Technology can broaden a child’s world, allowing them to explore a range of educational and recreational opportunities. However, the internet does not come without risks, which may be less visible to parents than risks in the real world. Some types of harm that a child may experience online parallel types of harm that they may experience offline. For example, in-person bullying at school or during extracurricular activities may accompany cyberbullying through social media posts or text messages. Identity theft and sexual exploitation of children may occur online or offline. Other concerns stem specifically from the use of technology, such as sexting and the excessive use of video games or social media.
Communicate With Your Child
Parents should talk to their children about what they are doing online, while looking for clues that something happening online may be undermining a child’s wellbeing.
Bullying online may be even more harmful to a child than bullying in real life, since a child cannot escape from it as easily. These behaviors range from harassment or stalking to publicly posting rumors or harmful gossip about a child or “outing” a child by posting sensitive information about them. Cyberbullying may severely harm a child’s mental health, and the harm may extend into adulthood if it is not properly addressed. A perpetrator may face criminal charges and school sanctions, depending on the situation and the law in their state. Parents also can file a lawsuit, seeking compensation for the emotional harm to their child and the costs associated with treating it.
Identity Theft and Privacy Concerns
Fraudsters may find children especially appealing targets because they have a clean credit record. Also, the child or their parents may not find out about identity theft until the child becomes an adult. If parents receive bills addressed to the child or start getting calls for them from collection agencies, among other red flags, they may want to see whether the child has a credit report. The existence of a credit report likely means that identity theft has occurred. Parents can then shut down the fraudulent accounts, get them removed from their child’s credit report, report the identity theft, and potentially sue the thieves or an entity whose lapse caused the theft.
More generally, a federal law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the FTC rule based on this law protect the privacy of children who are under 13. The COPPA Rule allows parents to control the personal information collected from these children and requires covered entities to take certain steps to protect the information that they collect.
In 2022, California passed a more sweeping online privacy law that covers all children up to age 18 and defines covered entities differently from COPPA. This law will take effect in 2024.
Sexual Exploitation Online
Predators may lurk on social media platforms, public forums, or elsewhere on the Internet, hoping to strike up conversations with children. Once a child develops trust in the predator, they may proceed to asking them to engage in sexual activities, such as sending explicit photos or videos or even meeting in person for sex. Parents should be alert to this risk and explain that a child should be careful when they interact with strangers online, just as they would be with strangers in person. If a parent discovers that a predator has communicated with their child, they should block and report the predator and contact the police. While the predator may face criminal charges, parents also may be able to file a civil lawsuit for damages.
Sexting may be illegal even if it is consensual.
Teenagers sometimes send sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves to their peers via cell phones or computers. This is known as “sexting,” and it may result in standard child pornography charges in some states, which can lead to harsh consequences. In addition to criminal penalties such as fines and jail time, a teenager convicted of a child pornography offense may be required to register as a sex offender, which can severely hamper their life in the long term. However, many states have adjusted their laws to define sexting separately from child pornography or to provide specific exceptions, affirmative defenses, reduced penalties, diversionary programs, or other ways to alleviate the consequences of this behavior.
Excessive Use of Video Games and Social Media
In the wake of school shootings and other incidents of violence by children, the media sometimes has pointed fingers at violent video games. Current research does not support the theory that these games cause violent behavior, but playing them may increase aggression. Beyond this concern, parents may have further reasons to limit the amount of time that their child spends playing these games. For example, a child might socialize less, sleep and exercise less, and spend less time on schoolwork if they become too absorbed in video games.
Recent concerns have arisen over social media “addiction” among children, which has led to lawsuits against social media platforms based on their algorithms. These encourage people to keep scrolling so that they see more ads. Social media addiction lawsuits rely on an innovative product liability theory involving alleged design defects. Their future is uncertain, due to the novelty of the legal arguments.