Pew Research Center
While those are extreme cases, it’s important to remember that online threats to a child’s well-being often look different depending on their identity and background. When Rutgers University sociologist Jeffrey Lane spent years studying youth in central Harlem, he found their social media use often put them at greater risk for digital police surveillance. In certain instances, authorities and adults, including parents, saw troubling social media posts and positively intervened. But in other cases that monitoring led to indictments for being associated with alleged gun violence.
And while many parents worry that their child has too much internet access, Lane says the low-income teens he studied often suffered without digital technology, because they used text and instant messaging to help each other pay bills, get clothes, and eat meals.
“Screen time in the context of these kids wasn’t necessarily a fear of missing out, it was where their next meal would come from.”
Jeffrey Lane, Rutgers University sociologist
“That’s where you see how vital having a phone is for young people who don’t have a lot of family support, and who don’t feel supported or protected in their schools or don’t have that many resources,” says Lane, whose research became the book The Digital Street . “Screen time in the context of these kids wasn’t necessarily a fear of missing out, it was where their next meal would come from.”
Meanwhile, says Lane, some of those teens tried to become entrepreneurs on social media platforms, drumming up potential business for a fledgling personal care brand or music career. For those teens, being able to watch and learn from, or even post their own YouTube tutorials, may represent their primary access to digital tools that promise to transform their life.
Such complexities are why it’s critical to rethink your definition of online safety so that it reflects your child’s broader sense of personal well-being, which includes sleep, privacy, intellectual engagement, creative expression, relationship building, and mental health.
Step 3: Understand the culture of an online experience
Just like your child’s school, sports team, or friend circle, digital environments have their own distinct culture. Those values and practices are directly tied to a product’s business model, the rules and community guidelines it sets, and how users interact with the environment and each other.
Given that most digital products are built on an advertising model that rewards user engagement as well as harvesting personal data for marketing purposes, parents simply cannot entrust purveyors of apps, games, platforms, and sites with their child’s safety and well-being. Instead, products serve up ads that, at a minimum emphasize consumerism, and at worst are inappropriate for children. Many also offer in-app rewards or purchases designed to drive longer engagement, rather than thoughtful play. In other words, aside from following federal law forbidding companies from tracking or collecting personal information from users under 13, not many do much to create a culture of safety or high-quality experiences specifically for youth.
The exceptions to that rule, however, offer important insights for parents. When asked which creators of kids’ digital entertainment they most respect, child development experts single out one again and again: PBS KIDS.
The PBS KIDS Digital brand develops “curriculum-based entertainment” as an arm of the national public broadcaster PBS. Their business model isn’t about selling ads. Instead, their money comes from government funding, donations, grants, and sponsorships, and they spend it partly on experts who help create enriching, fun content primarily for kids 2 through 8. Then kids in the target age group, many of whom come from low-income households, test the content and provide feedback so the creators can ensure it’s engaging and educational.
Sara DeWitt , vice president of PBS KIDS Digital, says the brand’s philosophical approach focuses on finding ways to use new technology and media so that it improves a child’s overall well-being, including their educational development, relationships, and ability to thrive in society. PBS KIDS Digital designs games, apps, and experiences so that the child is in charge of the experience, but within boundaries designed to protect their safety and enhance their well-being. (Some apps are free, others can be purchased for a one-time cost.)
DeWitt says her team is against persuasive design and doesn’t believe time spent should define the success of a digital experience. That means PBS KIDS apps aren’t built to draw children into nonstop play. Some apps even encourage children to explore the real world.
Nature Cat's Great Outdoors app / PBS KIDS Digital
Play&Learn Science app / PBS KIDS Digital
“Every single digital piece has a connected, offline activity,” says DeWitt.
The Nature Cat’s Great Outdoors app , which is based on the animated PBS KIDS series Nature Cat, encourages kids to record what they hear while sitting under a tree. The Play&Learn Science app includes tips for parents on how to conduct real-life experiments with water, shadows, and weather. In most cases, the images or sounds children might capture with a PBS KIDS app are stored locally on their device, and not collected by the developers.
On the PBSKids.org website, which receives 6.1 million visits per month, users can browse games and environments that mirror the world of a character from a PBS show. But these experiences are designed so that a child can’t easily click on an external link. If they do manage to click on such a link, perhaps one meant for parents, a pop-up sign makes it clear they’re leaving PBSKids.org.
The site itself is fully encrypted, and human moderators review user-generated content that could be objectionable, like drawings made with the website’s tools. PBS KIDS Digital doesn’t collect personally identifiable information from children. When a child logs into the site’s virtual world, Kart Kingdom , their username must be approved by a moderator and encrypted passwords are automatically generated, which prevents them from sharing personally identifying information.
A selection of games available at PBSKids.org.
PBS KIDS Digital has created an online culture with their products that reflects PBS’ longtime mission of supporting children, which DeWitt says goes all the way back to Fred Rogers. Few organizations or companies can draw on such a rich history, but parents can look at the role of experts, the emphasis on play and enrichment, and the importance of privacy and security, and search for products that create a similar culture for children.
While PBS’ business model makes it possible to focus holistically on children’s well-being, it’s not impossible for privately funded companies to do the same. When Zach Klein co-founded JAM, a site for kids 17 and younger to learn skills via how-to videos, he knew safety would be critical to the platform’s success. As the co-founder of Vimeo, Klein knew well the dangers of “anything goes” digital culture.
“We discovered that’s not practical for maintaining a safe community,” he says. “You have to draw a line about what good citizenship looks like.”
“You have to draw a line about what good citizenship looks like.”
Zach Klein, CEO and co-founder of DIY.org
That’s why JAM, which recently merged with and became DIY.org , adopted community guidelines that focus on kindness, friendship, and respect, in addition to being “an awesome digital citizen” and keeping personal (yours and other users’) information safe. Users are instructed to never give out any personal information that could identify them in real life. That includes their address, links to social media accounts, and full name. They’re also told to avoid asking other DIY’ers for their personal information, and to always get permission before posting personal details about someone else. One of the site’s guidelines is a sentiment other platforms don’t make explicitly clear: “When in doubt, report.”
These guidelines aren’t relegated to the fine print, either. When someone becomes a member, DIY.org asks them to record a video of themselves reciting a playful pledge to live up to the rules: “I promise to be AWESOME at all times. To be fearless to try and fearless to fail. To never put myself or others down. To spend more time under the sun than staring at my screen. To keep my family’s top secret spaghetti recipe secret. To help make this special place better than I found it.”
The platform only publishes courses and videos created by vetted experts. DIY.org’s community of fellow users cheer each other on. There is no way for kids to complete a course, challenge, or project, like drawing bootcamp , taking a landscape photo , or making fluffy slime using tools within the platform; all of that work must be done in real life, off the app and site.
“[Parents] are satisfied because they see that hour when their kids use our app on a screen, it activates them to get off the screen,” says Klein. “That’s what we’re designing for.”
That has sometimes been a hard sell for investors who measure success by time spent, says Klein. Currently, DIY.org is available through a monthly or annual subscription for the equivalent of $15 to $25 per month, depending on which plan you choose. Klein knows the cost of DIY.org presents a significant barrier that a free service like YouTube does not, but he looks for corporate partnerships that provide complimentary memberships and courses to users, like this one with the Cartoon Network. For now, paying for a subscription is surely a deal-breaker for countless families, but the DIY.org experience is a radical contrast from watching instructional videos on YouTube.
“Our ambition is to help any kid anywhere, learn any skill,” says Klein. “We want to create a space where kids aren’t afraid to try.”
On DIY.org, for example, an algorithm doesn’t eventually lead to questionable or horrifying content. There are no ads hawking products to kids. When a child shares a video of her completed project, creeps don’t show up in the comments. Instead, other users post encouraging feedback. The team at DIY.org is set on keeping bad actors off the platform through a combination of parental verification, software monitoring, and full-time human moderators.
A brand like YouTube can employ the same strategies but isn’t able to create the safest environment possible given its business model and scale. (The Federal Trade Commission recently reached a $170 million settlement with Google, YouTube’s parent company, over the streaming video platform’s violation of federal data privacy laws for children. YouTube announced that it plans to end placing targeted ads on video that children are likely to watch.)
If your child likes learning via online video and being a part of a larger community of kids, you want them on a platform like DIY.org instead of YouTube. Even when YouTube Kids, the safety-focused app the company made for users under 13, offers content that focuses on creativity, commenting isn't part of the experience, and thus there's no spirit of community or camaraderie. That’s just not possible when a platform has billions of users and has to strip its content of social context and interaction in order to keep pedophiles and abusive trolls at bay.
Step 4: Keep talking to your child about their safety and well-being
As you learn more about which aspects of online safety and well-being are most important to you and your child, continue to have non-judgmental conversations about those values as a family. Those discussions will improve your chances of finding the right online experiences that meet a child’s needs and your expectations.
Christine Elgersma , senior editor of parent education for Common Sense Media, says regular family communication is key because new sites, apps, platforms, and games constantly enter the marketplace.
“It’s a sprawling landscape where it’s that whack-a-mole feeling of newness and you can’t quite keep up with every single title,” says Elgersma. “You have to look at that uncertainty and wild card nature of it and factor that in, in terms of the safety of a kid.”
Meanwhile, children may do things like develop their own misspellings in order to include profanity in chats or circumvent safety features by signing up for a product using a teenage or adult age.
“Once you figure out how to steal cars in 'Grand Theft Auto,' and you are there as their student, then you can say, ‘Let’s think about what you’re learning.’”
Michael Rich, pediatrician and founding director of of the Center on Media and Child Health
Those possibilities might convince some parents to completely or severely restrict screen time access. But Michael Rich , a pediatrician and founding director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, warns parents against that strategy. It may instead backfire and turn digital media products into “forbidden fruit.” So if your child plays a violent video game, for example, Rich recommends playing it together to signal that you want to understand what they enjoy, then have an open conversation about how the game makes them feel.
“Once you figure out how to steal cars in Grand Theft Auto, and you are there as their student, then you can say, ‘Let’s think about what you’re learning,’” says Rich. “Then you’re coming from a place of concern and nurturing and support rather than wagging your finger.”
While Grand Theft Auto Online might not be among the safest places on the internet, Rich still believes it’s possible to moderate exposure to experiences like that with an overarching approach of helping children engage with content and media in a mindful, balanced, and present way. Try to adopt that as your approach anytime a child wants to access digital content that seems troubling or problematic.
If, for instance, they’re arguing to download TikTok to keep up with the latest memes circulating at school but you’re rightfully worried about allowing them to browse the app constantly, turn that tension into an ongoing conversation about media literacy, boundaries, and self-awareness. While you can use parental controls to limit their access if necessary, you should know that digital subterfuge is easy to pull off; if a child really wants to look at TikTok, they’ll find a way. Better to help them develop critical thinking skills to judge whether an online activity is good for their well-being than make it an ongoing fight over who has more control: them or you.
Out of Eden Learn
It’s also crucial to remember that alarm over screen time should vary based on what your child is doing online. Members of TrevorSpace , a gated social networking platform for LGBTQ youth, may spend hours building digital relationships with other teens going through similar experiences — and that may be the best social support they get all day. Youth on Out of Eden Learn , an educational site and research project that brings students from around the world together to learn, spend weeks immersing themselves in a digital culture that values slow, thoughtful dialogue around issues related to topics like world history, science, and government.
When parents assume that time spent online is inherently toxic, and don’t stop to ask a child why it’s rewarding, they’ll miss out on conversations that lead to stronger bonds as well as opportunities to help a child rethink what it really means to be safe online. Though it requires effort and consistency, that is a much different dynamic than regularly surrendering your phone or tablet to a desperate child. Giving over a device on demand also runs counter to how many parents see their role when it comes to their child’s character and well-being in general.
“We have to parent them as actively in the digital space as we parent them in real space,” says Rich. “We need to bring the same values and ideas of what it takes to be a good citizen into that space as we do into the space of our living room.”
With the right tools and strategies, that is one challenge that parents can absolutely conquer.