This year has looked vastly different for children and families in Pennsylvania. To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many schools have moved online, and students are spending more time on the internet than ever before. With that, comes an increased risk of encountering predators or accessing inappropriate information.

Our organization was recently invited to participate in a virtual press conference with Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary, Teresa Miller, and Attorney General, Josh Shapiro. Our discussion focused on ensuring that parents, caregivers, and families are aware of the potential threats that exist online for children.  KDKA-TV covered the virtual press conference and you can watch that story here.

Secretary Miller noted that since the pandemic, the internet has played a much larger role in the lives of students. She also said there are some dangers with more online screen time and encourages “parents and guardians to speak with their children about safe online behavior and to seek out resources that are available to help.”

One such resource is the Safe2Say Something app that Attorney General Josh Shapiro spearheaded. This is a tool for children to anonymously report abuse, cyberbullying, and other issues. According the app, reports “have increased when it comes to cyberbullying from about 17 percent to about 38 percent of the overall tips,” said Attorney General Shapiro.

During the virtual press briefing, we emphasized that parents and caregivers first need to understand and learn the platforms that their children are using, and then keep an eye on who their child is interacting with online. Additionally, we recommend that parents keep their child’s devices, like computers and iPads, out in a common area and monitor which sites they visit.

We are so appreciative of Secretary Miller and Attorney General Shapiro for inviting our organization to participate in this press briefing. It is encouraging, especially during these challenging times, that we have these types of ongoing conversations. It is essential that the private and public sectors work together to provide the tools and resources that families need.

We have created a guide to help parents and caregivers recognize and understand when a child is being abused or when something inappropriate has occurred online. We’ve also included a list of practical tips below, detailing how parents and caregivers can keep their children safe online.

As always, never hesitate to contact ChildLine, a 24/7 hotline (1-800-932-0313) if you believe that a child is being abused or if something just does not seem right. Reports can be made anonymously.

Practical Tips for Parents/Caregivers

  • Put the computer (laptop, iPad, etc.) in an open area so you can see what they are doing online periodically. Putting a computer behind closed doors can result in negative behavior.
  • Talk with your child about abuse and the opportunities that online can present if they’re not careful. Keep an open line of communication.
  • Set clear rules with them, such as “do not give your name, address, phone number, or any personal information” and “no chatting with strangers.”
  • Limit how long your child can be online at one time. If you would not allow a child to be out at night, then don’t allow them to be online late at night.
  • Consult a specialized website for a parent guide to age-based tips for Internet usage.
  • Look into parental controls for your home computer. Parents and caregivers can use the settings found on digital devices (laptops, phones, iPad, etc.) and on social media. If you turn on the parental controls, it will help keep younger children from being exposed to content they should not be seeing.
  • Some internet providers have parental controls built-in, while others you may have to download a program or purchase one, depending upon what level of control you want to have.
  • Use a virtual Private Network whenever possible. This helps protects your children’s location from being tracked.
  • Set a good example for your children. Parents who view inappropriate things online can leave traces for their children to find later.
  • Urge children to alert you if they encounter something or someone on the internet that makes them uncomfortable.
  • Talk to other adults, teachers, and parents to find out what has worked for them to keep kids safe online.
  • Review your children’s internet history by visiting their Internet Browser.
  • Learn more about filtering and monitoring tools to protect your child online. Places these resources are available include:
    • Digital
    • NetSafe Kids
    • Media Glossary
    • org
    • Texting tips for parents
    • PBS’ video (it’s a couple years old now) called Growing Up Online
    • org
  • Sign up for online safety newsletters (the Girl Scouts and Microsoft have come up with monthly newsletters to keep families safe online) AND read our monthly newsletter here.

*Remember that these tips are recommendations and do not have to be enforced. Based on your child(s) age and maturity level, these will often vary. If you have any questions concerning internet safety, please feel free to reach out.

This year we are going virtual

On Thursday, November 5th, we will be hosting a virtual symposium to discuss child protection, education, and the impact of substance use on children, as well as equity, diversity, and inclusion for youth.

In a time with heightened focus on our education system, and COVID-19 impacting child abuse reports, it’s crucial that every child in Pennsylvania is safe and protected.

Keynote speaker Erin Gruwell, founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation will share her motivational story as told in her book The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. Erin and her students utilized writing as a tool for positive social change on issues like poverty, racism, and violence. Erin will be joined by Tye and Sue Ellen who were part of the original freedom writer’s group, to share their story of breaking the cycle of abuse.

Additionally, there will be four different sessions geared to specific subject areas: LGBTQ+ needs, substance abuse, and student safety and support during the pandemic.

  • Todd Snovel, former Executive Director of the PA LGBTQ Affairs, will lead a session addressing the unique needs and challenges faced by LGBTQ+ students in the school, home, and community settings.
  • We all know addiction has a major impact on families, and Chris Glover from Joining Forces for Children will be hosting a session focused on how children experience substance abuse disorders. As part of his session, Chris will explain and introduce participants to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)—an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Another topic that will be addressed in enhancing student safety during the pandemic. We’ll specifically address the risks to children who may be confined at home with someone who abuses them. This session will be led by Jane Straub, a Senior Victim Assistance Specialist with the Zero Abuse Project. Jane was a feature presenter at our symposium last year and we’re thrilled to have to her back!
  • Supporting children and families during the pandemic is essential, and because of that, we’ll finish the symposium with another informative session by Jane Straub. This session will talk about how events such as COVID-19 have the potential to become traumatic for children. She’ll discuss how parents and caregivers can create buffers to lessen the impact of that trauma.

Our symposium is designed for anyone that works with children and families. Upon completion, individuals who work in area such as social work, marriage and family therapy, and professional counseling, can earn Continuing Education Units at no cost. Attorneys can even attend and earn Continuing Legal Education Credits (CLE).

We are living an unprecedented time. Our children have been impacted by the pandemic in ways we’ll probably be discovering for years to come. From their mental health to their lack of social interactions, they’ve endured the difficulties that the pandemic has brought, maybe even more so than adults. It’s vital—perhaps more important than ever—that we remember it’s going to take all of us working together to ensure they are safe and protected. While we won’t have the opportunity to meet in-person at this year’s symposium like we did in years prior, all of us at the Pa Family Support Alliance are looking forward to seeing everyone virtually! We still have a few seats open at the symposium, so if you or your organization are interested in attending click here.

Wishing you all peace and health during this challenging time.