Parental Guidance Suggested: What to Do When Your Kid Sees Inappropriate Content Online

When your kid sees inappropriate content online, sometimes it’s tough to know what to do next. Luckily, there are steps you can take to turn a negative experience into a learning opportunity.

Even with all the best parental controls in place, sometimes kids see things you wish they hadn’t. Here’s what you can do when it happens.

Kids are growing up with the entire world at their fingertips. With a digital device and an internet connection, they have unprecedented access to explore their favourite topics, play skill-building games, and connect with friends and loved ones. But just like the real world, the internet can also expose them to negativity. Even with the right rules in place, it’s all but inevitable that kids will stumble upon inappropriate content or experience online bullying—which can be a scary prospect as a parent.

While kids can’t avoid every negative experience online, as a parent, you can help turn that inappropriate exposure into a learning opportunity. Whether your kid comes to you directly with the content or you discover it using parental controls, you can find the silver lining in a bad situation by following a few simple steps. So, what exactly should you do when your kid sees something they shouldn’t online?

1. Remain calm

The most important (and often most difficult) thing to do is keep a cool head. It’s upsetting and alarming any time your child sees something inappropriate online—but reacting emotionally can make a bad situation even worse. After all, your kid might be upset already, and you don’t want to add fuel to the fire by giving them the impression they’re in trouble. A good tactic after the offending content is brought to your attention? Temporarily power down your devices and take some time to cool off.

While it might not feel like it in the moment, it’s actually a good thing that you’re in the loop. When you’re aware of the situation, you have the opportunity to help your kid learn from it. So take a few deep breaths, go for a walk—and then deal with it when you’re not acutely upset.

Loving mom talking to upset little child girl giving support

2. Get the facts

This is your opportunity to figure out exactly what happened—because there might be more to the story than just an upsetting image or mean message. In order to assess the severity of the situation, you need to have all the facts. As the parent, you’re leading the conversation, but make sure to leave plenty of space for your kid to share their feelings.

It’s a good idea to plan out what you want to ask them ahead of time. If it’s an inappropriate picture or video, where is it from? Did they download it from a specific website? Have they seen anything like it before? These questions can help you figure out if the content is circulating on other platforms, and if it’s part of a larger pattern. It’s also a good idea to ask what (if anything) your child thinks is wrong with the image or video. This can help guide a conversation about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate, funny and hurtful.

If you uncover messages that look like online bullying, is there more to the exchange than meets the eye? Was there an inciting incident or inside joke you don’t know about? When you have the complete picture, you can decide just how bad the situation really is—and use your best judgement in your next steps.

3. Take (appropriate) action

In these situations, it can be tempting to just turn off the wifi or take away the device and be done with it. But if you go this route, you run the risk of your kids hiding things from you in the future.

If they’re afraid of losing their device, they’re less likely to share—meaning you don’t have the opportunity to provide much-needed guidance. On the other hand, when your kids know it’s safe to come to you with their concerns, you end up building an even stronger relationship. Ultimately, we want our kids to learn to be good digital citizens, and part of that is knowing how to navigate all the ups and downs that come with technology, on a case-by-case basis.

If you’re dealing with a miscommunication or minor incident between your kid and a friend on their messaging app, you might decide the conversation you’ve just had is enough to smooth things over. If you’re seeing a pattern of bullying or you know it’s part of a bigger problem, you might need to talk to the other parents and work together to find a solution. (Pro tip: it’s helpful to keep these conversations focused on how you can improve things going forward, instead of trying to assign blame.)

When it comes to videos or images, sometimes kids simply happen upon something that isn’t age-appropriate. In these cases, there might not be anything actually wrong with the content, so your game plan might be to work with your kid to establish some online boundaries. That could mean sticking to pre-approved channels on platforms like YouTube, and agreeing that recommended links are off limits.

In other, more extreme cases, videos or images can contain intentionally harmful or dangerous content—or your kid might receive an upsetting message specifically targeted to them. Luckily, most platforms have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of thing, and you can usually report the content with a few clicks and have it removed before it does any further damage. (Pro tip: older kids might be ready to learn how to use the reporting function themselves. Teaching them how to report inappropriate content empowers them to remove something upsetting, but make sure they still know to keep you in the loop when this happens.)

Young girl smiles down at her tablet, as she sits on her mother's lap.

4. Reflect on the situation

After everything is said and done, it’s a good practice to spend some time reflecting and see if there’s anything you, as a parent, need to do differently going forward. When it comes to rules for tech, you are in charge; at the end of the day, it’s up to you to set the best boundaries for your family—and enforce them. That might entail:

  • Keeping a close eye on your kid’s digital conversations and activities
  • Adhering to minimum age limits for online platforms
  • Setting time limits for internet activities
  • Creating a “digital usage contract” and having all family members sign on

And it’s important to keep in mind that kids learn by doing. Carving out some time to enjoy digital activities together is not only fun, it’s a great way to demonstrate best practices for your kids. Playing online games together, starting a family messaging thread or helping research homework topics can all help show them the positives in technology.

It’s never easy when your kid experiences something upsetting online—but it is a chance to lead by example and show them how to form a healthy relationship with technology. It’s also an opportunity for you to think critically about how you use tech in your home—and decide how you can improve your own digital practices.

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