Unless you're a Millennial or younger, you grew up in an era when the home was the safest place for kids to be. The dangers that lurked in the shadows quickly faded from our parents' minds once they saw us come safely through the door at dinnertime. Parenting now is a whole different ballgame. Some of the most insidious, intrusive, harmful entities live on the inside of that door - and in the case of cell phones (which our kids are using younger and younger every year), right in our children's hands.
What's a parent to do? Cyber technology is hardly optional anymore - in fact, in 2015 the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) went so far as to classify the Internet as a utility, like electricity and water, as opposed to a luxury. Teachers use websites and apps to manage homework assignments, and Google is practically a crucial extension of our brains nowadays. With benefits come risks, however, and as parents, we need to know how to protect our kids from the dark side of a constant connection.
Internet Safety: What You Need to Know
You're likely already aware of the fact that the Internet harbors a bevy of inappropriate content, plus the potential for predators to come into contact with your children. Knowing of these threats is the first step, however in order to know how to prepare and protect your kids you've got to know exactly what you - and your kids - are facing.
Related: Check out Internet Service Providers In Your Area
In most ways, the Internet is a miracle of modern technology. Our kids are exposed to culture and concepts outside of their communities and country. They learn things and see others' real lives in action in ways we never even dreamed of when we were younger. With global exposure, however, comes the opportunity for those with less than honest intentions to prey on the most vulnerable.
One of the worst mistakes you can make is assuming that your child isn't being cyber bullied simply because you don't hear about it at the dinner table.
This is probably the threat that strikes the most fear into parents' hearts. The thought of a stranger luring our innocent kids right out of their homes and into a situation where sexual abuse is the most common result sends chills up our spines. The fact is, however, that it happens, and awareness is the best way to prevent it. According to the U.S. Department of Justice:
- 13% of youths with Internet access have been victims of unwanted sexual advances.
- 1 in 25 kids has been solicited for offline contact.
- 47% of Internet sex crimes involve offerings of gifts or money during the "grooming" phase (the period of time during which the predator establishes an emotional connection with the child, preying on their curiosity and naivete).
The majority of encounters with sexual predators - 76% - begin in online chat rooms. The contact can initiate anywhere, however - via social media, email, text message, and more, depending upon how the predator obtains the child's information. Later in this guide, I'll outline how you can prevent such encounters, as well as how to prepare your kids to respond appropriately if it happens to them.
Sex crimes aren't the only way your children can be impacted by contact with others online. Over the past 20 years, cyberbullying has moved into the public spotlight due to a number of teen suicides resulting from online harassment. This form of online stalking may include:
- Threatening messages via email, text message, or social media
- Posing as another child and posting in their stead
- Taking and posting or forwarding suggestive photos
- Spreading rumors via text message or social media
One of the worst mistakes you can make is assuming that your child isn't being cyber bullied simply because you don't hear about it at the dinner table. According to Internet safety education foundation i-SAFE, fewer than half of cyberbullying victims tell a parent or adult that they're being harassed.
Information Security Risks
Physical and emotional harm are major concerns for us as parents when it comes to online safety, however, kids can also be vulnerable to those who wish to steal information for financial purposes. Identity theft, in particular, is emerging as a significant threat to minors. Data shows that as many as 10% of children are victims of having their social security number used by someone else.
Related: Check out The Ultimate Guide to Avoiding Online Scams
Kids are trusting. That means they may not think anything of sharing details online like their last name or hometown. If someone gains their trust, your child may even inadvertently share information which could compromise your credit cards or other financial records. That's why it's important that we don't just monitor what our kids are looking at online but have a conversation with them about what to share and what not to share as well.
If you're especially concerned about your child's information staying safe, you may consider investing in the best VPN service (Virtual Private Network). This tool encrypts all information you or your child enter into websites, providing an additional layer of protection against hacking. You may also want to look into the best identity theft protection companies. There are even plans available for kids, which can help head off a problem before it even begins.
I'm not sure there are many of us who didn't sneak a peek at a (contraband) Playboy now and again as adolescents. As risque as that may have been, it seems tame compared to the glut of pornography of all kinds available to our own children at the click of a mouse. Not only do these images steal our kids' innocence, the average age at which children are exposed sits at an incredibly young 11 years old (according to the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding).
In addition to the fact that young children simply aren't ready for sexually explicit imagery at such a tender age, there's an extremely vast disconnect between the girly mags of yesteryear and the graphic - and often disturbing - content available on the Internet. Negative effects of pornography exposure at a young age include:
- Confusion and fear
- Guilt and shame due to natural physiological reactions
- Desensitization to inappropriate and often demeaning content
Experts say it's not a matter of if children will see this type of content, it's a matter of when. In fact, This makes it all the more important to prepare them and make sure they feel comfortable talking to you in the case of an accidental incident.
Internet Safety for Young Children
Children are using computers and mobile devices younger and younger, often from toddlerhood. This fact opens up a big can of worms regarding the Internet and kids' safety while online. There are things you can do to protect your young children from viewing inappropriate content, and these measures will vary based upon their age and online activities.
Internet Safety for Kids Under 5
There are so many fun and educational online activities available for the pre-K crowd, and fortunately, this may be the easiest age group to keep safe while they enjoy their games and websites. They're old enough to work a mouse but typically too young to get into too much trouble, particularly since we as parents tend to be supervising closely at this age. Here are some tools you can use to make sure your preschooler sticks to what they're supposed to be doing online:
- Whitelists: A whitelist is one of the easiest ways to keep your littles on track while they use the computer. Most browsers include this feature, typically in the form of an extension. All you do is add the sites your child is permitted to use, bookmark them, and instruct your child on where to find the list. All other websites will be blocked should your child click on something he's not supposed to. Best of all, whitelisting is free.
- Parental Control Software: Programs like Net Nanny and Cyber Patrol allow you to filter inappropriate content, block profanity, set time limits, and receive alerts and notifications about your child's online activity. This type of software offers great flexibility and customizable control, however, they aren't free. Net Nanny, for example, costs $40 per year for one device.
For very young children, the most important tool for Internet safety is simply parental awareness and supervision. Limit the number of websites your child can play on to no more than a few and keep the computer out in a central location in the house.
Internet Safety for Elementary Kids
As children move past the stage of being satisfied playing on Nick Jr. and PBS.org, things get a bit more complicated. This is the age at which you want to start to talk to them about using caution online and setting rules about what they can and can't do. Using tools like those I listed above for younger kids is still appropriate, however, you will want to begin with a dialogue about appropriate online activity.
Websites like Facebook and Twitter can open up a whole new world of risk, between cyber bullying and exposure of personal information to strangers.
The Social Media Debate
If you have older elementary-aged children, this is also the age at which you can expect a lot of pressure to allow your son or daughter to participate in social media. Websites like Facebook and Twitter can open up a whole new world of risk, between cyberbullying and exposure of personal information to strangers. This topic has become a source of great debate due to age requirements for signing up for social media sites.
I personally chose not to allow my kids to sign up for social media until they could do so without having to lie about their ages. I was quite shocked to discover in my research for this guide that not only are millions of Facebook users under the required age of 13 but that 68% had their parents help to create their accounts, according to data reported by Forbes.
Certainly, the decision to allow your elementary-aged child to use social media is a personal one which should be discussed within the dynamics of your own family. Your child's social media rules should follow the same pattern as your guidelines for their use of any other part of the Internet. You will want to make sure the lines of communication stay open, that the computer is in an open, accessible location, and that you are providing routine supervision.
Internet Safety Rules
Regardless of which websites you approve for your child's use, you should make sure they understand the basic tenets of staying safe online. Teach them to:
- Ask permission before visiting a new website
- Never share personal information like name, address, school, photos, or family members' names
- Screen emails and don't open those from unknown sources
- Be aware that people online aren't always who they say they are
- Be nice to others online, just as they would in real life
- Report to a parent or teacher if they encounter an uncomfortable situation or experience cyberbullying
It's also a good idea to turn on Google's Safe Search feature for your elementary school kids. This tool filters out inappropriate content, making the Internet a bit safer for your kids, particularly when it comes to images.
Internet Safety for Teens
As kids get older, they're more likely to have a laptop or other connected device in their bedroom - which means they're surfing out of your sight. Keeping teenagers safe online will be much easier if you've already laid the groundwork by following the above guidelines from the time they first began using the Internet. They already know many of the dangers. The challenge now becomes getting them to use good judgment in the face of multiple temptations and opportunities to become the victim of threatening activity.
The Internet doesn't have to be a scary place as long as you and your kids have a clear understanding of how to avoid potential pitfalls.
The most important piece of the Internet safety puzzle is talking to your teens openly about potential issues they may encounter, and setting boundaries for their Internet usage.
- Make sure they're using an email address that won't draw attention from predators. Anything suggestive in any way should be off limits.
- Encourage them to keep private information private. Have them use social media settings that prevent the general public from viewing their profile and photos, and instruct them to never post their phone number, address, or even the school they attend in a place where strangers could see it.
- Ask your teens about their Internet activity. Showing interest in what they're doing on a daily basis helps to keep the lines of communication open.
- Discourage your teenager from posting their location to social media with apps that utilize GPS technology.
- Set firm rules about late-night Internet usage.
- Stress to your teens that they can feel comfortable coming to you if they're being harassed online. Over half of youths have experienced cyberbullying in some form, and very few actually tell a parent. Have a plan in place with your teenager so that they understand you will help them if this occurs.
The Internet doesn't have to be a scary place as long as you and your kids have a clear understanding of how to avoid potential pitfalls. Ultimately, you love them and want what's best for them, and they want and need to know that you care and will help them make good choices.
Internet Safety & Mobile Technology
Mobile Internet access makes up a large portion of online time for both children and adults. According to the Pew Research Center, 73% of teens between ages 13 and 17 use a smartphone. This means that it's imperative that child Internet safety measures extend to their mobile devices. Most of the information I've outlined so far in this guide applies to cell phone use as well, however, there is one significant added danger - sexting (which I will cover next).
In general, you should make sure your kids understand that the safety tips that keep them protected on their computers will also keep them safe on their mobile devices. In addition to the common sense practices you've taught them, it's a good idea to set up a charging station in a central location in the house. This way their devices are not in their bedrooms, removing any potential for risky late-night online activity. You can get more details on how to keep kids safe on their smartphones by checking out my ultimate guide to Cell Phone Safety Tips for Kids.
Preventing and Dealing with Sexting
Anyone with a teenager has no doubt worried about their child participating in the practice known as "sexting". Activity can range from suggestive text messages being exchanged all the way to fully nude photos being sent and/or received. I'm including this topic under the general umbrella of child Internet safety because so much of youth Internet access happens on mobile devices, and sexting has become a major area of concern for parents of connected kids.
How to Handle It
While you shouldn't panic and become overly controlling with your child's mobile device, you should definitely be aware and on the alert for any potential inappropriate texting activity. According to the Department of Justice's National Sex Offender Public Website, 26% of teenagers admit to participating in sexting. If you can imagine your child with a group of three friends hanging out in your living room, one of them has taken part in this type of activity, and it could be your child. That's an alarming thought for any parent.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will emphasize again how important open communication is for preventing and coping with this type of issue. When our kids feel like they can talk to us about anything, they will come to us if they receive - or are asked to send - a photo or message that makes them feel uncomfortable.
As with most other parenting challenges, prevention is the best cure. Here are some ways to handle the subject of sexting:
- Open a dialogue. Broach the topic and solicit your teen's opinion and thoughts on it. Avoid a lecturing tone - the idea here is to let them know that you're seeking a mutually respectful conversation in which you both can share what's on your mind.
- Talk about peer pressure. Teenagers live in a world that can seem myopic and short-sighted. Sometimes they need help understanding that the things that "everyone else" is doing are things that won't matter down the road and that peer pressure isn't a good reason to make a bad decision.
- Talk about consequences. This part of the discussion can be difficult because teenagers naturally tend toward an "it won't happen to me" attitude. It's important to impress upon them that even though it's unlikely, if an inappropriate photo were to be forwarded to other people it could be discovered by law enforcement, and in that case could turn to a criminal investigation due to the age of the participants.
- Let them know you're available. Staying connected with our teens is one of the most effective ways to make sure they confide in us when something happens that they aren't sure how to deal with. Try to be there, pay attention, and be ready to step in if necessary.
What to Do if Something Happens
If you do find out that your teen has either sent or received an inappropriate text message, have them delete the content and then have a discussion about the best course of action. You may decide to have a conversation with the other teen's parents, or you may choose to administer consequences to your own child and take whatever action you feel necessary to prevent future incidents. Each case is different, and you shouldn't hesitate to seek help from a counselor or other professional if you or your child need support in working through the situation.
Internet Safety for Kids Recap
Parenting is tough enough, and technology has made it even tougher in some ways. Yet we also have the advantage of our children having grown up in a world virtually saturated in online access. If you start early, you can ingrain all of these child Internet safety practices into your kids the same way you taught them to look before crossing the street.
First and foremost, the best way to teach our kids how to stay safe online is to model appropriate behavior. When they know what's expected, and we're open and honest about what's out there and how to avoid it, we can minimize any potential negative experiences our kids may face online.