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As a parent, and someone who works for a digital literacy company, I’ve been thinking lately about how scary it can be to raise young children in our evolving educational landscape.

My son is entering kindergarten this year (cue the tears!) and my daughter is 19 months old. At home, I can pretty well control their iPad use. But when my son goes to school in just a few weeks, he will be issued a Chromebook, where he may be exposed to things online that are outside of my control.

Just because we’re putting technology in children’s hands doesn’t mean they know how to use it. During COVID-19, schools made huge efforts to get devices into the hands of all students – even their youngest kids. There are many benefits of doing so, but that alone is not how we provide digital equity – the equity comes in the education. 

Our children deserve the opportunity and tools to develop the digital skills they need to stay safe, from understanding how to navigate the internet safely to knowing what to do when they encounter something potentially harmful.

I recently had a startling reminder of this in my own home: I had downloaded a free iPad game for my son, who is obsessed with motorcycles. I handed him the device to play, but when I looked over a few minutes later, he was playing a bloody shooting game based on the Red Light, Green Light scene from Netflix’s Squid Game. Way too mature!  When I talked to him about it, I learned that he had clicked on an ad that it took him to the game that was definitely not appropriate for him. Instead of continuing to play the game, children need to know it’s OK to tell an adult whenever something doesn’t seem quite right online.

Sure, I have the luxury of working for a digital literacy provider to find these lessons for my children. But not every parent does – even at my own son’s school. So here are some tips for protecting your child and helping them navigate the internet safely:

  • Be aware of what your children have access to – what apps they have, and what parental settings you can put on their devices to prevent them from downloading others.
  • Be involved in what your children are navigating online. We have to be vigilant, because as parents we have a good sense of what our children’s young brains are capable of processing.
  • Talk to your kids about what to do if they encounter anything that’s questionable – whether it’s a game that seems inappropriate or someone asking for their personal information. We want to create a safe environment where children or students can share if there’s anything or anyone they’ve interacted with online that they feel unsure about.  
  • Set limits while also being respectful of children’s privacy. Make sure to discuss the limits with your children openly, and with any of their caregivers – aunts, uncles, grandparents, and babysitters. Obviously, this gets tricker as children get older and their access to technology multiplies while their desire for privacy intensifies. It’s a delicate balance, but that’s why starting those conversations young, and taking an active role in their early years on the internet is so essential 

None of this is rocket science, but all of it is crucial to building the foundations that will keep our children safe online.

If your little one is headed to school this fall, rest assured that schools are required by CIPA to educate students about cyberbullying and online safety. While Learning.com’s curriculum covers many other skills, our digital citizenship and online safety modules are among our most widely used, with lessons for pre-kindergarten all the way through 12th grade

But while your school should provide basic lessons in online safety during the school year, it’s not too soon to start having these conversations at home – and stay involved with your kids’ online lives as they grow. After all, digital literacy isn’t just a school skill, it’s a life skill.

Tiffany Kinney, M.Ed., is Learning.com’s Lead State Program Manager for North Carolina. She was previously a public school teacher for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade, as well as an edtech support consultant and a professional learning specialist with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.