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Talking with kids about online safety: Q&A with child and family therapist Amelia Aburn

October 27, 2021

11 Minute Read

Kids today face a very different set of challenges than most adults did growing up. Navigating growing up online, where normal sexual development and technology collide, isn’t something that needed to be included In conversations between parents and kids in previous generations. This digital knowledge gap is why we created Thorn for Parents, offering resources, tools, and support for parents concerned about the digital safety of their kids.

We developed Thorn for Parents in consultation with both internal and external experts, including experts in child psychology. We asked one of those experts, Amelia Aburn, some questions about why these conversations are so important and what parents can expect. We hope her answers offer some support and insight for parents and caregivers concerned about these issues. 

Q: Why is it important for parents to have conversations at the intersection of puberty and technology with their children? 

A: The truth for parents and caregivers is that having these kinds of conversations with their kids is no longer an option. Kids are growing up online, with screen time spiking by 50% over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Neglecting to explore the virtual world kids are living in is missing a significant portion of their life experiences and development. More specifically, overlooking the powerful overlap between kids’ sexual development and their relationship with technology is like missing the connection between their social development and their environment or access to peer relationships.

Simply put, initiating these conversations is essential for parents and caregivers in order to fulfill their primary job: keeping their children safe. Raising kids in today’s society means providing them with information about what is happening online, as they will likely encounter situations whether or not caregivers have prepared them. As much as parents and caregivers may want to avoid it, or even feel strongly that talking about taboo topics like sexting, requests for nudes, and online grooming will take away children’s innocence or actually introduce these ideas into their world, it is evident that these situations are happening more often and earlier than many think. A recent Thorn survey indicated that over 40% of kids agree that it’s normal for kids their age to send nudes While this may feel heavy,  knowledge is power. Providing information to children of all stages of development is a proactive approach that promotes prevention and protection from exploitation. Not only can giving your child information keep them safe, having these conversations actually opens up meaningful opportunities for deeper connection and growth within your family relationships.

There is truly no other way to put it: these things are happening and children’s well-being depends upon caregivers’ capacity to step outside their comfort zone, create a non-judgemental space, and give them the information they need in order to know what is really safe exploration online within their sexual development. 

Q: What advice do you have for parents as they begin having these conversations with their kids? 

A: Take care of yourself first.  Allow yourself to pause, acknowledge, and explore how you really feel about this content. Learning about these unsafe experiences like online grooming or sextortion can be disturbing and upsetting. It is also very normal to experience fear or discomfort about initiating these kinds of conversations with your kid(s). 

In addition to the stress these kinds of conversations may create, parents and caregivers are navigating a variety of everyday stressors. Before having these conversations, gauge your general stress level as well as where you think your children are on their feelings thermometer. Your own wellbeing and bandwidth are crucial because your child can feel when you are feeling more grounded. So while you are likely not going to feel 100% comfortable in these conversations, being intentional about your self-care will help you ride the waves of discomfort. 

Take an extra breather, go for a walk around the block, listen to some of your favorite music, or take a shower. Whatever it is, be mindful about giving yourself space first before holding space for your child. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your children.

Educate yourself. Know the terms and use your resources. Explore based on your child’s developmental stage and how that intersects with technology access. Consider how this informs what and how you need to share information with them. You do not need to know it all or be an expert, but feeling more informed will leave you feeling more grounded and prepared. Lean on other parents for support, not only to feel more informed but to feel more connected in this process.

Be mindful of the time and frame of these conversations. Consider these basics: approach your child one-on-one and within an environment that you know feels safe and comfortable for them. Try to initiate the conversation when you will have enough time to explore without interruptions. Have a few resources or videos in mind that you may be able to share with your kid if it feels appropriate.

Lastly, manage your expectations. Keep in mind that there is no perfect way to handle these conversations. Keeping a level of curiosity about how it will feel and flow is key. Remember that this is a process and will unfold over the course of various conversations. It may not go the way you want it to, you may stumble or feel like you made a mistake, or you may feel discouraged by your child’s response. That is all okay and to be expected, and it is a natural part of this unfolding process. 

Q: What type of response should parents expect from their children as they are starting these conversations? 

A: You know your child best. You are an expert at knowing and loving your own child. Based on their temperament, personality, developmental status, emotional maturity, tendencies,  and simply from your experiences loving and caring for them, you will likely have an intuition about how they may react when you initiate this type of conversation. 

Ask yourselves these questions as you think about having conversations: What are your children’s go-to behaviors when they are uncomfortable? How does discomfort tend to manifest for them? Do they tend to shut down or walk away? Or are they more likely to engage and ask questions? 

Ultimately, parents and caregivers can expect a wide array of responses from their children but trusting their own intimate knowledge of their child will serve them best. Consider what you sense may be their natural response based on your intuition – but stay present, curious, and open to however they respond in the moment. And prepare to validate whatever their response might be.

Your child’s developmental stage determines much of how they will respond. Clearly, parents and caregivers of teens can experience a much different response than those beginning these conversations with an elementary schooler. There is a developmentally appropriate way to have these conversations with every child at every age. Take extra care to understand the primary themes within the stage of sexual and social development your child is currently in. This is not to say that each child experiences these themes in the same way – every child at every stage of development is profoundly unique. However, it is helpful to understand what behaviors and feelings are normal for their age range.

Expect discomfort and embarrassment. Prepare to feel discomfort – your own as well as your child’s. You can expect that children may feel no desire to talk about these things with you. They may even feel a little protective or defensive, like you are suggesting that they have engaged in unsafe behaviors. It is critical to normalize and ensure that you are bringing it up without agenda and with zero judgement. They may have a lot of awareness of situations happening online and not feel ready to actually share with you – and that is OK. Your job is not to make them share. Your job is to bring it to light, validate their feelings and experiences, and just put the conversation on the table. 

Q: I tried talking to my kid and it failed. What advice do you have for someone like me?

A: The real failure is avoiding having these conversations. You can rest assured in knowing that initiating the conversation – even if messy or uncomfortable – is always better than not trying at all. Keep this in mind all throughout and know that you would be doing more disservice by sweeping it under the rug.

Trust the process and give it time. You may feel like it failed, but just getting started is a win in and of itself. There will be various iterations of this conversation and if you feel that an attempt at connecting on these topics falls short, know that there will be multiple chapters to this conversation and it will unfold over time. Often, just simply having a parent or caregiver put it out there in a non-judgmental way creates a level of relief and ease that may not immediately be seen. 

For example, a caregiver of a 13 year old who identifies male recently reported to me that they had a sense that their son would totally shut down upon them initiating a deeper dive into sex and their online experiences. They were indeed 100% correct. However, they put it out there, made it known that they care about them feeling safe (read: emphasis on how the child feels!), and even though they shut down the conversation and immediately went to their room, several weeks later he made a couple comments about online grooming when watching TV together. The openness this caregiver showed made way for the type of unfolding conversation that not only took shame out of the picture, but also made the child aware that he could bring this to the caregiver in their own time, leading to a deeper awareness of the unsafe things that may happen online and how to navigate them.

All mistakes can be healed with direct communication. Even if the conversation really did make things worse or feel counterproductive, there are always opportunities to revisit the conversation and strengthen the relationship. Did you make your child feel defensive or judged? Did you hurt their feelings? Practice humility, validate their feelings, and be a role model by expressing your own feelings and acknowledging mistakes. You can also practice giving a therapeutic apology to nurture the relationship and move forward. 

Q: How do you see technology coming up in your work with families and children? What should parents know about technology and children? 

A: It is unavoidable: technology and social media are a fact of life for kids and families. It is hard to think of any element of my work with families and children where technology is not somehow implicated, especially in the context of our increasingly virtual world. We are aware of the pervasive nature of screen time in general, however we are also continuing to learn of the ever-growing use of social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Youtube. A 2018 study found that the proportion of young people in the US between the ages of 13 and 17 years who have a smartphone reached 89%, more than doubling over a 6-year period and 70% of teenagers use social media multiple times per day, up from a third of teens in 2012. 

Social media usage has an increasing impact on youth mental health. While we have learned about a variety of benefits of social media, the risks to their mental health are also clear. Social media platforms can be opportunities for connection, but there is growing research indicating they can lead to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness. In particular, adolescence is a stage of rapid development and teens are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues like depression or anxiety. At this stage of development, tweens and teens are uniquely focused on comparison and are longing for belonging.  Talking with kids about how they feel during and after their use of social media is a great starting point and can lead into understanding the kinds of unsafe experiences they have had online in general.

Setting and maintaining screen time limits is key. Through working with kids and families, I have become increasingly aware of the power struggles and the difficulty of helping kids strike a healthy balance of social media and technology usage. Try out some of these tips and keep in mind that your own relationship with technology sets the tone for your child’s relationship with technology. While it is tricky to not be constantly connected, it has become increasingly evident that setting a good example is vital to their capacity to explore their own relationship with technology. Having protected phone and technology free time, for dinner or on a daily basis, creates opportunities for more connection.

Q: What’s the one thing you want parents to know? 

A: Having these conversations is really about diffusing shame. The variety of situations that arise online in the context of normative experiences of sexual development often live in the shadows and stay hidden. This is because topics related to sex are often so embedded with shame. Know that your child may experience feelings of shame – subconsciously or consciously – and that opening up these conversations can be powerful opportunities for mitigating this shame. So much of children’s curiosity and exploration within their sexual development is completely healthy and normal. It just looks so different in today’s society because of the way in which technology is integrated into our world. When you take a deep breath and go for it, you role model that no topic is off-limits and that they are not bad.

Lastly, this is about supporting kids in trusting their own intuition about what feels safe online. Let your child know that they can trust  that physical feeling in their gut – and that you trust them, too. It is a parallel process and even if you may not have experienced this level of support in your own childhood, giving this to your child is a gift and indicator of resiliency no matter what potential situation arises, online or in the real world. 

Amelia Aburn is a licensed clinical social worker based in Washington, DC. She has been working as a child and family mental health therapist in a holistic family practice for several years with prior history in school and community health settings. Her primary focus is working with kids from elementary through high school, providing support with a range of issues including trauma, anxiety and depression, ADHD, self-esteem difficulties, as well as social and relationship issues. 

Amelia has advanced training in evidence-based trauma and family therapies, as well as expressive modalities including play, sand, and art therapy. She believes in the parallel process of family dimensions and a focus on the whole family system in order to nurture wellbeing.

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