Building Safe Online Spaces for Teens

By Sara C. Flowers, PPFA

Over the last year, we’ve all had to get a little more comfortable with digital spaces. Whether you’re tired of Zoom by this point or not, most of us can agree that technology has kept us connected to loved ones and helped us maintain some sense of normalcy during the pandemic. Young people are no exception.

Since most teens today are “digital natives” — having grown up around technology and with social media — parents and caregivers might think that teens haven’t had to adjust much to connecting with peers digitally. But the truth is this changed reality is especially challenging for teens. They are in a period of their life where they’re trying to figure out who they are and with whom they want to socialize, without being in person.

In your ongoing conversations with your teens about sex and relationships, keep an open mind about the ways in which young people are navigating digital spaces. Try to have affirming conversations about staying safe online — making thoughtful decisions, managing peer pressure, and understanding what it means to get or give consent in all circumstances.

While the young people in your life may have taught you a thing or two about technology, they still need your help to navigate online spaces. Here are five tips for talking with teens about online safety:

  1. Put yourself in their shoes. Even though growing up today may seem like a totally different world from when you were a teen — especially when you factor in technology and social media — some things are very much the same. Think about what you were like when you were younger, what was going on in your teen brain, and the resources you wish you had to navigate the world around you.
  2. Keep consent front and center. Encourage young people to think about what they want and don’t want — because consent should be at the foundation of any decision they make with another person. Remind them to never sext or send something they don’t want to send just because someone is pressuring them to do it. They should not pressure others to do this either. It’s also important to consider consent when thinking about sharing information or photos that were sent — sharing something with others that was shared in private isn’t OK, unless they have consent to do so.
  3. Remember, the internet is forever. Teens’ brains are still growing — they haven’t fully developed their ability to think far ahead, so it’s a good idea to remind them that there can be long-term effects to sending, sharing, or posting things online. While it is never okay for anyone to disrespect your boundaries by sharing messages with others without consent, you can’t control what others do once you hit send. When it comes to sexting in particular, young people should ask themselves:
    — Is what I am sharing legal? In most cases, it is illegal to share naked pictures or videos of anyone under 18 years old; that can mean legal consequences for both the sender and recipient.
    — Where could this end up? Sexting requires a lot of trust between you and your partners. Even with your feelings of love, care, or trust toward a person, there is no way of knowing for sure that what you share will remain private. Even with “disappear” features on Snapchat and Instagram, once it’s out there, you have no control over who can see your picture and what they can do with it, and no way of getting it back.
  4. Real-life happens online, too. Bullying, harassment, jumping on fandoms and bandwagons, and making mean or cruel jokes is just as real and harmful online as it is in real life. Remind young people to be thoughtful about the ways in which they engage with friends and followers online, and to come to you for help if they’re being bullied online.
  5. Make use of teachable moments. Pay attention to the messages and issues that young people are exposed to, and engage them in conversations about it. Ask your teen what they think about the healthy and unhealthy messages that are getting reinforced online and how they impact them, and encourage them to think critically about how they choose to behave online.

Planned Parenthood’s website includes a variety of resources to help you have meaningful and impactful conversations with your teen about online safety. Check out our resources for information on sexting, consent, and what to teach your high school-aged teen about personal safety.

Dr. Sara C. Flowers is an advocate for both inclusive sex education and dismantling inequities in sexual and reproductive health. In her role as vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Dr. Flowers sets the vision, priorities, and strategy for sex education and training. She holds a doctorate in public health from The Graduate School and University Center, CUNY, as well as a bachelor of arts in psychology and a master of public health degree, both from The George Washington University.

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This April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we’re bringing attention to online harassment and abuse and providing solutions on how we can prevent it.

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