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How do I teach my kids to protect themselves online?

Empower your kids to recognize and respond to red-flag feelings so they can keep themselves safe when you're not there.

Every one of us is willing to do whatever it takes to keep our kids safe. But as kids get older, parental heroics become less and less feasible. So it's on to Plan B: Empowering them to protect themselves. This leap of faith is one of the scariest things we do as parents, but it's also the best way to safeguard them against potential risks—online and off. And you can rehearse. We've got a few simple but incredibly effective methods you can use to help kids practice the self-protection skills they need—including how to recognize red flag feelings, identify typical internet trouble spots, and hear your voice in their head warning "danger ahead"—so you and your kid can both feel confident in their ability to manage whatever comes their way.

Quick Take

  • Help kids do a gut check. Instead of telling kids not to talk to strangers, say, "If someone makes you feel weird, trust that feeling." Use the tools below to help kids learn to identify and trust their red flag feelings so they make safe choices.
  • Review the risky spots. Iffy stuff can happen anywhere, but certain types of games, apps, and websites cultivate an edgier environment. Likewise, certain interactions, such as someone asking a kid their gender, should send up big danger signals. Specific examples of these to go over with your kids are below.
  • Allow for missteps. Taking risks is part of growing up. Your kid may have noticed their red flag feelings, and proceeded against their better judgment anyway. Stress the importance of staying safe and secure—but let them know that if they mess up they can—and should—come to you or another trusted grown-up who can help them get out of any sticky situations.

What are red-flag feelings?

Red flag feelings are those that make you feel uncomfortable, worried, sad, or anxious. While some kids are wired to make their moods known to everyone in shouting distance, some kids have a harder time with negative emotions: admitting them, naming them, managing them, and even trusting them.

How do I teach my kid to recognize red-flag feelings?

It's important to discuss feelings in concrete terms so kids have the words to express what they're experiencing. The goal is to help them learn to manage those feelings without getting overwhelmed or acting out. A clear head helps you make good decisions. This thinking routine helps kids connect their thoughts and feelings:

F.I.R.E. This stands for feel, identify, reflect, and enact. It was co-created with researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education as an easy-to-memorize cue to help kids to take stock and think clearly. To work through red flag feelings when kids are online (or anywhere, really), remind them to slow down, pause, and remember F.I.R.E.

  • Feel. Take the pulse of your emotions. Are you feeling sad, anxious, jealous, excluded, or uncomfortable? If not, what emotion captures how you feel?
  • Identify. Think about what caused you to have this feeling. What happened? Was it something you—or someone else—said or did?
  • Reflect. Consider possible responses. What choices of action are available to you? What are the benefits or drawbacks—for you and for others—of each step you might take?
  • Enact. Take steps to act. How can you move forward to address the situation in a way that feels positive and productive—for you and for others?

The Mood Meter. This app was developed by Mark Brackett at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and it uses colors to help kids identify what they're feeling. It divides feelings into four quadrants—red, blue, green, and yellow—allowing kids to pick the color that best represents their state of mind. Download The Mood Meter and use it with your kids to help them gain self-awareness in any situation.

What kinds of interactions lead to red-flag feelings?

Bullying, insults, and other aggressive behavior are obvious triggers of red flag feelings. But kids may be confused by interactions that seem nice—or start off that way. Feel free to play-act different scenarios based on the games, apps, social media, and other platforms your kids tend to use the most. Be specific about the kinds of conversations kids may encounter so that they can recognize triggers, such as:

  • Asking to keep any information secret.
  • Flirting.
  • Asking about anything private (phone number, address, school name, whether they're a boy or a girl).
  • Pressuring them or making them feel pressured to do anything.
  • Causing them to feel untrue to themselves or their values.
  • Asking to meet in person or requesting personal pictures.
  • Inviting them to chat but telling them not to tell anyone else.
  • Encouraging them to move their chat to a different platform than the one they started on.

What should I tell my kids to do when they have red-flag feelings?

Your kids may have good ideas for how to respond when they're experiencing weird feelings, so first ask them how they might respond. Here are some more ideas:

  • Change the subject, make a joke, or say, "I don't want to talk about this."
  • Log off or quit.
  • Unfriend the person or block them; create a new account, or report the other user.
  • Never plan a face-to-face meeting with someone you do not know unless you take along a parent or guardian.
  • Ask a trusted adult for advice or help if you feel unsure or uncomfortable in any situation.
  • Don't send private information or photos.

What platforms should I be most concerned about?

Unfortunately, any platform where people interact can provoke red flag feelings. Most apps, games, and social media have safety measures in place, including both human monitors and algorithmic tricks, to suss out inappropriate behavior. And kids are actually pretty savvy about the kinds of interactions that seem off. Still, kids may end up in riskier areas, and they should be extra careful when using:

Anonymous apps. These are apps where users' identities are hidden, and they are breeding grounds for bullying. Ex. Yolo: Q&A.

"Temporary" message apps. Kids may be emboldened to send things they think won't last—but nothing ever really disappears. Ex. Snapchat.

Random video chatting. These apps connect strangers all over the world—and they're notorious for inappropriate behavior. Plus, video chatting can't be monitored. Ex. HOLLA: Live Random Video Chat.

Livestreaming. There are no take-backs when you broadcast yourself in real time. Ex. BIGO Live—Livestream.

Secret chat rooms. The intimacy of invite-only chat rooms can prompt kids to do things they wouldn't otherwise do. Ex. Discord.

Checking in

Modeling the kind of mind-body connection it takes to trust your gut is one of the most powerful tools you have as a parent—but it doesn't always come naturally. Use the F.I.R.E. method yourself to get comfortable with it. For example, you can say to your kid: "I feel sad because of something I saw on Facebook. When I feel this way, I log off and do something that makes me feel good—like talking to you."

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at Walmart.com, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.