It’s hard to imagine life without the Internet, with all of the information, community engagement, shopping opportunities, and entertainment that it offers us. But for children, it can also be a dangerous place. From unsafe content to unwelcome interaction with strangers, every parent wants to do what they can to keep their kids safe.
But as a parent who likely didn’t grow up with the online threats that this new generation faces, where do you start?
Ways to Protect Your Children
For ideas on how to keep your kids safe online, we reviewed child safety websites and talked to parents of pre-teen children. Here are some best practices worth considering:
- Ask yourself if Internet access is even necessary. For children under 10, there may be few legitimate reasons to be online at all, at least without a parent present. Older children may only need limited access to materials for research.
- Teach your kids the meaning of privacy (and why it’s important). They should learn from a very early age never to give out their names, where they live or go to school, practice sports, or other information when talking to someone online—and they shouldn’t give out their parents’ information either. Warn them against talking to strangers, and particularly ensure they never arrange to meet up with anyone they only know online.
- Give a child an older smartphone or tablet without a cellular plan or a Wi-fi password, or one with parental controls. You can download games, books, or other content in advance. They’ll be entertained on long car rides, and they’ll feel like a “big kid” because they have their own phone. PC Magazine has a rundown of The Best Parental Control Apps for Your Phone.
- Turn on parental controls and/or limit Internet use to a few trusted apps on any devices that offer that option, even if you don’t expect your kids to be using them unsupervised. Some parents create profiles for their children on services like Netflix with pre-selected movies and shows. You can also use a child-friendly browser.
- Don’t let kids play online games unsupervised, either on smart devices or gaming consoles (e.g. a PlayStation or Xbox). Better still, only allow them to play games with real-life friends. If you’re still concerned, you can get parental controls for gaming consoles and other devices.
- Monitor kids’ access to the Internet. Keep the family computer in a common room like the living room. You can “reward” your child with a large monitor which they’ll think is amazing but will allow you to better see over their shoulders as they surf. You can also install Internet filtering software (Net Nanny is a paid option, and TechRadar offers a few free options).
- Be very careful with social media. It’s never a good idea to allow a child to lie about their age to get an online account. In the U.S. a child needs to be at least 13 years old to have accounts on blogging and social media websites. And even if they are older than 13, you should tread carefully, since most social media sites are really not kid-friendly. If you allow your children on these sites, make sure their profiles are set to private or friends only.
- Practice safe password policies. Don’t leave login information somewhere children can access it (if it’s written down somewhere, you should assume they’ll find it). Instead, use a local or online password management system and be sure to keep all that behind a master password that you memorize.
- Don’t let YouTube fool you. While there are lots of kid-friendly videos, there are also many that cross the line (as TechCrunch puts it, YouTube is not for kids). Because YouTube suggests content (and will auto-play videos once one has finished), it can be dangerous for unsupervised children. If you do give your kids access, be sure to set parental controls (but recognize that these settings aren’t infallible).
- Same with email. While email may seem harmless enough, once a kid has an email account they can communicate with strangers as well as friends—the same as they might on social media. Plus without an email account, it’s more difficult to sign up for many online services.
- Be aware of the potential to abuse other online services. Recently kids were discovered using Google Docs as a makeshift chatroom to bully other children. Even the most innocent of online apps can be a minefield if you don’t pay attention.
- Raise good citizens of the web. Lead by example. Hate, trolling, and bullying have no place in the real, or digital world, so show them the way. Today’s children will have a very long, and very public record online. Basically, whatever you or they write, say, or do will be with you and your family forever in the digital world. Whether they’re using the Internet for games, social media, or school work, explore everything together first so you can set the right security precautions together.
Please don’t think of this as a “one-size fits all” list of recommendations. Consider your own family’s needs so you can make appropriate decisions on when to allow your children online, what sites you’ll allow, or when you can grant unsupervised access.
Open Communication is Key
It’s worth recognizing that, no matter how safe you make your home, when it comes to the Internet kids will find a way to get online without supervision. They’ll gain access at a friend’s house, or at school, or the library, or on an unprotected mobile device.
Rather than worry incessantly about your child’s safety, the best thing you can do is to foster open communication at all times about the Internet
Every so often, talk to them about different hazards in the online world, such as advertising and how it’s designed to make you want to buy things, or games that trick you into giving information or spending money. They should know not to give out their personal information, including emails and home addresses, to anyone online.
Believe it or not, these conversations can (and should!) start very early, possibly as soon as age 6 or 7. Talking to them now means that when they do end up online, they will feel more comfortable coming to you to discuss anything that disturbs or frightens them.
When it comes to online safety and privacy, consider your own online practices where your children are concerned. If you share photos of your kids on social media, be sure your profile is set to ‘private’ or ‘friends only.’ You should also refrain from sharing names and locations as well as anything they might find embarrassing when they get older. For more information, check out our tips on keeping private information private.
Be a Part of your Child’s Online Identity
Sooner or later your kid will get online. A fun way to give them a positive introduction to the Internet is to register a domain name for them and build a website together. This will allow you to share in your child’s first online experience and help them learn valuable skills. You can add security features to their website to protect all the personal data, and make it less vulnerable to attacks from hackers.
You can find out more about online security in our useful infographic.