The internet has opened up new opportunities for children to learn and connect with other people, but there are risks that come with using digital devices. The prevalence of cyberbullying, online predators, and exposure to violent or adult content is a growing concern for parents. However, staying informed about potential dangers and teaching your children how to stay safe online is easier than you think.
Understanding the ins and outs of internet safety can be challenging. It can also feel like a lot to take on as a parent when you’re juggling everything else that comes with being an adult — paying bills, cleaning the house, making sure your older children finish their homework, etc. The best way to start is with a few tips to keep in mind when teaching children about safe internet usage.
1) Talk to your children about online behavior
Some of the first conversations you’ll want to have with your children about safe internet usage are about online behavior. Ask yourself and your child what is appropriate and inappropriate to share online. This helps you establish a baseline of internet knowledge that you and your child hold, helping you determine the next steps in your digital literacy journey.
When talking with your children about online behavior, it’s essential to let them know that the same rules apply online as they do offline. That means limiting sharing information with strangers, including your full name, home address, school information, or other personal details. It also means teaching the importance of not posting or endorsing violent, sexual, or hateful content.
2) Be familiar with the devices your child uses
Knowing how to use the devices your child uses is integral to keeping them safe online. Modern-day kids and young adults live in a highly connected world that generations before them never experienced at their age. As parents, it’s vital that you do your best to cross this generational divide and understand how your children are using their devices.
Internet access can come from many sources: smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, and even some toys give children access to the internet. Each of these devices comes with its own set of risks, so it’s important to know what you’re up against regarding internet safety. Take the time to familiarize yourself with all the connected devices in your home and understand what parental controls are available and how to use them.
3) Establish balanced guidelines
As a parent, it’s essential to strike a balance between being too strict and too lenient when setting internet use guidelines and rules. For example, if your child’s online time is unlimited, they may have a higher chance of encountering inappropriate content or falling victim to online predators. Excessive screen time can also cause adverse reactions in kids, such as irritated, dry eyes, sleep issues, obesity, attention problems, or mental health issues. On the other hand, forbidding internet use entirely may lead to frustration and rebellion on the part of your child. And, just like crossing the street or paying a bill, the internet is a huge part of regular daily life that your child will eventually need to integrate into overtime!
It’s crucial to find a middle ground that works for your family. Some helpful questions to ask yourself when setting guidelines for internet use include:
- What types of devices will be used for internet access?
- What time of day is internet use allowed?
- How much time will be spent online?
- What types of sites are off-limits?
- Will you be monitoring your child’s online activity?
Each of these questions is key to developing a balanced set of online guidelines that work for your family and can help you maintain the right level of control while keeping balance and allowing your children to discover the positive aspects of the internet. Of course, you can set parental controls, but tech-savvy kids will typically find a way around them. If you and your child are just learning about online safety, though, it’s a good idea to have some parental controls in place.
In order to implement parental controls, you will have to go through each medium in which your child can access the internet. These controls are typically available in the settings section of each of the following:
- Search engines;
- Devices, like tablets, phones, laptops, desktop computers, gaming consoles, and TVs;
- Video-streaming sites, like YouTube, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, and Twitch;
- Mobile apps;
- Chat software, like Facebook Messenger and Zoom.
Whatever device or platform your child has access to, you’ll want to check to see if you can control the settings. Sometimes, you can set up profiles just for them that only allow child-safe content. Do some research, and always use internet education as a failsafe, as some things can slip through the cracks of parental control settings.
4) Teach your child about recognizing safe vs. dangerous content
Children must learn how to recognize safe versus dangerous content while they’re still young. Even if they’ve never encountered a challenging situation online, they may experience it as they get older. Parent-enforced online safety precautions are only as strong as the values that you instill in your children regarding content. They should be equipped with the tools to distinguish what is safe and what is not on their own. This way, they can remain safe even when the safeguards of parental controls are taken down or bypassed in some way.
Luckily, there are some basic topics that you can go over with your children to teach them to delineate between safe and potentially dangerous online content. Make sure your children are aware that, sometimes, the following can be indicators of malicious intent:
- Links to misspelled or strangely named sites;
- Someone they met online telling them to keep their conversations private or attempting to alienate them from their friends and family;
- Someone threatening to leak information or pictures if they don’t conduct a certain behavior online;
- Requests for any sort of payment or gift card purchase;
- Invasive requests for personal information, such as a home address or class schedule.
Further, let them know that the following behaviors can open up their own content to be used for nefarious purposes:
- Posting, sharing, or trading personal pictures or information;
- Using an identifiable username;
- Sharing passwords or using easily guessed passwords;
- Meeting someone in person that they only have met online;
- Responding or reacting to threatening messages or comments;
- Keeping scary or questionable situations private so they don’t get in trouble.
Assure your child that they can come to you with any information if they feel uncomfortable or hurt by something online. Make sure that they aren’t punished for the behavior but are reinforced and reassured about how to conduct online behavior going forward. While this is not an exhaustive list, it gets the ball rolling for starting a conversation about how people online don’t always have the best intentions. Your child will be aware of these adverse incidents and can learn to make decisions on their own as they mature and navigate the online world.
To help your child recognize safe versus dangerous content, you may want to consider setting up parental controls on the devices your child uses. This can be very helpful when your child is still developing an understanding of what type of content is acceptable or not. Adequately set parental controls can also help you monitor your child’s online activity, see the content they’re accessing, and help them adjust to their activity over time. You can also surf the internet alongside them to show them how to use it properly and safely. This may also bring up real-life instances of shady online behavior that you can use as an example.
5) Help your child learn how to spot potential scams and phishing attempts
Another important part of teaching your child about safe versus dangerous content is helping them learn how to spot potential scams and phishing attempts. Scammers and fraudsters often target children online, attempting to trick them into giving up personal information, money or sending them gifts. These scammers may also impersonate your child’s friends, family, or teachers.
There are many resources available to help you teach your child to recognize potential phishing scams. Since cybersecurity is a regularly evolving field, these resources can help you and your child stay relevant regarding the latest scams and threats. Even with parental controls in place, emails and other online forms of communication can leak through and target your child to gain access to private information. Teaching them how to be digitally literate will not only protect you and your family from scams, it will help them evolve into a well-rounded adult that’s ready to tackle what the world throws their way.
Teaching children about safe surfing and the dangers of the internet is critical to ensuring they stay safe and protected online. While it can feel overwhelming as a parent, it’s essential to keep the conversation open and make sure your child feels comfortable coming to you with questions, concerns, or problems they may encounter. Doing so will help them continue to feel safe online and will help you to understand the issues they may be facing.