, such as not sharing anything too personal (especially identifying information, passwords, etc.) or any that might hurt someone’s feelings. It is also essential to stress that it is almost impossible to remove something once it’s on the internet, so kids must be cautious about what they share or who they share it with.

Being a Good Online Citizen

Something that even the most tech-savvy of people can sometimes forget when online is that, behind the avatars and usernames, everyone you encounter online is a real, flesh-and-blood person with feelings to consider. Going online can feel like stepping into a separate world, so one of the most important lessons you should teach your child is that they shouldn’t treat them any differently.

Just as you should encourage good behavior around others, remind your children to treat the people they meet online with kindness and consideration. Many people abandon the Golden Rule while online, but it is just as important online as it is in person. Just like with face-to-face interaction, you just need to teach them to be empathetic, think critically, and be careful about sharing personal information, especially with people they don’t know.

Are They Ready?

The internet offers tremendous opportunities for education, entertainment, and enrichment, but it also comes with its fair share of dangers. Yet by having meaningful conversations with your children about the internet and how to use it, you can ensure they are using the online world in a way that’s safe and positive for their emotional development and mental health. Just start early, set clear boundaries, and reassure them they can always talk to you!