The Internet can do much to enrich our lives. It can also be a scary and dangerous place, especially for children.
A 2011 report by Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab found that the rate of ID theft is 51% higher for children than it is for adults. Annually, over one million children have their ID stolen. Other threats, such as child predation and cyberbullying, are even more common, and rates continue to rise each year.
So, what can you do, as a parent, to keep your kids safe online? Let’s take a look.
How to Keep Your Kids Safe Online
Once you start thinking about the host of threats that kids face online, the task of keeping them safe and turning them into good Internet citizens can feel overwhelming. But there’s a lot you can do to get started, and hopefully prevent your kids from having bad or even scary experiences online.
1. Start the Conversation
Start talking with your children early on about Internet safety. The more you communicate the risks and dangers that are present online, the more equipped your kids will be to identify those threats and take appropriate action when they come up.
Tell your children to come to you whenever they see something that upsets them or that they don’t understand. Let them know that you won’t judge them about what they ask, or take away privileges if they were on an unapproved site. Yes, children need consequences for breaking the rules, but it’s more important, in the moment, that they come to you to talk about something they saw, read, or experienced online.
As a parent, you know that lecturing your kids about anything is the surest way to get them to tune out what you’re trying to say. Fortunately, Google created Be Internet Awesome, an interactive game that teaches kids how to make smart decisions online. The game teaches children how to be kind online, how to identify fake people, fake websites, and fake information, how to share information with care, and much more.
Younger children might find it difficult to understand that the Internet poses dangers just like the real world. To them, the Internet is like television – an entertainment device. It can be hard to grasp that there are real people on the other end who might want to do them harm. So, keep repeating yourself, or conveying the same message in different ways, every time you use the Internet together. For young children, repetition can be the best teacher.
2. Educate Your Children About Predator Tactics
Older children who visit chat rooms or use social media are at a higher risk for child predators. It’s important to educate your children about the tactics these adults might use to lure them into sharing information, or even meeting face-to-face.
For example, they might say, “Let’s go private,” which means they want to initiate a private conversation with the child in the chat room, through IM, or even over the phone. Private conversations are not monitored by chat rooms.
Another tactic is to say, “Where is the computer in your house?” The predator wants to know how easily parents can see what the child is doing. Other tactics, such as flattery or empathy, might be used to build a relationship and gain trust.
You also need to educate your children about hackers, using language they can understand. Amichai Shulman, CTO of network security firm Imperva and father of four, was interviewed by The Guardian about how he keeps his kids safe online. He tells his kids that hackers are a type of criminal that breaks into your home through the computer, rather than through the window.
He strengthens the computer-real world connection by talking about gifts. His children are never allowed to talk to strangers bearing gifts, nor are they allowed to open something when they don’t know exactly where it came from. And, the same is true online. His children are instructed never to open unsolicited email attachments.
These simple analogies can help your own child visualize the malicious intent of hackers far better than they might be able to imagine on their own. This, in turn, can help them be more cautious and make better decisions online.
3. Know What the Law Covers, and What It Doesn’t
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wrote the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law that protects children’s personal information and prevents websites and apps that are specifically directed at children under aged 13 from “phishing” for personal information without a parent’s knowledge. This personal information includes everything from their name and address, to photos and their IP address.
Here’s how it works. Imagine that your child wants to download an app that requires their personal information. Before they can complete the process, parents get a notification alerting them of the situation. The notice also details, in plain language, exactly what information the website or app wants to collect, and what it will do with this information. Parents have to give their consent before the child can proceed.
Once the information is collected, you’re still in control. You can ask to see the information at any time (although you will likely have to prove your own identity before the company will provide access). You’re also free to revoke your consent and ask that the information be deleted.
COPPA provides a layer of protection for children; however, the law only applies to websites and apps that are specifically geared towards younger children. If your child strays onto a site geared towards teens or adults, COPPA won’t apply.
4. Keep the Computer in Common Areas
The old business adage, “What gets measured gets managed,” aptly applies to your child’s computer use. If they’re surfing the Internet on a laptop in their room, it’s impossible for you to monitor what they’re looking at all the time.
If, however, Internet-enabled computers are located in a central area, such as the kitchen or living room, then it’s much easier for you to keep an eye on what they’re doing.
5. Use Parental Control Filters
Browsers like Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Safari have parental controls that, once enabled, will allow you to create specific guidelines that detail what your child can look at and download, and what she can’t.
For example, Google Chrome allows you to set up a user profile for each child. Once their profile is created, you can block specific sites, as well as filter out offending content, such as profanity, nudity, porn, or violence, among others. You also have the option of blocking the entire web, and adding only the websites that you want your children to have access to. Microsoft’s parental controls allow you to control how much time your child spends surfing each day.
Of course, each browser has different instructions for activating parental controls. Here are links for the most commonly used browsers:
If you and your children use Android devices, you can download the Family Link app. The app, which was developed by Google, allows you to use all of the parental controls commonly found in browsers. However, Family Link goes a step further by allowing parents to remotely lock and unlock their child’s device at specific times (for example, if you don’t want them using their device past 8pm, you can set it to turn off automatically). You also get weekly or monthly activity reports that detail which sites your child is visiting and how much time they’re spending on each site.
Although using parental controls is an important step, it’s one that also needs to come with transparency. Be open with your children about these controls, and explain why you’re implementing them. Ask your children how they feel about the guidelines you’ve created, and address their concerns. Being open about using these controls, and giving your kids the opportunity to talk about them with you, will help build trust. And, this trust will be essential when they come across a website or situation that upsets them.
6. Give Out Information Cautiously
Schools, doctor’s offices, and even after-school clubs and activities routinely ask for very personal information, including your child’s Social Security number.
Before you give out any information, ask why the office or organization needs it and, more importantly, how they keep this information secure. Don’t be afraid to withhold your child’s information if it’s not truly necessary. The fewer places that have information about your child, the less risk that it will be compromised in the future.
Teens are at risk when they enter the workforce. Most job applications ask for a Social Security number for background checks, but many businesses don’t spend much time or thought about securing these documents once the teen is hired (or not). Often, they’re placed in a filing cabinet and forgotten.
Talk to your teenager about the importance of keeping their Social Security number safe. Instruct them to ask the hiring officer how they will keep their job application safe, and if they can submit their Social Security number only if they’re being seriously considered for the position.
7. Freeze Your Child’s Credit Report
Identity theft can happen to a child of any age; if they have a Social Security number, they can become a victim. One of the reasons why children are at such high risk for identity theft is because they’re a clean slate. It will also be a long time before a child needs a credit card, so it’s likely the theft will go unnoticed for years.
The best way to protect your child’s financial identity is to freeze their credit report. However, the laws regarding this are varied; Consumer Reports states that only 23 states have policies in place regarding a minor’s credit freeze. These states include: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Additionally, policies differ between the three main credit bureaus. Through Equifax, parents can create a credit report for their child and then freeze it, for free. Other credit bureaus won’t create a file unless state law orders them to. Additionally, parents might have to pay a fee to freeze their child’s credit report.
The process to freeze your child’s credit report takes some time. You will have to provide proof of your identity (through a driver’s license, Social Security card, utility bill, etc.), proof of your child’s identity (with their Social Security card), and proof of your relationship (with their birth certificate). You’ll then have to send copies of these documents to each of the three credit reporting bureaus.
If you live in a state that allows you to freeze your child’s credit, it’s definitely worth the time and effort to do so.
8. Learn What FERPA Covers, and What It Doesn’t
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal privacy law that covers a child’s personal information at school, including transcripts, family contact information, and disciplinary reports. Through FERPA, schools have to notify parents whenever they want to share this information, as well as get written consent. Schools also have to provide parents with access to these records when they ask.
FERPA does not completely protect your child. School officials do not have to receive parental consent to share records in these four cases:
- Disclosures made to school officials with legitimate educational interests
- Disclosures made to another school at which the student intends to enroll
- Disclosures made to state or local education authorities for auditing or evaluating federal- or state-supported education programs, or enforcing federal laws that relate to those programs
- Disclosures including information the school has designated as “directory information”
The “directory information” subclause is worrisome for some parents. The reason is because “directory information” is information that the school considers to be unharmful if disclosed. The problem is that anyone can ask for this information, without consent. So, what can schools share about your child through “directory information?”
- Name, address, telephone listing, email address, date and place of birth, dates of attendance, and grade level
- Participation in officially recognized activities and sports
- Weight and height of members of athletic teams
- Degrees, honors, and awards received
- Most recent school attended
Any parent can imagine how a malicious child predator could make use of this information. The good news here is that you can choose to opt out of “directory information” sharing. Simply talk to your school officials about how to get started.
Keep in mind that if your child is part of an after-school sports team or activity that takes place at school, but is not actually sponsored by the school, FERPA does not apply. You’ll need to find out what these organizations do with your child’s personal information, and let them know if you don’t want it shared with third parties.
9. Don’t Share Personal Information With Family Members
Whenever friends or family come to babysit or spend time with your children, make sure all documents that contain their personal information are locked in a filing cabinet or safe. If you have teens, make sure that their wallet or purse is out of sight or kept in a secure place.
10. Outline What and What Not to Share
Your children also need to understand what is appropriate to share online, and what isn’t. For example, many teens are proud of their first driver’s license, and will post pictures on social media when it comes in the mail. However, this is a document that should never be shared with others, especially online.
The same can be said for their first bank account or credit card. It might seem obvious to adults that this information should never be posted, but children and teens often don’t think about the consequences of sharing some of the milestones they’re proud of.
Other information, such as their home address, full birth date, current location, telephone number, medical history, vacation itineraries, or any job-related information, should never be posted online.
Take Extra Precautions Against Cyberbullying
The statistics are sobering. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 34% of middle school children report that they have been a victim of cyberbullying. Adolescent girls are victimized more often (37%) than boys (31%). Cyberbullying not only affects self-esteem and morale, it can also lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
Cyberbullying is especially damaging because of its digital nature. Devices are always on, which means that children rarely get relief from the bullying. It’s also, in most cases, permanently accessible online. This can affect a child’s reputation and even impact future school admissions and job opportunities.
What does cyberbullying look like? It can take many forms:
- Sending malicious text messages
- Circulating embarrassing or damaging photographs online
- Spreading rumors through text or social media
- Pretending to be someone else, opening up a social media account in that person’s name, and spreading false information
- Stealing social media passwords or login information to spread damaging information
- Circulating sexually suggestive pictures or messages about another person
As a parent, there are a lot of strategies you can use to stop cyberbullying and keep your kids safe.
11. Know the Warning Signs
According to Cyberbullying.org, most children who experience cyberbullying don’t tell anyone what’s happening. This is why it’s so important that you know the warning signs. These can include:
- Your child suddenly loses interest in using their devices
- Appears nervous or jumpy when they are using their devices
- Loses interest in school, or appears nervous or anxious when they have to go
- Becomes withdrawn from family and friends
- Appears angry or upset after going online
- Wants to spend more time with family instead of friends
- Becomes secretive about their online activities
12. Know Your State and School Policy
Many states have developed policies and mandates to cope with the rise in cyberbullying. However, most of these mandates are without formal instructions or frameworks, so schools are largely left on their own to come up with a plan. Additionally, most states don’t provide funding to help schools implement anti-cyberbullying efforts, so again, schools are left to come up with money on their own.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, schools are in a tricky position when deciding how far to go with the policies they do implement. For example, students who use school resources (such as tablets or laptops) to bully another student can be disciplined for their behavior. But what about when bullying occurs on a student’s personal device, after school hours?
Some schools have been sued over disciplining a student for cyberbullying when it wasn’t warranted, while others have been sued for not stepping in soon enough. Most school administrators have no guidance when it comes to disciplining students for activities that occur outside school boundaries.
Although it’s a gray area, schools are working to enact meaningful policies to prevent and address cyberbullying. It’s important to understand your school’s current policy, and talk to school administrators directly if you suspect that your child is being bullied.
13. Talk to Your Children About Their Online Behavior
Often, children and teens engage in cyberbullying behaviors without realizing the severity of their actions. It’s essential that you talk to your kids about cyberbullying: what it entails, and why it’s unacceptable.
Kids need to know that their behavior online should mirror the way they behave in the real world. For example, if your kids wouldn’t do something face-to-face with someone, they shouldn’t do it online. Talk to them about spreading only positive messages. Yes, they may have negative thoughts about someone at school, but this doesn’t mean that their feelings need to be shared online.
Teach and reinforce positive values like kindness, empathy, and compassion. To do this, you need to model these behaviors yourself.
Many children who don’t engage directly in cyberbullying end up witnessing it through their friends. Encourage your children not to “Like” posts or comments that might be hurtful to others. If they see a hurtful or upsetting message or post directed at someone else, teach them to walk away from their device until they’re calm enough to respond in a constructive way. Children who “lash out” in anger at a cyberbully to protect a friend might make a bad situation worse.
Lastly, encourage your children to contact the victim directly and express their solidarity and support. This can provide a huge boost to the other child’s self-esteem, and it lets them know that your own child does not support the bully or their behavior.
A report titled “Always Connected,” compiled by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, found that children aged 8-10 spend an average of 5.5 hours per day using media. While much of this time is spent watching television, using the Internet is a close second. And, the age at which children become regular Internet users keeps dropping.
This means that parents have a responsibility to not only keep their kids safe online, but also teach them the skills and decision-making capabilities to become good Internet citizens.
How do you help your own kids navigate the digital world?