What to Do if Your Child is Exposed to Inappropriate Content Online

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Words by
Jana Dalby

Published on

07.22.2021

As parents in the digital age, it’s inevitable that our kids have been or will be exposed to inappropriate content online.

Preparing Kids for the World of Digital Content

Because we know that our children will encounter inappropriate content, it’s ideal that we prepare them for what they will see and how they should respond.

But, before we dive into all of the dangers of online content with our kids, it’s helpful to start by giving them some context as to why appropriate content even matters in the first place.

Why Appropriate Content Matters

To help your child understand why appropriate content matters, consider the relationship between beliefs, emotions, and behavior.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches that our beliefs (how we see the world) influence our emotions (how we feel) and our emotions influence our behavior (how we act).

In other words, what we believe influences how we feel and behave.

This is why appropriate content matters.

Ultimately, appropriate content can inspire correct beliefs in us and in our children, thereby establishing healthy and productive emotions and behaviors.

Inappropriate content can have the opposite effect: inspiring incorrect beliefs and initiating unhealthy and destructive emotions and behaviors.

What is Inappropriate Content?

Inappropriate content is any media that negatively affects a child’s social, emotional, and physical development.

Some examples of inappropriate content may include, but are not limited to:

  • Pornography
  • Vulgar Language (Swearing, Racism, etc.)
  • Depections of Illegal Behavior (Crime, Terrorism, Vandalism, etc.)
  • Depictions of Harmful Behavior (Eating Disorders, Self-Harm or Suicide, etc.)
  • Depictions of Violence

Because each child grows and matures differently, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for knowing what’s inappropriate for all kids of all ages.

As parents, it is essentially our responsibility to know our own kids and help them define appropriate/inappropriate content for their stage of growth and development.

Common Sense Media can be a great place to start. They have worked with some of the nation’s leading authorities to determine what content is appropriate for all ages (0-2, 2-4, 5-7, 8-9, 10-12, 13-14, and 15-17) and have ratings on thousands of apps, books, games, movies, music, TV, and websites.

The following are examples of questions that Common Sense Media uses to determine appropriate/inappropriate content for kids:

  • What age is the media aimed at?
  • What is the quality?
  • What is the educational value?
  • What are the main messages being communicated and who is being portrayed as role models?
  • How much violence, sex, and adult language are involved?
  • How much drinking, drugs, and smoking are involved?
  • How likely is the media to create privacy and safety concerns?
  • What are other parents and kids saying?

Again, the overarching principle is to consider how different types of media might negatively influence a child’s beliefs, leading to unhealthy and destructive emotions and behaviors.

Media Literacy

Thinking critically about different types of media is referred to as media literacy.

When we become more media literate as parents, we have a greater ability to help our children to also become media literate.
One of the most natural ways of teaching media literacy to our children is by co-viewing media with them.

Establish a Relationship of Trust

The goal of talking about appropriate and inappropriate content and media literacy is to develop a relationship of trust with our children.

As our children notice our interest in their success and concern for their well-being, they will be more willing to have open and honest conversations about their experiences with media.

What to Do if Your Child is Exposed to Inappropriate Content

With that being said, the day will come (if it hasn’t already) when our child will be exposed to inappropriate content online.

Regardless of how much we’ve prepared ourselves for that day, it still might come as a shock to both us and our children. But no need to panic. Here are some helpful tips for knowing what to do if your child is exposed to inappropriate content.

Calm Your Emotions

There are typically three different ways that we usually find out about our kids seeing inappropriate content online:

  1. We find it in their browsing history,
  2. We or someone else sees them viewing and/or sharing it, or
  3. Our child confesses to encountering it.

Regardless of how our child is exposed to inappropriate content, it’s important to not overreact.

Overreacting can lead to feelings of shame and can damage the trust that your child has with you.

Take the time that you need to calm your emotions so you can approach a conversation with your child from a place of emotional neutrality.

Normalize the Situation

Once you’ve taken the time to diffuse your negative feelings, talk with your child.

Chances are they already feel bad about the situation. It’s important to minimize their feelings of shame by reassuring them that inappropriate content is all over the internet; your child is not a bad person for encountering it.

Remind them that inappropriate content can influence them to develop incorrect beliefs that can negatively affect their life.

Reassure them that you are not going to punish them, but want to better understand what they experienced so you can help them process their experience in a healthy way.

Ask Your Child What They Experienced

To better understand what your child experienced, start by asking them what they saw and/or heard and how it made them feel.

Encourage your child to be specific so that you can have an accurate understanding of what they’ve been exposed to and how it may have negatively affected their beliefs about themselves and/or other people.

Emphasize that learning how to navigate the internet safely is a lifelong journey and mistakes are part of the learning process.

Remind them that you’ve been navigating the internet a lot longer than they have, and would love to support them in their efforts to use the internet in ways that will benefit their life.

Invite Your Child to Ask Questions

Ask if they have any questions about what they saw and/or heard.

Being open to your child’s questions will show them that you aren’t afraid of the subject and will help them feel more comfortable talking about their concerns.

If they ask something that you aren’t prepared for, don’t feel pressure to give an answer in the moment. Thank them for their question and let them know that you want more time to think before giving them an answer.

If they are hesitant to bring up any questions, you might help facilitate the conversation by asking questions like: Was there anything that you saw that was confusing to you? Or that shocked you? Or made you feel uncomfortable?

Remind them that you can’t help them process their experience in a healthy way if they don’t share it with you.

Establish New Boundaries

After you’ve helped your child process their experience in a healthy way, you and your child can shift your focus to establishing new boundaries that will keep your child safe.

Evaluate the Circumstances

Start by evaluating the circumstances that led to your child being exposed to inappropriate content:

  • Who were they with?
  • What were they doing before encountering the inappropriate content?
  • What device were they using?

By reviewing the circumstances that led to their exposure to inappropriate content, you and your child will be able to identify the loopholes that can be improved in your current approach to technology.

Make a Plan

Once you’ve identified ways that you can adjust your approach to technology, work together with your child to make a plan.

Some common areas of improvement are:

  • Ensuring that the technology your child is using is age-appropriate.
  • Limiting your child’s access to technology while they are alone.
  • Using parental controls or installing filtering software on all devices to limit access to inappropriate content.
  • Teaching your children the types of inappropriate content that they might encounter, and what they should do when they see it.

Follow Up

Finally, follow up.

As was mentioned earlier, inappropriate content is all over the internet, and unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate its existence in our childrens’ lives.

So, rather than trying to eliminate it, use encounters with inappropriate content as opportunities to teach your children right from wrong.

Over time, you can help them understand for themselves the fallacies that are often portrayed in media.

Contact a Professional

If your child continues to struggle with inappropriate online behavior or you think they may have been traumatized by what they saw and/or heard, consider contacting a professional who can help.

Conclusion

Because inappropriate content is quite literally everywhere, we need to not only prepare our kids for what they might encounter, but also help them to understand why appropriate content even matters in the first place.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to knowing what’s inappropriate for all kids of all ages, so it’s our responsibility as parents to be the expert on our kids and help them develop healthy tech habits for their current stage of development.

The goal of talking with our children about appropriate vs. inappropriate content is to develop a relationship of trust. Our children need to feel comfortable talking with us whenever they encounter something that is not suited for them.

Any time our child encounters inappropriate content, we should not shame or punish them, but should focus on understanding their experience so that we can help them process it in healthy ways.

Once we’ve helped our child process their experience, we can work with them to create a plan that will keep them safe from inappropriate content in the future.

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