If it hasn’t happened yet, it will. That moment of shock and panic when your child sees something inappropriate online—something not meant for young eyes.
“Parents should assume that at some point, their child will come across something inappropriate that can be upsetting or scary,” Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Center at Fielding Graduate University, tells Parentology. “Younger children are more likely to have this happen by accident. Older children may be curious.”
The unfortunate reality is that most children—even for a brief moment—will see images or words online that are violent, sexually-explicit, angry, offensive, even threatening or hateful. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 46% of parents say their child age 11 and younger who watches YouTube has encountered videos that were inappropriate for their age.
As Sue Scheff, parent advocate and Internet safety expert, tells Parentology, “unsavory content lingers online.”
What can you do as a parent when your child sees something inappropriate online?
It’s natural to feel upset, angry, or anxious about having an uncomfortable conversation with your child. But experts say that staying calm is the most important thing you can do.
“When parents are reactive,” Rutledge says, “they can make the child think that the situation is worse than it is.”
Rutledge recommends taking a deep breath and giving yourself a moment “so your brain reengages and you’re not just relying on those ‘Mother Bear’ instincts.” She adds, “No matter what your gender, parents want to protect their children. In this case you will do a better job of protecting them if you can hold your emotions at bay.”
Don’t Take Away Devices
You may want to think twice before confiscating your child’s devices. Rutledge says this tendency is natural but not productive in the long-run.
“Not only are you signaling [to] your child that you don’t trust them, you are keeping them from developing critical thinking and learning how to navigate an environment that, try as you might, you cannot protect them from,” explains Rutledge. “The earlier they learn to make judgments and learn safe behaviors, the safer they will be.”
Taking away technology may also make a child less likely to come to you for help in the future. If children fear you will act punitively, they might not tell you the next time they encounter an uncomfortable situation online.
Talk to Your Child Before It Happens
Talking to your child about the unpleasant or frightening images they could possibly see online might make you feel uneasy, but experts stress the importance of having these conversations early and often.
Scheff—who has spent decades advocating for families about cyber safety—suggests starting the dialogue before you even give your child a device. She says parents should be discussing the potential for online hate and distasteful content, which includes giving age-appropriate examples of bad behavior and inappropriate content. Parents should also be explaining the steps kids should take if they encounter it—including telling a parent or trusted adult.
In addition to preparing kids for what she calls “the ugly-side of the Internet,” Scheff recommends teaching kids how to report, flag, and block abusive content on all the platforms they are on, as well as knowing when and how to click out.
If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, Rutledge suggests talking first about internet safety and the kinds of things that can go wrong. “Then brainstorm strategies with your child for when things come up—which they will—as soon as your child has access to a device.”
Help Kids Identify What’s Inappropriate
Children often know deep down that what they just saw wasn’t meant for kids. Younger children may need more guidance when making judgements about what’s inappropriate.
Let kids know that their bodies can give them clues and help them know when something they’ve seen is “bad.” Rutledge explains, “Inappropriate content can cause discomfort, fear, stomachache, sweaty palms, or a change in heartbeat that are the same physical messages you’d get if you weren’t in a safe place.”
Teach your child to come to you whenever they see something online that upsets them or makes them feel unsafe. Make sure they understand ahead of time that you won’t be mad at them, they won’t be in trouble, and you won’t take their device away.
Talk About It—Even If It’s Hard
Kids need our help making sense of the awful things they see online. So, if your child comes to you, “don’t ignore it because it’s hard to talk about,” Rutledge says. She also cautions parents not to go into the conversation assuming their child has automatically been traumatized by what they saw.
When kids are given the opportunity to talk it out, especially when the experience has taken them by surprise or upset them, they are able to “make sense of the experience so they don’t ruminate or make more out of something than it warrants,” Rutledge says. “Sharing feelings can help children process experiences and normalize them.”
These conversations can also help kids put what they saw into context. “For example, seeing violence can make children anxious because they think the world is more dangerous than it really is,” Rutledge says.
If They Don’t Want to Talk—Try Anyway
Just because your child doesn’t feel like talking about something disturbing they saw online, doesn’t mean you should ignore it. “Even if all you get is shrugs and eye-rolls,” Rutledge says. “You can still tell your child that you’re available to talk anytime. Let them know that you want them to be prepared to handle what comes along and to be able to stay safe.”
Pay attention to your child’s behavior, too. If you start to notice they’re acting differently, Rutledge suggests reaching out to a professional to get an experienced opinion. “Many kids will tell psychologists things they won’t tell their parents for many reasons, [including] fear of getting in trouble [or] letting their parents down,” she says.
What to Do When Your Child Sees Something Inappropriate — Sources
Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., Director, Media Psychology Center at Fielding Graduate University
Sue Scheff, author, parent advocate, and founder of Parents Universal Resource Experts, Inc.
Parenting Children in the Age of Screens, Pew Research Center, 2020