At the core of keeping children safe online is communication with them. Like most dangers, talking with your kids and making sure they know what the dangers are and how to address them is key to keeping them free from harm while they navigate the online world. From cyberbullying to inappropriate content, the internet can be a minefield of dangers for children and keeping them safe online takes a coordinated effort from parents.
Talk to them
When your children are ready to start using the internet, it’s a good idea to have a general talk with them about what they can expect and what the risks are.
These can include:
This includes both other people’s conduct and their own. The internet can feel like it’s separate from reality and what happens online does not count in the “real world.” That, coupled with the anonymity of much of the internet means that kids can forget that they and others are still accountable for their actions even if they happen online.
There will be some people online who have ill intentions and these can include bullies, sexual predators, hackers and scammers, among others. A good rule of thumb to teach children is to not accept friend requests or messages from people they do not know.
This may vary from parent to parent, but generally, things like pornography, depictions of violence and hate speech are things most parents would not want their children consuming. Children can easily stumble into areas of the internet where this content exists and it’s best if they immediately exit the site where the content is found.
Start early, talk frequently, be patient
Toddlers are likely to be holding a phone in their hands even before they can walk, so it’s crucial to start talking to them about online dangers early. You should start talking with them when they have their own device, if not sooner. You want to be the one to start that conversation with themso you can be the one to direct where it goes. Be the one to initiate conversations with them about online risks.
Be honest with them (like admitting if you don’t have the answer to a question) and listen to what they have to say on the subject. You want to keep that back-and-forth dialogue going. Communicate your values clearly to them. This will give them some direction when they have to make decisions about who to associate with online and what to look at.
When talking to young children, be patient. You may need to repeat information several times in small doses for them to fully grasp it. It will be worth it in the end, though.
Online risks include more than just personal risks to children themselves. It also includes risks to your computing equipment. If your child uses a shared computer with your or other family members, that means their online behavior can potentially put your computer at risk.
Have a chat with your child that touches on some basics of computer safety, including:
- Protecting personal information online by not giving it out.
- Being wary of downloads, which can hide malware.
- Using strong passwords and protecting them by not revealing them to anyone.
Make sure your family computer is protected by reputable security software, as well. Other subjects you should talk to your kids about include:
- P2P file sharing (files may contain malware or other malicious content).
- Phishing and other online scams (don’t share personal information in emails or follow links from any emails, popups or messages).
- Risks with downloading apps (app developers may want access to personal information, which they sell)
Kids need to be aware that their words and actions posted online still count when they’re not online. Check your child’s account once in a while to make sure there are no hurtful comments being posted by others. If you see hurtful comments, talk to your child about them and find out what is going on. If they seem especially serious, contact the police.
Checking your child’s accounts will also alert you if your child is the one doing the cyberbullying. Talk to them about the ramifications of bullying and don’t engage with the bully (the attention will likely just make them do it more) and block the bully if possible.
When giving your child a mobile phone, you may want to opt for one that is especially made for kids. These have limited internet access and controls that you as a parent can set. Talk to your mobile service provider about what features they have for parents who want to keep their kids safe online.
It’s important that kids are aware of things like GPS tracking and how it works and that they don’t broadcast their location unless it’s to a person they know and trust.
You can set rules for mobile use and let them know what is expected of them when it comes to usage (ie not using it during meals or while doing homework).
Most teens and kids socialize online via social networking sites and it can be difficult for parents to keep up with new ones that pop up every year or so. Among the risks that these sites pose are users oversharing information and sharing content or making comments that might come back to haunt them at some point in the future.
To help keep kids safe on these sites:
- Remind kids that online actions have consequences and they cannot take back things they do or share online (even if they delete them).
- Tell kids to limit what they share to things they would feel comfortable with other people
looking at and not to post private information or private photos.
- Encourage online manners and courteousness.
- Limit access by others to your kids’ profiles.
- Talk to kids about what they’re doing online.
Virtual worlds are online environments where people create avatars to stand in for themselves in computer generated worlds. Although not as popular as they once were, many people still access them to live out alternate lives online in these worlds. Some of them are geared toward children specifically and are age appropriate while others cater to adults and have adult-oriented content including simulated sex and violence. They can be accessed via the internet or through gaming consoles.
If your child belongs to any of these worlds, it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about them and what they are like. And talk to your children about what they see and do in these virtual worlds and how they can keep themselves safe, like not divulging personal information or leaving if they feel uneasy about something.
Texting & Sexting
Encourage kids to always use respect while texting and remind them that text messages can easily be misinterpreted if they are not explicitly clear.
Also, advise them to:
- Ignore texts from people they don’t know
- Learn how to block numbers from their cell phone
- Avoid posting their cell phone number online
- Never provide financial information in response to a text.
Children and teenagers should never engage in sexting, which is the sending of sexually explicit material via text. It can lead to them being exploited and it may even be considered illegal for them to create and share such content.
Make yourself familiar with the parental controls available to you on your children’s devices, through your mobile data plan and on your shared computing equipment. These settings are there to help you keep children safe and you should use them for their intended purpose. Keeping children safe online need not be difficult. You will need to be diligent and open with your kids to make sure they have a positive experience online.
Open communication is the key to keeping them safe and reducing risk as much as possible.