Internet Safety for Teens

In the 60’s, Christian parents were outraged over the “shocking” youth culture.  However, parents today may wish for the “good old 60’s and 70’s,” because on all levels, kids today are into far worse stuff, thanks mostly to the Internet.

Who would have ever thought that the Internet would beat out television and movies as the most time-consuming form of entertainment for teens?  It has! 96% of all teens in the U.S. daily access the Internet, averaging more than four hours online every day.  It now affects every family in some way, since it can be accessed in many more ways than it once could, and it is being used by teens in ways that may shock some less Internet-savvy parents.  So, it is especially important for parents to know how their kids are interacting via digital media today, while also understanding that completely removing it isn’t always the best move.

The Breadth of the Problem 

A lot of good can be gleaned from the Internet and from use of today’s digital tools like cell phones.  The Internet is a powerful research and teaching tool.  It has become the main source for news, new music and it will eventually become the main source for books and movies.  Through cell phones, parents are able to keep in touch with their kids wherever they are, and kids can text each other.  And through video tools like Skype and social networking sites, teens and extended families can connect with each other in important and extraordinary ways.

But along with all the good, comes the bad…

Pornography (4.3 million porn sites) and suggestive invitations to participate in pornography are prevalent on the Internet and not easy to miss. Web surfers see inappropriate pictures or videos even if they aren’t necessarily looking for them and there is no cost barrier, since millions of photos are provided free.  While the porn industry has been around since the beginning of painting and photography, the Internet and digital cameras on cell phones are making it so that just about anyone can become involved in uploading their own sexualized photos as well.  As a result, no age group is more involved in digital pornography than teenagers. It has become so widespread and accepted in their culture, kids no longer see anything wrong with it.

What gets the most attention on the Internet are the images with the greatest shock value.  In other words, the most shockingly immoral or dangerous videos or photos are the most sought for and passed around.  Kids surf the Internet seeking titillating images to pass on to their friends. And many are making and uploading their own photos and videos.  As a result, every form of experimentation, from drugs to sex are openly discussed, taught, demonstrated and encouraged on the Internet today.

When kids get online and participate in what they would never think of doing in person I call it “digital courage.”  As a result, guys are getting a warped image of girls, what girls want from boys, and what boys should expect from girls. Girls are given messages that if you don’t present yourself in a sexualized way, then you won’t get noticed.  And both sexes are getting warped ideas about same-sex relationships. It’s a culture fueled by permissive messages that make it okay to be blatant about sex and silly to care about modesty.  And what’s happening online, in a fantasy world, is making its way into the real world for these kids when they spend hours engulfed in it daily.

I don’t think parents quite understand the tremendous amount of pressure that this emphasis on seduction places especially on impressionable teen and pre-teen girls. They are forced to choose between doing what is socially acceptable in their own circles and what is acceptable among their family and church.  More often than not, the social pressure to fit in outweighs their desire to be modest and follow what they’ve been taught.  Girls who’ve grown up in church may therefore begin to present themselves in ways that are not in line with the values they have learned.

Beyond the moral influences, kids fail to understand the potential practical consequences for what they carelessly post online.  For instance, the United States government announced years ago that every word “tweeted” on the largest social networking site, Twitter, is being recorded for permanent public storage by the Library of Congress.  It means that messages and images can be recalled many years from now.  Why is that an issue? For one thing, many employers and some colleges now research what applicants have been saying or posting online, since what they find there is a good indicator of the motivations and attitudes of the applicant. Educational and career choices may be hindered by the careless words or pictures your teen is posting.

Solutions No More 

It used to be that filters on your home computer could be used to block inappropriate sites, but that’s an incomplete solution today.  Parents have a bigger issue on their hands now, with the advent of wireless and handheld computers, iPads, iPhones, PDA’s and smart cell phones. Kids can get online just about anywhere, not just at home where it can be monitored. Not only are there more wireless ways to connect, 77% of kids access the Internet at school or the library, where there may be no filters at all.

According to Pew Research, 40% of all teens use the digital cameras on their own cell phones or computers to send sexual photos or “send sexual texts — a practice called “sexting.” Even if your teenager isn’t “sexting” themselves, photos and sexualized comments from other kids are being passed to them.

What’s a Parent to Do?

Parents need to realize that it is becoming nearly impossible to keep kids away from the bad stuff on the Internet. That’s why they should begin talking to their children in the tween years (by age 9) about the inappropriateness of pornography. Talk in age-appropriate terms, being careful not to spark interest in it or to make it appear that all kids are involved in it.  Revisit the topic periodically, since your teen’s thoughts and motivations will change over time. Regularly ask questions in your one-on-one weekly meeting, like, “What so you think is appropriate and inappropriate to see or talk about on the Internet or in texts.”  Be very wise in the way that you approach it so that you don’t push your child away.  Listen more than you speak and never embarrass them.

Your child is likely on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook (now for old folks), and SnapChat, so you better make sure you are on there as well.  There’s nothing like knowing that your parent may see what you say or the photos you post.  It keeps them in line.  Tell them that they must “friend” you, so you can monitor what they and their other friends are posting.  But don’t respond to their posts online or otherwise bring embarrassment to them in front of their friends. Just use it for monitoring and discuss what you find there with them personally.

Getting It Under Control 

It is important to keep in mind that all rules for use of the Internet in your home must be adapted to the age of your child and his or her responsibility level. With that being said, here are some tips for parents to get the Internet under control:

  1. PASSWORD POLICY:  Make it a home policy that parents must know all electronic passwords. This gives access if needed. Have access to their social networking account for your monthly monitoring (or don’t allow them on any network site if they can’t be responsible).   Add yourself to their “friend” list to be able to roam around on their site. Make sure their profile is “private,” so that only their approved “friends” can communicate with them.  A little monitoring goes a long way. If they refuse, disconnect their Internet access and texting on their cell phone.
  1. TRACKING:   Take advantage of parental controls offered by wireless communication companies, but also install silent tracking software and let it do its work to help you know what sites they are visiting.  Most kids learn to quickly get around blocking software and the so-called “parental controls,” but they cannot usually defy software that tracks their every keystroke.
  1. ACCESS:  Keep Internet accessible devices out of your teen’s bedroom. Keep them out in an open area with the monitor visible from various angles.  Don’t allow access unless you are in the room, and put a limit on the amount of time they may spend on the Internet.  If you have wireless in your home, shut it down after hours and when your teen is alone at home.  If your teen has a smart phone that can access Internet sites or receive photos, then have them turn it over to you before going to bed.
  1. REVIEW:  On their computer, periodically view their Internet “browser history” and follow the trail. You will be amazed; software is available to secretly record their every move if needed, especially if you think they are accessing the Internet overnight or when you are not home.
  1. READ:  Tell your teen that for the privilege of texting on their cell phone, you will periodically ask to see that they’ve been texting.  Tell them that they mustn’t erase text messages, or that will be an assumed admission of guilt. Then, do unannounced spot checks several times per month. Don’t use it as an opportunity to seek proof of other offences, but simply spot check for inappropriate messages or photos. Then, talk to your teen about what you find.

Find out who they are chatting with online. Many times, the people on the other end aren’t who they portray themselves to be, so keep your teen out of the open chat rooms.  Be especially careful if you think your teen may be interacting with an Internet stalker.  If you find anyone you don’t know asking to meet your teen boy or girl alone somewhere, immediately report it to the police.

  1. LOGIN:  Get on their social networking home page and look around.  Look at their friends.  See what they’re saying.  Look at what is being said to them.  Go visit their friend’s pages.  You might just find out something about your child that would be a perfect intro into some great conversations.
  1. TALK, AND THEN TALK SOME MORE:  If you find something inappropriate on a cell phone or computer, privately talk to your child.  Make it something you agree to both get together to talk about periodically.  Don’t accuse them and assume the worst.  All teens — especially boys — are curious about adult things and they want to see what their friends are suggesting they see.  So, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.  You’ll be amazed how your child will respond when you speak with a gentle spirit, not one of condemnation and guilt.  You’ll be glad you found the issue before it got too big in the child’s life. Catching it early will often prevent it from becoming a life-long addiction.

I believe in privacy. I believe in trust. But I also believe in “being there” to be the parent God has called me to be. If I see anything that concerns me, then it must be brought into the open with the teen, shared, and discussed. I tell kids that I sleep with one eye open. I’m always looking for something that has the potential to destroy a relationship with them and with God.  I tell them that I’m looking out for them because I don’t want any unwelcome thing to intrude into their life.

It’s Up to You 

Monitoring your teen’s Internet use can be a lot of added work, but I believe that parents should go to no end to find out what their teen is into and who they are connecting with online, especially if it begins affecting their attitudes and behaviors.  That portal to the outside world needs monitoring. After all, would you let just anyone, even a registered sex offender or pornographer, into your house to befriend your teen?  Of course not.  The hold that an outsider may have on your teenage girl, or the hold that pornography may have on a teenage boy, may ultimately harm both them and your family. Your teen will be too embarrassed to reveal it, so it’s up to you to find out and take action.

Helping your teen become more discerning in how they surf or text on the Internet is now more important than older tactics of simply blocking teens from it. They’ll find other ways to access the Internet, whether at school or in their friend’s homes or using their friend’s cell phone or laptop computer. So, teaching them to be discerning will give kids the skills they need in a culture where it is nearly impossible for a parent to completely block them from accessing it.

Moms and dads all over the country express great frustration to me with how to positively encounter their teen living in a seductive, visually oriented, and digitally bombarded world.  The answer to their questions is always that they have to do something, rather than doing nothing.  Online and texting parameters must be set, communicated, and adhered to.  And it must be a set of parameters that are monitored, revisited and discussed often.  Remember this… rules without monitoring aren’t rules at all, just blind suggestions.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Smartphone Apps to Watch Out For

Smartphone Apps to Watch Out ForConfession time; I love my smart phone.  I check my e-mail, read books, listen to music, store my photos, and navigate directions. I can also use this handy device to talk to people, but that is almost a secondary function on this type of phone.  The technology in this tool can be wonderfully useful.  With all the information and functionality at our fingertips, we live in a world far different than the one we grew up in.

This brave new world is one our kids are now navigating with a natural proficiency you and I will have to work hard to match.  It’s an environment of new technology and innovation that seems to change and evolve every other day.  Many parents feel unequipped to even try to understand this new world.  They are sort of “digital immigrants” entering a strange new frontier.  But our teens are embracing it with open arms.  According to a recent Pew Internet study, 3 out of every 4 teenagers own their own cell phone.  That’s incredible, considering that only a few years ago pagers were all the rage!  With the explosion of cell phone use, smartphone applications, or “apps” have also taken off.  Whether it’s Apple or Google, every cell phone provider has an online store, where you can peruse thousands upon thousands of applications that can be downloaded right onto your phone.  These handy icons on your phone allow you to do everything from edit photos, to order a pizza, to turning your phone into a flashlight!  Some novelty apps are free.  Other more powerful apps can cost you quite a bit of money.

You might feel a little lost navigating a digital world, where everyday hundreds of new apps are available for download.  However, parents must immerse themselves in this digital world and be aware of what’s out there, because some seemingly harmless apps have the potential to be dangerous.  Let me highlight a few new ones.


This app allows users to send photos and videos from their phone that disappear after 10 seconds once they are received.  No longer are images and information living on in perpetuity.  The idea is that once the intended receiver gets your photo, it’s gone in a flash.  However, this has made many young people feel safe sending inappropriate photos and videos, believing that what they are forwarding won’t live in the cyber world.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Even when you use Snapchat, material can be saved.  If you see this app on your teens phone, let them know that everything they send can be monitored.


Kik is an instant messaging service that allows users to send messages and photos with relative anonymity.  Because it’s a third-party service, contacts and messages are not recorded by your phone’s provider like they would be if you were using the regular IM service.  Kik is a popular messaging service with tweens and teens, with over 80 million users.  But the danger is that this app allows people to chat with your teen anonymously, and messages go unrecorded.  So talk to your son or daughter about the dangers of anonymous chats, and explain what subjects and topics are inappropriate to talk about with others.  Set boundaries for this type of social media, and explain the risks involved with using an app like Kik.


Ask.fm is an app that allows users to ask tough questions or share secrets anonymously.  There are over 65 million users of Ask.fm, and it’s only gaining in popularity.  However, the open forum environment has caused this app to be open to cyber-bullying.  Currently, five teen suicides have been linked to harassing comments or questions left on Ask.Fm.  So why are kids flocking to this app?  Sameer Hinduja, a criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University, says part of the appeal of apps like Ask.Fm is the need for affirmation.  “You need to be validated when you’re a teenager because you are wondering if you’re turning out OK, and so these sites completely meet that need.  It’s like, ‘this is so great. Someone asked me a question.  Someone took the time to visit my profile and like my picture and leave a comment.’”


This can be a fun app that allows users to create silly, 6-second videos that run on a loop.  Like Youtube for people with A.D.D.  It could be a short video of a skateboard crash, or a friend eating an ice-cream cone.  While this app is intended for innocent fun, there is a ton of inappropriate material out there on Vine, both sexual and violent.  Some disturbing videos have included animal cruelty, cyber-bullying, and kids being recorded unawares.  Vine is currently putting heavy filters on what can be uploaded, but teens are still being exposed to harmful material on this app.


Tinder is an online dating app for tweens and teens.  I know, I know; it’s already inappropriate that there would be a dating service for kids!  However, young people are attracted to this app because of the positive reinforcement they receive.  Tinder is designed to only match kids with other people who like them back, which is flattering and affirming.  However, because matches are limited to a geographic area and can be seen by anyone, there can be instances where your teen is connecting with someone close by who is definitely not a teen.  Tinder is one of the few apps I would counsel parents to restrict from their child’s phone.


Instagram is not a new app.  Its reign as “selfie central” is long-standing.  On Instagram, users can post pictures of just about everything; what they are wearing, eating, visiting, doing.  Sometimes it’s just a picture of them!  Part of the appeal is that the app offers some cool filters that make photos look creative and artistic.  Like Twitter, you can follow a person’s Instagram profile, and see all the pictures they are posting.  Celebrities are constantly posting material, and it’s been a real draw for people to become a follower and see what certain movie stars or musicians are doing.  While there are restrictions about content posted on Instagram, some inappropriate images still get through.  But the real concern here is “who is looking at pictures of your child?”  I caution parents to change the security filters on their child’s Instagram profile from “everyone” to something more restrictive.  Also, a consistent need to post pictures of their life may entice your son or daughter into an unhealthy narcissistic mentality.  Monitor your teen’s Instagram profile, and curb their activity if you feel it’s getting out of hand.

Maybe you’re feeling a little overwhelmed and wondering if you should just take your teen’s phone and hand it back when he or she turns 35.  These warnings are not meant to scare you, but rather to inform you and make you better prepared to protect your children.  Cell phones are wonderful tools for teens and adults alike.  But as moms and dads, we need to guide our teens in making smart choices about their smart phones.  And yes, that may mean checking your child’s cellular device once a week and seeing what new apps are on there.  It’s not snooping.  It’s wise parenting!  If there is an app that’s unfamiliar, take the time to check it out.  It’s time we stop being “digital immigrants” and start living like well-informed residents of this technology filled world.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 39 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.  His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,500 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.

You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org, It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.