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Talking about online safety with a young person can be confronting for them and for you. This article provides guidance on the key risks to understand, a framework for talking about online safety, and tips for dealing with young people’s internet use. Access the best evidence based resources for online safety.

This will help you to:

  • talk about online safety with young people
  • recommend evidence based resources
  • understand the key concerns to watch out for.
Boy typing on laptop with left hand

The risks

There are a growing number of studies investigating online risk behaviours among young people. A large U.S. cross-sectional survey of 1,500 10-17 year olds5 revealed four key online behaviours presenting risks. The results of the Bridging the Digital Divide research conducted by ReachOut Australia, echoed those from the Ybarra study and identified a number of additional risks; together these included:

  • disclosure of personal information
  • cyberbullying/harassment
  • meeting up with online people in the real world
  • profile hacking/account hijacking
  • viruses, spyware and spam
  • phishing scams
  • fees/costs (e.g. getting ripped off on eBay).

It is important to note that the level of risk for each young person varies considerably and is ultimately the product of a complex set of interrelated factors, including internet literacy and skills, age, internet access and overall coping skills.2

As young people are increasingly turning to the internet to meet new people and share their lives via the web, it is important that they have the knowledge to make safe choices about the information they are sharing and the skills to manage risky situations.

How to talk to young people about online safety

Our experience of engaging young people around online safety is that they are more willing to talk about the risks if you understand the world they occupy online and are not only trying to restrict their access. This means engaging them in a discussion around the issue rather than setting rules up front.

A strengths-based approach, which many practitioners use when working with young people to improve their mental health and wellbeing, can be helpful here - by focusing on the solutions rather than the problems.

We recommend you start a conversation with a young person about the technology, the opportunities it presents for them and then introduce discussion about risks associated with their use and the strategies that can be used to minimise these risks.

Some of these tips will require a bit of "technical know-how", so if you are unfamiliar with how to take some of these actions, ask a young person you know who is tech-savvy… Remember if young people are using this technology in their daily lives then they are the experts on the risks associated with them and in most cases have employed many of the harm minimisation strategies identified below through experience with their own use.

Don't feel embarrassed by asking young people for help with online issues - for many it is an opportunity for them to show you something they are good at; which is often empowering and is a good way to break down barriers.

Tips on dealing with young people and their use of the Internet

The Internet is a valuable tool for homework and projects for young people, as well as an integral aspect of their social networking (see the article Benefits of internet and social media for more information). At the same time, young people start to become more independent and self-assured, wanting more freedom and coming under more peer influence. Their online and email contacts tend to expand rapidly and sometimes without much filtering. Some may view the use of filtering or blocking software as an attempt to take away their freedom.

  • Ask them about their internet networking and what they use it for in an engaging manner.
  • Continue to discuss internet issues and share internet experiences.
  • Remind young people that material posted to some blogs can be very hard to remove from public view.
  • Gauge their level of understanding in the use of privacy and security settings on the sites they use.
  • Ensure they understand that posting to newsgroups makes their email address public.
  • Ensure both you and the young person understand laws relating to copyright, privacy, software piracy, hacking and obscenity in Australia. Resources

Recommended resources

Research informing this article

  1. Campbell, M.A. 2005, 'Cyber bullying: An Old Problem in a New Guise?', Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 68-76.
  2. Livingstone, S. & Bober, M. 2005, UK Children Go Online: final report of key project findings, Economic & Social Research Council, London.
  3. Livingstone, S. 2001, Online freedom and safety for children, Citizens Online & Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), London.
  4. Wyn, J., Cuervo, H., Woodman, D., & Stokes, H. 2005, Young people, wellbeing and communication technologies, VicHealth, Melbourne.
  5. Ybarra. M.L., Mitchell, K.J., Finkelhor, D., Wolak, J. 2007, 'Internet prevention messages - targeting the right online behaviours', Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, vol. 161, no. 2, pp. 138-145.

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