Unfortunately, in my work on Internet safety, I find time and time again that many of the parents I work with are clueless about their kids’ online activities. They assume that their kids are good kids, that they are too smart to become tripped up in dangerous activities online or they tell me they are too young to run into trouble. Unfortunately, with the Internet, kids are only one click away from dangerous content—whether identity thieves, pornographers, cyberbullies or online predators. Even young kids can be searching for innocent terms, and one mistyped letter can land them on a pornographic site. And as kids grow and develop, they naturally want attention and affirmation, and many go online for to seek the approval they want, which can place children in lots of danger.
No matter how good, smart or young your kids are, if you aren’t implementing preventative measures, it’s just a matter of time before your children will run into trouble. Parents are the most critical line of defense, especially when their children are young, in keeping kids safe online. While kids are naturally incredibly tech-savvy, it’s simpler than you think to take steps to protect them online.
- Understand that dangers, and get motivated to act: there is a ton of dangerous and inappropriate content on the Internet today—from drug-promoting sites, to hardcore, violent and explicit pornography, to weapon violence to sites that promote self-mutilation, anorexia, bulimia and other unhealthy behavior. Additionally, kids often encounter dangerous contacts, including online predators, cyberbullies, identity thieves and the like. Whether strangers or peers, these individuals often prey on a developing child’s desire for romance, adventure, economic gain/status and lack of filter (i.e. that kids are more trusting and share a lot of personal information on the Internet).
- Understand the myriad of ways that kids interact through the Internet and technologies. Recognize that kids have access to all of the good and bad of technology through a large array of Internet-initiated devices. Your child’s gaming device, cell phone, camera, toys, laptop, smartphone, tablet, TV, etc. can all be access points. Every one of these points must be monitored and protected.
- Start a conversation and keep it going: Talk with your kids about being safe online—establish an online safety agreement or set of rules for whom your kids can talk with, when they can be online and where they can go online. It’s critical to set clear boundaries and engage with your kids about their online lives in the same way you do with their offline lives. Talk to them about the dangers, why you are setting limits and ask them what they will do to protect themselves (but verify regularly that they are implementing safety measures).
- Use parental controls, including time limiting software, accountability software and filters on all Internet-connected devices. Strong parental controls will allow you to block inappropriate content, monitor your child’s online activities, set the times that your son or daughter can be online, and set the type of content, games and purchases your kids can make. Some parental controls will also flag any inappropriate or troubling conversation tracked in chats and other interaction points and notify you immediately when your kids are trying to access something inappropriate or interacting with someone in an inappropriate way. Of course, you can’t treat parental controls as a babysitter for your kids, which is why it’s so important to talk regularly to your kids about their online activities. Make sure you use parental controls on all of the Internet-enabled devices in your home—I would stay away from any Internet-connected device that does not either include some level of parental controls or for which parental controls cannot be implemented. Your child’s safety and security are worth it.
- Educate your kids to make wise choices and model safe online behavior in the home: As you have conversations with your kids and as you deal with the fact that your kids are growing up online and offline, there will undoubtedly be teachable moments. Stay calm and use whatever opportunities you encounter to encourage your kids towards safe online behavior. Additionally, keep the computers and other Internet-connected devices in public spaces (I think, if possible, this should apply to the whole family) and model safe and responsible online use for your kids (no texting or web browsing while driving; using privacy settings on your Facebook page; posting healthy content online and being careful about the images and content that you post and send).
For more information about the dangers kids encounter and a guide to protecting them, be sure to check out our Internet Safety Guide.