Internet Safety: A Guide for Parents

mom and teen on computer

Setting rules about using the internet is a family decision. The more you know, the easier it will be for you to communicate with your teen and keep her safe.

What does the Internet look like?

The internet is an enormous computer network made up of websites, services, and files. There is a wealth of information and services available “online.” Your teen might use the Internet for things such as:

  • Researching information
  • Playing video games
  • Watching videos
  • Streaming music
  • Emailing and instant messaging
  • Using social media
  • Using apps

You can access the Internet from a computer, laptop, smart phone, tablet, video game console, smart speaker, and any other device that connects to the Internet. Anyone can post information online, so it is important to help your teen think critically about what they read and do online.

What is e-mail?

“E-mail” is short for “electronic mail.” You can write an e-mail using an email service (such as Gmail) on your computer or smartphone, and then send it via the internet to be read by other people. In regards to email safety, there are a few things to teach your teen to be aware of:

  • Think twice before opening an email. When you receive an email, always check the source before clicking any links in the email, and before replying or forwarding.
  • “Phishing” attempts are common, in which an email, appearing to be from a legitimate source such as your bank or PayPal, asks for personal information such as passwords, banking information, or your social security number. Legitimate websites will not ask for this type of information in an email.
  • Anything sent via email can be forwarded to other people, so be cautious about anything you write, or images you attach to the email
  • Viruses are often sent via email, so it’s important to not open links or attachments (pictures, music, etc.) from email addresses that you don’t recognize, even if they look legit.

What should I know about downloading?

“Downloading” means copying content from the internet and saving it on to a computer, smartphone, or tablet. Downloading can be a quick and easy way to get a photo, video, game, app, PDF, or another file. For example, your teen can download songs or movies on iTunes, or get the latest version of a browser from the Google Chrome website.

Remember: Teach your teen to only download known content from trustworthy sources to avoid copying harmful or unwanted files. If you or your teen don’t know where the file is coming from, it’s better not to download it because of the risk of downloading a virus that may harm a device. If your teen begins downloading something by mistake, it’s likely that there is an “X,” “Stop,” or “Cancel” button that they can click to cancel the download.

Also make sure your teen always has an updated version of virus protection software on their computer. Handheld devices including smartphones and tablets can also become infected with viruses. This can happen for example if they download an attachment from a sketchy website or visit a “phishing” website that collects information from their mobile browser. Most of the companies that make anti-virus software for computers/laptops now have a version for mobile devices, and some are free.

Information Quality

Most people agree that the internet has changed their lives for the better; however, being able to find information and communicate with others online can be challenging sometimes. It’s often hard to know whether the information that you find online is true.

What online information can I trust?

Being able to tell if something on the internet is accurate is tough for everyone, not just teens. Always question any information you or your teen reads online until you’re able to figure out whether or not it’s true.

Keep in mind that there’s no way to know for sure that the information your teens finds on a site is completely trustworthy. When trying to decide if they can trust something online, they’ll probably want to use many of these tips to help them evaluate whether or not the information is reliable. Once your teen finds a reliable website, they can bookmark it or add it as a favorite so they can easily find it again later.

Here are some general tips on how to tell if a website and information posted is reliable:

  • Check the sources. Look for the name of the organization, the author(s) of the website, and the most recent date that the information was updated. Reliable websites often have an “About” or “About Us” page that will give you information about the people or organization that has created the information. Reliable sites often have a list of references that include the source of the information. If the website is created by a person rather than an organization, finding out why they’re publishing the information might help you to figure out whether it’s reliable
  • Check the URL. Sometimes the URL can give you clues about the accuracy of the information it provides. Below are
    • .com addresses are often connected with a commercial site or a company that is selling something. For example, a site where you can purchase something.
    • .org web addresses are usually owned by an organization. For example, this site ( is connected with the Center for Young Women’s Health.
    • .net addresses are commonly used by internet technology organizations, such as internet service providers (ISPs) and other communication companies.
    • .uk (United Kingdom) or .ca (Canada) are examples of endings that are used or reserved for a specific country.
    • .gov addresses are US government websites. The US government has a health site for girls at:
    • .edu sites are reserved for “educational institutions” such as schools, colleges, and universities. One example of a university website is:
  • Check the appearance. Judging a website based on appearance can be extremely subjective, which means that what looks legit to you might not look legit to someone else. It’s best to go with your gut; if the information or the way it’s presented seems sketchy or makes you uncomfortable, then that’s probably a clue that the site you’re evaluating isn’t reliable. If the information presented is convincing, you’ll probably come across it in other sources (such as a book or scholarly journal) as well, which will help you ensure that the information you find is accurate.
  • Check the outgoing links.If the website provides links to other sites, click on them. If the site or information you’re taken to is reliable, it’s likely the original website is trustworthy.
  • Check the dates. Be sure to check the date(s) that the information on the site was last updated or revised. This will help you figure out if the site is maintained regularly and if the information is current.
  • Check the facts.If you’re looking for facts, check out a few different websites to compare information. If you find the same information from a few different sources, you can be fairly sure you’ve found correct information. You’ll also know which websites are reliable and can visit them again in the future.
  • Check with people. Librarians and teachers are usually good resources to help you identify accurate and trustworthy websites. If you’re looking for reliable health information, you can ask your health care provider(s) what sites they recommend.


Privacy and Social Media

What is a social networking site?

A social networking site (also known as social media) is a website or app that focuses on facilitating the building of social networks among people who share interests, activities, backgrounds, or real-life connections. Joining a social media site allows users to create personal profiles that may include photos, music, and videos, as well as to chat with friends. Some of the most popular social media sites that teens use include: YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Some social networks (mostly those that focus on chatting) are available only in the form of mobile apps, such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Kik. Most social networking sites require that a user be at least 13 years of age, so be sure to review the site’s Terms of Service before your child makes an account.

My daughter wants to join a social network. What privacy settings should we be aware of?

When joining a social network, it’s very important for you and your daughter to go through the privacy settings together. Many social networks default the privacy settings to public, meaning that anyone who is a member (and beyond) can see the information shared. It is important to review the privacy settings for any social network she joins and work together to customize them, because the “default” settings might not be right for her. You can start by searching online.

Additionally, social media privacy rules and options can change over time, so it’s a good idea for you and your daughter to revisit her settings from time to time and make sure they’re up to date.

Regardless of what social media your daughter uses, it is important to talk to her about setting restrictions on her timeline/feed, so that it’s only accessible to those people she wants to share information with. If she decides to add someone as a “friend,” she’s allowing that person to see all of the information on her profile.

Generally, it’s safe for your daughter to add people to her social networking accounts that she knows in real life. If you prefer, you might want to suggest that your teen spend a little time in the beginning when she sets up her account to create groups (if this is an option) such as “family,” “school friends,” “camp friends,” “work friends,” etc. Your teen can then choose different privacy settings for each group, so that she’s not sharing all of her personal information with everyone.

Talk to your daughter about how future employers, college recruiters, coaches, and others frequently check online profiles. The following advice is generally a good rule of thumb: “If you feel comfortable taking a copy of your profile with you on a job interview or college interview, your profile is probably okay.” If your daughter feels that she currently has embarrassing information or photos on her profile, encourage her to edit what she’s posted and/or what shows up on her timeline.

Why do parents and teens differ in the type of information they share?

Some parents who have viewed their teen’s online profile are shocked by what they see and read. For parents, it’s often “TMI” (“too much information”), and may even include details of behaviors such as alcohol or drug use, or even sexual encounters. It’s surprising but true that some teens may not actually realize that people other than their closest friends can view the information they share. Teens often don’t consider how easily information is spread. Even if your teen takes time to consider who they want to view their posts, it’s often difficult to control what other people and organizations are going to do with that information; as soon as they post something online, it is there forever, even if they delete it. Therefore, it’s crucial for your teen to understand their privacy settings so that they can protect their personal information.

Additionally, teens are often motivated to post information as a way of gaining acceptance from their peers. Sometimes the information is true and often surprises parents. If you’ve come across surprising posts or pictures from your teen, it may be helpful to talk with them about their reasons for posting such information. Keep in mind however, that in some cases, what teens post may be far from the truth. It’s possible that your teen may post things (even if they aren’t true) simply to gain attention, or to impress or shock their friends.

Remember: In order to set up an account, many sites make filling out some basic information such as an online name and email address mandatory. However, filling out much of the additional information is often optional. Remind your teen that aside from the few required mandatory fields (usually indicated by an asterisk*), they can leave many fields blank and still set up a profile while protecting her privacy.

Should my teen use her real name online?

In most cases, your teen will be asked to provide her real name when setting up an online social network profile or account. For example, when registering for Facebook, new users must enter their actual first and last name, which will appear on her profile and will show up when others search for her. Other social media like Tumblr or Twitter give the option of creating a username, which can be much more anonymous.

Although your teen might want to choose a username that describes them in some way, remind them that some names can be unfairly judged by people who don’t know them very well. For example, a username such as “hotbabe13” may attract inappropriate comments or messages. Instead, help your teen create a name out of a combination of letters and numbers, the name of a candy bar, their favorite color, or something else that’s not too personal. If the name is already taken, they can try adding a few numbers, for example, Green123 or BruinsFan18; however, remind them to not use their house number, birth date, age, or any other personal number.

When setting up an e-mail address, using some version of your teen’s real name will help friends, teachers, and (future) employers identify her more easily. A practice used by many schools and companies is to use the first letter of a first name and last name. For example, Maria Lopez’s email address might be

If you have questions or concerns about how to help your daughter when registering for a social networking site or email account, the “Terms of Service” feature should explain exactly how to set up an account and the rules and expectations for using the service.

What is texting/messaging? Is it safe?

Texting (also called messaging or DMing—direct messaging) is a way of having a conversation with someone by typing and sending messages through a smartphone, computer, social media site, or messaging app. Texting and messaging can occur privately between two people, or can involve a group of people, and in addition to text, photos and videos can easily be shared.

Common texting/messaging apps include Snapchat, WhatsApp, Kik, Facebook Messenger, Yik Yak, LINE, and Viber. Most other social media sites also offer a way to DM, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Texting/Messaging Safety: Before giving your teen permission to use a texting/messaging app, or to message with strangers through social media apps, ask her the following questions:

  1. What does this app do? What is the purpose of this app, and what function will it serve in her life?
  2. How is she going to use it? Is she only going to use it for silly photo sharing with friends, or is this an app that is used in school and can be a potential distraction for class? Also, how will she control images she receives from others?

Have your daughter show you how to use her favorite texting/messaging app as this will give you a window into her world and let her demonstrate her mastery, which will help build trust between you. Also remind your teen that if anyone–regardless if it is someone she knows in real life, or an online friend–makes her feel uncomfortable in any way (such as by sending inappropriate photos or asking inappropriate questions) she should end the conversation immediately! Keep the lines of communication open with your teen, and check-in on a regular basis about how she’s using her phone to communicate with others. Make it clear that she can approach you whenever uncomfortable situations arise.

Tips for your teen when she’s texting/messaging with others:

  • Private information should be kept private. Even if someone asks for personal information, remind your daughter that it’s always safer to keep that information to herself.
  • Learn how to block/ignore people.Each social networking site, messaging app, or smartphone is different, but there is always a way to block, ignore, or unfriend users your daughter doesn’t want to communicate with.
  • Avoid sexting.While your daughter may be under the impression that everyone her age is sending inappropriate photos or engaging in sexually explicit conversations, this isn’t necessarily the case, and she should not feel pressured to engage in sexting. Also remind her that nothing online is private, and that she needs to remember to think before texting.

Photo/Video tips: Teach your daughter to think twice before sending any photos or videos, whether group pictures or selfies. Although some messaging apps claim that messages, photos, and videos will “disappear” or “expire” after a set amount of time, there are ways to subvert these features, and once a picture or video is sent, there is no guarantee of privacy. Ensure that your daughter understands that she should never send inappropriate photos or videos of herself, even if she is sending them to someone she trusts such as a boyfriend or girlfriend. Remind your daughter that these photos and videos can easily end up in the hands of anyone–such as a teacher, future employer, or family member.

Bullying and Cyberbullying

The terms “bullying” and “cyberbullying” are used to describe the same unwanted, mean behavior towards another person: if someone is threatening, harassing, or humiliating another person, they are being a bully. The big difference is that bullying happens in person, while cyberbullying happens online (via email, instant messaging, text, social networking sites, or other mobile apps and websites)..

Bullying and cyberbullying are mean behaviors that:

  • Are intentional – the bullying is being done for a reason
  • Involves the aggressive person using some sort of power over his/her victim. The aggressive person uses some sort of power over his/her victim. He or she may feel powerful because they are popular, physically stronger, or have access to embarrassing information.
  • Happens repeatedly – more than just a couple of times.

Bullying and cyberbullying ARE NOT:

  • Once in a while, or a one-time event, where a person puts someone else down.
  • Posting something on your timeline that might offend others.
  • Disagreements, fights, or mean words that result from misunderstandings.

Bullying can be physical, verbal, or carried out through relationships, behind people’s backs. It can also involve actions that border on discrimination, whether it’s sexuality, gender, race, class, or something else.

Cyberbullying is bullying that occurs on the internet or on a mobile device. As technologies grow and change over time, so do new ways to use them to carry out acts of bullying.

Bullying and cyberbullying are not totally different things. They’re examples of the same kind of behavior – with the same social, cultural, and human roots – in different contexts. It’s often hard to separate bullying and cyberbullying, since young people’s experience of the online and offline worlds are so closely connected. For example, many online victims recognize, or know, their bullies in person (although they might only be bullied by him or her online). Conflicts dealing with relationships that start out offline may carry over to social media sites, cell phones, etc., or vice versa, and escalate into bullying. For example: A prank pulled in the locker room at school results in ongoing social humiliation through pictures shared via cell phones and online. Another example could start with a nasty Facebook post which leads to bullying at school.

So what counts as bullying and cyberbullying, and not other kinds of meanness? There are several types of behavior that can represent bullying when they’re repetitive, involve an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim, and involve intentional actions.

Some examples include:

  • Regularly insulting someone for their sense of style, or bad grades.
  • Someone repeatedly posts unflattering photos or offensive comments about a person on his/her Facebook timeline, or encourages others to do so.
  • Someone creates a new website or online group meant specifically to insult another person.
  • Someone shares texts of revealing photos of someone else without his/her permission. (Some might consider this to be a form of sexual harassment, but it also meets the criteria of cyberbullying).

Still, things aren’t always crystal clear. People’s perception of bullying can vary. You, your daughter, and researchers, for instance, may have different associations with the word “bully”. For example, what you consider “bullying” your daughter might only call “drama”. The word “bully” may have personal or emotional associations for your teen, including negative ones that they’d rather not bring up. It’s important to keep in mind that conflicts your teen and her friends may have can start out as jokes, misunderstandings, or fallings-out, but can later escalate. Situations like this can become ongoing bullying situations, whether or not your daughter calls it by this name.

What’s more common – bullying offline, or online?

Both types of bullying often go hand-in-hand. Research studies show that offline bullying is more common among middle school students, but online bullying tends to be more common among high-school students. Also, girls are more likely to be victims of cyberbullying and yet they are also more likely than boys to be the person who uses cyberbullying to hurt someone else. Boys are more likely to bully in person.

What roles do teens play in online bullying?

Different roles include the bully, victim, bully-victim, and bystander. However, these roles aren’t always clear-cut. For example, bully-victims are people who are victims, but also bully others. Bystanders observe an act of bullying happening to someone else.

Regardless of what role a person plays, being involved in bullying both online and offline is connected with certain negative psychological, social, and academic consequences, including low self-esteem, trouble with sleeping, relationships problems, depression, and less success in school.

Other things to know about bullying at school: Your daughter’s relationship with her friends and others at school can affect the way she feels about bullying and can also affect her involvement in it. If she’s comfortable in her social group and her friends don’t support bullying, she likely won’t either. A teen whose friends don’t support bullying is also more likely to stand up for the victim if she witnesses bullying. However, if her friends are bullying others, it can be easy to give into peer pressure and take part in bullying with them. Within a middle or high school, students sometimes overestimate how common bullying really is, and are less likely to engage in bullying behaviors when they learn that it’s less common than they think.

What can teachers and parents do?

Schools and teachers can do a great deal to foster environments that help prevent bullying, and can respond to bullying in a timely way if and when it does happen. When students feel more connected to and supported by their parents and their school’s teacher and staff, bullying rates are often lower. Supportive environments generally don’t exhibit excessive punishment and rules are also consistently enforced.

When teachers take a stand in their students’ conflicts, students are more likely to seek help from them in the future. Other school staff play important roles, too, and can improve school environments when they know how to respond to conflict situations and support students involved.

There are three primary ways in which parents can support and guide students when it comes to bullying:

  1. Parents can influence their kids’ perceptions of bullying, and more broadly, about ways of engaging with their peers. It’s important for young people to understand that bullying and cyberbullying can be extremely serious. However, it’s also important for youth to learn how to feel empathy for others (including bullies) and to learn how to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Parents’ guidance can go a long way in fostering these abilities.
  2. The behavior that parents exhibit affects youth a great deal. Kids learn from the behavior they observe in their parents, beginning at an early age and then continuing through the teen years. Dialog becomes increasingly important during this time; parents interested in asking questions and learning about the online world can also help students explore complicated questions about how to be conduct themselves in the world, both online and offline.
  3. Parents can involve themselves in schools’ anti-bullying prevention programs and/or social and emotional learning programs. Such programs are typically more effective when parents participate – parents can learn much from one another’s respective experiences, and their engagement helps schools foster more supportive environments.

Responding to your child’s report of bullying: Listen to what your teen has to say (in her own words) about the bullying incident. Young people are generally more likely to disclose such incidents to friends rather than to adults, parents included. Try to create an environment that invites your daughter to talk about these issues. In some cases, it may be necessary for you to report a bullying/cyberbullying situation to school officials and the police.

In such cases, you and your daughter should be prepared to answer the following questions:

  1. What exactly was said? (Have your daughter print out a copy of the message/post/picture, or show the saved text message)
  2. What type of technology was used to make the threat? (IM, cell phone, other hand-held device)
  3. How often has the threat occurred?
  4. Do you know who is responsible for the threats? (Does your daughter know exactly who it is, does she think you know who is doing it, or does she not have any idea who is making the threats).

You can also guide your daughter as she reports abuse to the online application that was used to deliver the harassing behavior. For instance, if someone is repeatedly posting mean comments about her on Facebook, she can click the “Report/Mark as Spam” option.. If someone is sending e-mails to her Gmail account that violate Gmail policies, have her fill out the form to report the abuse. Remember that she can usually block and filter users from contacting her by adjusting her privacy settings.

The Comcast Foundation

This health guide is made possible by a grant from the The Comcast Foundation.