Digital Behaviour & Emotions Health & Well-being

How to talk about: Dodgy content online

Supporting kids online

Ever since the first humans started drawing in caves, there were some cavemen who drew dodgy pictures. The pyramids probably have some secret chamber of inappropriate hieroglyphics and when the Romans started building walls, people started writing explicit things on them.

Not everyone uses their creative potential to draw or write dodgy content and then share it with others in public places; but for some reason, there has always been a bunch of humans who have found drawing specific things on someone else’s pencil case very amusing. However, not everyone wants to see the dodgy stuff that these dodgy people are creating. So how do you help your kids to navigate a world with a small group of dodgy people, who get a kick out of creating dodgy stuff and putting it where other people can see it?

When we say dodgy, we aren’t just talking about Kevin Costner wearing tights in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Now when we say dodgy, we aren’t just talking about Kevin Costner wearing tights in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, we are also talking about all of the explicit, inappropriate or just twisted content that exists online.

If we are really honest, there is dodgy stuff everywhere! I don’t know when you last read through the dictionary from cover to cover, but I bet you won’t even make it past the letter A before you feel a little uncomfortable.

The biggest challenge facing our young people is that they are no longer just reading the definition of something that is a bit dodgy in the dictionary. They are no longer just seeing some poorly drawn caricature of something violent or sexual. Technology now exposes young people to explicit and violent pictures and videos that graphically show the reality of something that was once only understood conceptually. And it’s not just pictures and videos, comment sections on almost every social media platform are full of nasty, degrading, sexualized and violent posts too.

So how do you talk to your kids about the dodgy stuff that they will almost inevitably encounter online?

First things first. If we want our children to talk to us, we need to be good listeners. If you’re still up-skilling in this area, check out some of our other How To Talk About articles for tips on tackling tough topics and listening your way to great conversations.

There are two types of conversations that you can have with your kids about dodgy stuff online:

1. Before they start using their own device

It is incredibly important to have a conversation now about what would happen if they told you that they had seen something, violent, sexual or… well, dodgy.

If we want our kids to talk to us about seeing dodgy stuff online, they need to know for sure that your first response isn’t going to be reactive. If they are worried about instant confiscation or limitation, they may prefer to keep the scary, uncomfortable or even traumatic experience to themselves! And we don’t want our kids to have to navigate those types of experiences alone.

One way to have this conversation is to create a contract with them. You could write a clause that says:

If you see anything online that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe you will tell me, and I am contractually obliged to listen and I promise that my first response will not be to take away your device. However, I reserve the right to genuinely care about how you are feeling, get you help if you need it and confiscate your device if that is necessary.

They need to know for sure that your first response isn’t going to be reactive.

2. If they have been using their own device for a while

It could be helpful to remind your kids that if they accidentally see something dodgy, that they can talk to you about it and they won’t be in trouble.

When I polled an audience of intermediate-aged students about why they wouldn’t tell their parents about what they saw online, I found that nearly 100% of them said they were scared that if they told their parents, their parents would confiscate their device from them. What I learned isn’t exactly that profound; kids love technology and hate being in trouble.

Tell your young person that you care more about helping them to make sense of the dodgy stuff that they may have seen, than you do about punishing them.

It is so important that you tell your young person that you care more about helping them to make sense of the dodgy stuff that they may have seen, than you do about punishing them.

Your kids may have all sorts of questions like:

  • "Why would someone even make this content?"

  • "Why would someone share such dodgy content?"

  • "Was that even real?"

  • "How do I stop thinking about what I saw?"

Just remember, you don’t have to have all the answers and you don’t have to be an expert in technology! Keeping our kids safe online can seem really daunting, but self-control and character are the best filters and these are developed over time, through loving, close relationships. Kids are curious but having parameters around device use, time limits, keeping off chat groups and only using screens in a family area, for example, can help in the quest to limit exposure to the world of dodgy.

What your kids need more than a smart phone or a talk about dodgy stuff online is to know that you love them (and that you like them), and that they can talk to you about anything. That type of relationship enables parents and children to navigate almost any challenge, including seeing Kevin Coster take a bullet for Whitney in The Bodyguard. It’s not super graphic, but it is super emotional.

James Beck

James Beck

James Beck is a dynamic and gifted communicator, whose career has seen him speak to over 200,000 people in schools, prisons and workplaces across Aotearoa. Fuelled by a passion to see people reach their full potential, James weaves together insights from his own experience with the latest research findings to deliver relatable, humorous and empowering presentations. When he isn’t working, James is hanging out with his wife, Rebekah, and their three young kids.

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