Keeping Your Kids Safe Online In 12 Easy Steps
The internet can be a wonderful resource – whether for entertainment or educational purposes – for adults and children alike. As parents, you would like to think you can give your children a tablet or smartphone to keep them occupied so you can enjoy a few minutes of peace and quiet in the car or at home. In reality, you know all too well that anytime kids are online, the potential of their being exposed to the darker side of the internet is increasingly great. The dangers that can arise from this exposure – from cyberbullying to being targeted by online predators to inadvertent introduction to adult material – can have long-term adverse effects on children’s lives.
The inescapable fact is that children are using technology and internet-connected devices at far younger ages than ever before. From virtual learning to playing fun games to forming connections with other young people all over the world, the positive possibilities of the internet are endless. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for kids to stumble upon or actively seek out inappropriate or adult content; use social media platforms to mistreat others or be mistreated themselves; or engage in inappropriate contact with strangers whose intentions may not be pure.
Like any good parent, you generally do everything within your power to keep your kids safe and healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally. But are you doing all that you can to safeguard your children when they’re on the internet? Whether you like it or not, kids are going to get online, as often as they can. Your job as parents is to help them make good choices when they do.
Here are 12 common-sense practices to help keep your kids safe online:
Talk to Your Kids
This might seem extremely obvious, but starting a dialogue with your children is a foundational building block in the process of keeping them safe online. It’s ultimately up to parents to educate kids about what is and isn’t okay when it comes to the internet. In order to do this, you might have to educate yourself a bit. Children and teens may be savvier about technology and the latest communication techniques, but you shouldn’t let that intimidate you. While a child’s sense of curiosity might be more developed than their parents, their sense of caution is often far less mature than their adult counterparts. This can leave them more vulnerable to social engineering attempts or revealing sensitive information.
How soon should you start discussing online safety? In short, whenever your child starts to do anything involving the internet! Make sure kids understand that the online world parallels the real world in that there are both safe and unsafe things out there. Talk about the importance of passwords, antivirus software, and other elements put in place to protect them online. Be direct, straightforward, and assertive in your discussion – avoid being aggressive or confrontational, as this approach is unlikely to achieve the desired effect.
Ask your child about the activities they’re involved with online, as well as the sites they visit. Communicate any concerns you may have by using “I” messages – for instance, “I am worried about your posting photos to that website, because it doesn’t seem secure and strangers could see it.” Encourage your children to voice their concerns, particularly if anyone they “meet” online tries to obtain personal information from them or says things that make them uncomfortable. For older kids, help them create a sensible password and encourage them to use a different password for each account, while also explaining the importance of doing so.
Establish and clearly communicate guidelines for your kids’ screen time and internet use. Manage access to devices by setting up a passcode or lock-screen pattern so children can only use a device with adult supervision. Make sure that all social media accounts are set to private, so only your child’s friends or contacts can see what they’ve posted. Turn off geo-tagging features on apps, networks, and devices so your child’s location is not easily trackable or publicly visible.
Make it a point to personally review any games, apps, or social media sites before your child is allowed to download them. Pay close attention to apps and sites that feature direct messaging, video chats, file uploads, and user anonymity, as these are frequently relied upon by online child predators. Make sure each app your child is given access to is age-appropriate and isn’t linked to a credit card, preventing the possibility of unauthorized in-app purchases.
Monitor Internet Usage
One of the most important things you can do to keep your kids safe is to keep all computers and devices capable of accessing the internet in a common area. This practice will help deter children from doing something they know they’re not allowed to do. It also gives you the opportunity to intervene if you notice online behavior that could have negative consequences. Avoid putting a computer in a child’s bedroom or allowing them to access the internet there. Encourage your children to turn in their mobile devices at night. If parents follow this rule, too, kids may be more willing to cooperate.
Spend time online together as a family. Use this opportunity to learn more about your kids’ favorite websites and social media outlets. Make sure your search engine’s content filter is set on “safe” so that inappropriate material won’t inadvertently show up in searches. Bookmark your child’s favorite sites to provide easier access for them and to minimize the chance of a mistyped address leading to a potentially harmful search result. Share an email account with younger children so you can directly monitor who’s sending them messages.
Be up front with your kids about the fact that you will need to know the passwords for all of their devices and social media sites. Let them know that you’ll be checking their accounts periodically to make sure everything looks okay. Help them understand that the reason for this monitoring is to assure their continued safety – it’s not about spying or snooping, and it isn’t about your trust of lack of trust in them. Take a look at your child’s web browser history to see what websites they’ve been visiting. Check the computer’s recycle bin to see if any files have recently been deleted.
Finally, make it a point to find out what – if any – online protection is offered at school, afterschool centers, friends’ houses, or any other place where your child could use a computer without your supervision. Inquire of their friends’ parents how they supervise their own kids’ internet use.
Exercise Proper “Netiquette”
It’s easy to feel protected by the apparent distance a screen gives between you and the people you’re talking to online, but that doesn’t give you free rein to be unkind to others. Not only does being hurtful cause the target to feel bad, it also makes the sender look bad. Aside from not using ALL CAPS when typing since that can come across as yelling, there are a number of even more significant “rules of thumb” to follow when engaging with other online users. Here are a few reminders that you can also impart to your kids:
- Avoid posting incendiary or potentially offensive comments
- Respect the privacy of others by not sharing personal info, photos, or videos that they may not want published online
- Be a good sport, whether you win or lose, when competing in games online
- Don’t “spam” your contacts by sending excessive amounts of unsolicited messages
- Don’t “troll” fellow online users by repeatedly nagging or annoying them in web forums or post comments
- Don’t swear or use offensive language
- Reply to negative comments with intentional positivity – don’t escalate the situation
- If someone asks a question online and you know the answer, offer to help
- Be sure to thank others when they help you online
Lead by example, always modeling the kind of positive online behavior you expect of your children. If your kid sees you being cautious and respectable when you’re online, they will be more likely to follow in your footsteps.
Apply Offline Standards to the Online World
Pose a number of real-world scenarios to your kids to help them understand the importance of consistent behavior online as well as in the real world.
- You wouldn’t agree to meet a total stranger in a secluded location and share your deepest secrets and all your personal info with them. So why would you do so on the internet?
- If you wouldn’t be abusive to a friend or acquaintance in public, why would you harass someone in a similar manner online?
- You wouldn’t leave your house with the front door wide open. So why would you leave your computer and all its precious data unprotected from potential cyberattacks?
Assume That Everything You Post Is Permanent
Encourage your kids not to share anything on the internet that they wouldn’t be comfortable talking about in conversations with your family. Remind them to be careful what information they may be exposing, even temporarily. Even when a post has been deleted, you can’t be certain it hasn’t already been copied, saved, or re-shared elsewhere. If what they say or do online is controversial in nature, it might come back to bite them at some point, whether your child is applying to go to college or even their dream job.
As Much As Possible, Remain Anonymous
It’s crucial that kids, especially younger kids, keep all private information private. Implore them never to give out their full name, address, name of school, phone number, credit card numbers, social security numbers, or names of family members to anyone who doesn’t need to know – which, for kids, is everyone! Don’t allow them to upload or download any pictures without your permission, and warn them to never exchange photos with strangers online.
If You Don’t Know Them, Don’t “Friend” Them
Encourage your kids to never accept friendship requests from anyone they don’t know personally. Even if a request seems to be coming from a person they know, it’s best to always verify that the account isn’t someone pretending to be someone else before accepting. Children should never engage in a private chat with a stranger, whether they have “friended” them or not. Above all, they should never agree to meet someone in person. Just because they may have “met” them online doesn’t mean the really know the person.
Seems Too Good to Be True? Probably Is!
Tell your child to watch out for “free” stuff – free games, ringtones, or other downloads can hide malware. Children are more likely to fall prey to social engineering attempts, and, as such, they need to be taught how to spot suspicious activity and not be afraid to question or challenge the need for disclosing passwords and other sensitive information in response to a text, email, instant message, or social networking message.
Never Respond to Threatening Messages
Encourage your children to always tell you about any online communications or conversations that creep them out or in any way make them feel uncomfortable. Watch for changes in your child’s behavior. Being secretive about online activities, withdrawing from family, and other dramatic personality changes could be signs that your child is being victimized by a cyberbully or an online predator.
Practice Basic Security Hygiene
Install a reputable antivirus solution to ensure that all computers and internet-connected devices your child could access are clear of common viruses and malware. Regularly update the operating systems and all applicable software. Involve your kids in performing network security patches so that they gain firsthand knowledge of how you are actively helping to keep them safe.
Consider installing parental control filtering software and/or tracking programs. These systems can help keep younger children from accessing illicit content and accidentally stumbling onto something dangerous. Some internet service providers offer parental blocks as part of their plan, while others include the software as a part of an internet security package. It’s always good to ask your service provider to see what they may already have in place for your use. If you’re concerned about limiting your own access on a shared computer, consider using a different browser than your children or having a separate account on the computer to which you can login.
While this is far from a comprehensive list, employing these practices will certainly give you some peace of mind knowing that you’ve done your part in keeping your kids a little bit safer whenever they’re on the internet.