Tips to Help Keep Your Kids Safe Online

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The digital world is larger than ever, and kids may be unprepared for potential risks and dangers. According to the Pew Research Center, “95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent of teens say they are online ‘almost constantly.’” Many younger kids have significant access too. The Center for Cyber Safety and Education reported that “roughly two-thirds of fourth to eighth graders have access to phones or tablets, and almost half of them have a computer in their bedroom.” Kids are natural explorers, and parenting may be advisable in this expansive digital realm. Online dangers can threaten your child’s physical safety, private information, and emotional well-being. The following tips can help keep your kids safe online.

Set a strong foundation for safety. Before youth access the computer or device, ensure it is set up securely. Encrypt your home network, replace outdated routers, or update your router software to WPA2 or WPA3. Use strong Wi-Fi and admin passwords. Implement multi-factor authentication whenever possible, especially for banking accounts or when money can be transferred. Regularly update your computer and devices. Keep your security software, operating system, browser, and apps up to date, as new features within updates often include security upgrades. Finally, back up your data to cloud storage or an external storage device regularly.

Set limits on internet use and define acceptable content parameters. Consider time allowances for surfing the web and accessibility to devices. Keep desktop, laptop, or tablet usage in an open, shared family area. Having the computer in a shared space may deter browsing unapproved content and allow parents to monitor how online interactions affect their child’s emotions and behavior. It also helps accurately gauge time spent on the computer. Consider using internet usage as a reward for chores completed, good grades, or other positive reinforcement.

Provide a safe online environment and make the rules clear. Be transparent about your monitoring if you choose to monitor. Spying on a youth’s behavior may feel too intrusive and cause friction. When you set rules or promises, stick to them to foster trust and provide a reliable source of safety. Set parental controls to help enforce these rules. Many devices come with built-in parental controls, which can be turned on in the device’s settings. Additionally, third-party parental control software is available for computers, tablets, and phones. Utilize privacy settings and become familiar with the privacy policies of apps and games to establish safe grounds for exploration.

Know what your child is up to online. Familiarize yourself with what interests your child: online games, apps, social media, and streaming platforms. Get to know the content creators your kids follow through open conversation or by checking them out yourself. Decide if the content meets your approval. Stay up to date with new technologies and social media trends. Regularly check the browsing history to follow and confirm what content your child is viewing online. Know what other computers your child is accessing, such as a friend’s smartphone or a grandparent’s computer, and have continued conversations about rules and expectations. Listen to your child; they may have valid opinions and concerns or different priorities and viewpoints. This can contribute to compromise and agreements on digital use that everyone can agree on.

Keep tabs on your child’s accounts. Remember, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires websites and online services to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from kids under 13. This means no social media accounts should be created without your permission until they are at least 13. This is more than a tip; it is a law. Maintain control of the approved accounts and their passwords. If a child has an account, the parent may want to know the login to monitor activity or restrict the account if necessary.

Teach your child about appropriate behaviors and interactions with others online. Online etiquette may be more relaxed than in-person due to the lack of face-to-face emotions and a perceived lack of consequence. Discuss cyberbullying, sexting, and other forms of harassment with your kids. They may experience or engage in these behaviors without realizing the harm they can cause. The effects of cyberbullying can be significant, potentially causing severe mental health decline. Make sure your child knows steps to take if they are cyberbullied, such as not responding, blocking the bully, removing the platform, or involving an adult. Teach them to practice empathy and think carefully.

Inform them about what to share and what not to share. When things are posted online, they are there forever, even if deleted. Others may take pictures or screenshots of content before it is deleted. Careless sharing can be embarrassing or harmful to someone’s reputation and pose significant security risks. Teach kids what information should remain private, including personal and family details. None of this information should be used in accounts, email addresses, login names, or passwords as a safety practice. Teach your child to be a critical thinker online, discussing downloading and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, which can contain malware. Familiarize your child with how to use the security software you’ve installed and talk to them about the risks posed by hacking.

Know who your child is talking to online. It is common for parents to prohibit online friendships with unknown individuals. Online friendships can introduce diversity, but it is a personal choice to allow children to establish such connections, especially considering their age.

Lead by example. Parents are often the child’s most trusted adults. Avoid playing videos with adult humor or language in sight or earshot, as it may conflict with what you are trying to establish as right and wrong. Use spam or phishing emails that you may receive as examples to show your child what to do. You may come across teachable moments during your own browsing that can serve as real-life examples for your child. Be there to guide them on appropriate times to use their phones. For teens, using phones at bad times can be dangerous, such as texting and driving. Set a good example and stay off the phone to encourage teens to do the same. It’s our job to set a good example, create a safe space, and keep kids safe. As the digital world grows, so does the evolving conversation around safety.

There are many considerations when allowing a child to access the internet. Each household is different, with varying comfort levels, circumstances, and children. Explore and consider options to keep your kids safe online. These tips may provide ideas to implement or further explore. As Scholastic puts it, “If your child is surfing the web, you need to be paddling right alongside (them) – or at least observing carefully from the shore.”

Links to continue the conversation:

https://www.bulkorder.ftc.gov/publications/net-cetera-chatting-kids-about-being-online

https://www.bulkorder.ftc.gov/publications/heads-stop-think-connect