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Parenting in the Digital Age

Here's how to protect children from harmful online content.

Key points

  • The internet contains easily accessible sexual and violent content that can be harmful to children and teens.
  • Parents should communicate with their children about online safety.
  • Parents can use parent control apps to help manage their children's exposure to inappropriate content.
Source: Ron Latch / Pexels
Mom covers children's eyes from digital devices.
Source: Ron Latch / Pexels

Recently, in the news, a politician revealed the use of a so-called "accountability app" known as Covenant Eyes to assign someone as a monitor to help stave off the temptation of viewing online pornography. Instagram (part of the Meta social media universe) recently added parental supervision features, letting parents monitor children's online behavior on their platforms. These examples highlight how technology is evolving to help us manage exposure to adult-only online media and content.

Today, the internet contains easily accessible sexual and violent content. From police bodycam videos of violent crimes to news footage of the horrors of war to violent video games and pornography, disturbing content is just a few clicks away. Many are concerned that access to graphic, adult-only content may be harmful to children and teens. How can parents deal with the proliferation of platforms, apps, games, and viral images intended for adults yet viewable by kids?

Most online videos entertain and inform. Yet a darker side to the digital web includes violent and sexual images that can be misunderstood and traumatizing to young people. When graphic content goes viral, millions can view it. Parents, as well as educators and psychologists, are concerned about the possible negative effects exposure to violent or sexual content has on kids' mental health. For example, internet gaming disorder (IGD) was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) in 2013. Research suggests that social media and online pornography addictions are significant mental health concerns. (1)

Most 10- to 19-year-olds frequently use smartphones to access social media (PEW Research Center, 2022). Parents are urged to monitor their children's social media and gaming sites, but given the breadth of available, inappropriate content, how can parents practically manage what young viewers access? Can parents filter what kids view and teach them how to deal with the seedy and violent aspects of the digital universe?

Parents should begin with good communication. Talk about it. Ask your child a few questions about what they do and view online:

  1. Is the content you are looking at "appropriate?" When a child views potentially traumatizing videos, parents should have a conversation to help contextualize what their kids have seen and to reassure them that they are safe. Parents can't limit all exposure, so be ready to help your children understand and cope with what they've witnessed.
  2. Think about the people with whom you connect online. Would you want to be friends with that person in your offline world?
  3. Does your digital device take you away from other games, sports, or fun activities with family or friends? How much time on digital devices is best for our family?
  4. Does your online behavior show off the person you want to be? Are most people you meet online polite and respectful? How does social media make you feel about yourself?

Ultimately, parents must help young people develop skills for filtering toxic online material and people on their own. "Stranger danger" lessons are valuable for kids to keep in mind, except nowadays, strangers are also digital avatars and online bullies. The good news is that tech-savvy parents now have an array of parent control apps to help manage young people's exposure.

These apps allow control of children's devices and internet access and include content filtering to limit certain websites, games, videos, and apps. These apps also allow parents to set up screen time limits on kids' digital devices. These technologies make it easier for parents to monitor and limit what kids do or see online.

Accountability partner apps, as mentioned earlier, let users link with family or friends for social support to resist temptations. Previously helpful in addiction treatment, weight loss, and exercise, the latest apps were adapted to help limit access to digital temptations. Here is a recent Psychology Today post by David Ley outlining some pros and cons for parents considering this type of software.

New technology offers parents control over their children's exposure to graphic online content. One size will not fit all, so parents must research options and compare the features of "parental control" and "accountability apps" to best meet their family's needs.

Parent-child communication is the first defense for helping children and teens grow into healthy and responsible digital citizens. Parents must initiate conversations with young people about their online and social media lives. Help them understand and filter inappropriate people and content. Next, use technology to manage technology; research some reviews of parental control apps that may help parents shape children and teens' online exposure.

It may be impossible to filter all the questionable content your children view, but parents are not powerless. Parents must communicate clearly and frequently about age-appropriate limitations. Communicate about what online content is for "adults-only" and why it is best for young people to avoid it. In today's digital playground, parents must stay informed and use all available tools to manage young people's exposure to inappropriate content.


(1). Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L. & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update

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