Department of Family Services

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Michael A. Becketts

Internet Safety: Protecting Children in the Digital Age

(Posted 2023 May)

smiling girl holding tabletThe internet has become an essential part of our daily lives. We rely on it for information, education, and entertainment, but without proper oversight it can pose significant risks, particularly for children and adolescents. The Parenting Education Programs encourages parents and caregivers to promote internet safety and responsible social media usage. Here are some proactive steps to keep children away from dangers such as online predators, cyberbullying, and inappropriate content.

Limit Screen Time and Prioritize Educational Content

Young children are increasingly exposed to digital media, with many of them starting to use digital devices as early as infancy. As such, it is crucial to ensure that they develop healthy habits when it comes to digital media use. We realize that you can’t go back in time and change established patterns, but you can make changes moving forward. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Avoiding digital media use for children under 18 months, except for video-chatting.
  • boys in animal costumes holding tabletLimiting screen time for children aged 2 to 5 years to one hour per day of high-quality programming.
  • Setting consistent rules about digital media use, such as when and where screens can be used, e.g. no screens at dinner, shut off and put away all devices an hour before bedtime. 
  • Co-viewing media with children and discussing content with them.
  •  Encouraging outdoor play, physical activity, and family time rather than screen time.

Beyond these guidelines, parents and caregivers should also consider the quality of their children's media use. Prioritize access to educational, non-violent content and limit children’s exposure to violent or inappropriate content.

Supervise Online Activities and Set Parental Controls

woman and boy looking at tabletParental/caregiver supervision is another key factor in internet safety. Parents and caregivers should be aware of their children's online activities, including the websites they visit, the apps they use, and the people they interact with online. Parents and caregivers should also set up parental controls on their children's devices to limit access to inappropriate content and prevent children from making purchases or downloading apps without parental approval. Communicate to children that digital engagement is a conditional privilege, not a right. 


Beyond Screen Time: Balancing Your Child's Life

As children get older, their use of digital media becomes more complex, and the risks associated with online activity become more pronounced. The AAP recommends that parents and caregivers create a family media plan to help children and adolescents develop healthy media habits. The plan should include guidelines for:

  • The amount of time children and adolescents can spend on digital devices.
  • The types of content that are appropriate for different ages, and what to do if they encounter something inappropriate.
  • teen girl taking selfie on bedThe importance of privacy and protecting personal information online.
  • Avoiding risky online behaviors, such as sexting and cyberbullying.
  • Being mindful of the impact of social media on mental health, e.g., watching for signs of internet addiction, self-harming behaviors, negative changes in attitude or body image.

We know there is a lot to consider when creating guardrails for online interactions. Luckily, the AAP has a free tool on its website to help parents with creating a Family Media Plan if you think you could use some support.

Advice for Parents and Caregivers on Sexting

One of the most significant risks associated with digital media use is the practice of sexting, which involves sending or receiving sexually explicit messages or images via electronic devices. No parent or caregiver wants to believe that their child could be involved in this activity, but studies show that 19.3% of teenagers have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves, while 34.8% have received a sext and 14.5% had forwarded a sext without consent (Mori, Park, Temple & Madigan, 2022). 

girl surprised holding phoneSexting has potentially severe consequences, including cyberbullying, harassment, and even criminal charges for possession or distribution of child pornography. Many kids don’t understand that once an image is sent, it is out of their control, so it’s vital that parents and caregivers establish open communication with their children and set clear rules.

  • Discuss the dangers of online predators, sexting, and the potential consequences.
  • Tell your children not to forward or share these messages and to immediately tell a trusted adult. 
  • Teach your children about healthy relationships and consent.
  • Set clear rules about digital media use and monitor children's online activity.
  • Use filtering and monitoring software to help prevent children from accessing inappropriate content.

boy surprised holding phoneInternet safety is a critical issue that all parents and caregivers must take seriously. You are taking the first step by learning about the risks. By setting limits on screen time, supervising children's online activities, encouraging healthy media use habits, and talking to your children about online dangers, parents and caregivers can help ensure your children's safety and well-being in the digital age. As new technology continues to emerge, it’s up to responsible adults to stay informed and take proactive steps to protect their children online.

Programs and Resources

The Body Safety Program offers virtual classes to any Pre-K through sixth grade students living in Fairfax County. This program focuses on building safety skills within the child, preparing them to identify risks such as child abuse and bullying, and how to be safe online. Send an email to sign up for a class. 

The Parenting Education Programs is enrolling for upcoming classes. Please check out the schedule online and send an email to us with the age range you are interested in (0-4 years, 5-11 years or 12-18 years) and a staff person will invite you to the next available class.

We hope that you join us for more information about positive and effective ways parents can interact with their children at every age and stage of development. We would love to hear from you. If you have questions or feedback about the topic in this article, send an email to us.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018, October 8). Kids & Tech: Tips for Parents in the Digital Age. Retrieved from 

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2022, July 20). Beyond Screen Time: Help Your Kids Build Healthy Media Use Habits. Retrieved from 

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2022, July 12). The New Problem of Sexting. Retrieved from 

Mori, C., Park, J., Temple, J. R., & Madigan, S. (2022, April). Are Youth Sexting Rates Still on the Rise? A Meta-analytic Update. Journal of Adolescent Health, 70(4), 531-539. doi: 

This posting is part of the Department of Family Services' Community Corner where you’ll find timely information about upcoming events, parenting and wellness tips, programs and services, and more! Share these helpful posts with your friends and family. Don't miss out on future postings! Sign up today!

For media inquiries, contact Department of Family Services' Public Information Officer Amy Carlini by email, office phone 703-324-7758 or mobile phone 571-355-6672.

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