Keeping Our Kids Safe on the Internet
September 2, 2014 | Home and Family
By Karl Gouverneur, chief technology officer at Northwestern Mutual.
Our children are growing up in a world very different than the childhood my generation experienced. Our kids are growing up as digital natives. They’re going online in more places and at younger ages. In fact, according to a study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, by age 8 more than two-thirds of children are using the Internet every day via multiple devices. It’s the way kids learn, communicate, make plans, socialize, study, and entertain themselves.
The Internet can certainly improve our children’s lives, but there are also some real risks. People who intend to do harm can be anonymous. And mistakes your children make can be copied, shared, commented on, and viewed across the globe. And those mistakes can follow your children for a long time. Just as you protect your children from physical danger, you also need to take measures to ensure your children’s digital security.
There are a number of digital risks out there, but most of them fall within one of three categories: The risk of what is online, the risk of who is online, and the risk of what a child may put online.
Protecting Kids from What Is Online
We all want to protect our kids from viewing inappropriate content online. While there is always the possibility that your child may inadvertently stumble on questionable or even dangerous content, there are measures you can take to minimize that possibility:
1. Employ parental control features. These control settings are available for phones, gaming devices, tablets and computers and are almost always free. NetNanny is a highly customizable software available for $40 that allows parents to add or remove restrictions they deem appropriate. It also incorporates age-based profiles to help you determine the best settings for your child.
2. Watch what they are seeing. You can reduce a child’s likelihood of browsing or inadvertently stumbling upon questionable content by keeping the family computer centrally located, where you can see what your child is viewing.
3. Check their browsers. Don’t forget about your child’s mobile devices. Parents should frequently check the browser history of all devices and talk to kids about the real danger—and legal consequences—of searching inappropriate content.
4. Block downloads. If your kids are like mine, they love to download new games and animated toolbars, but these downloads can expose your computer to spyware or other unwanted software. For older children, it may be appropriate to set limits on downloads or require parental permission prior to downloading. But for younger children, the simplest solution may be the creation of separate user accounts. Most computers will allow you to create several different user accounts with varying permissions. Giving a child a limited user account will prevent her from changing system settings or installing new hardware or software.
Protecting Kids from Who Is Online
Let’s face it: Kids’ social lives are online. They use real-time chats, social networking and instant messaging to keep up with their friends and make plans. You can help your children be aware of who is online and show them how to protect themselves from becoming a victim.
1. Cybercriminals. Children are particularly vulnerable to online cybercriminals because of their high level of trust. Cybercriminals are motivated by financial gain and consistently use new forms of viruses, Trojan horses, phishing attacks, and spam emails to lure you in. Here are a few tips to help your kids avoid cybercriminals:
- Raise their awareness. Making your kids aware of these types of criminals is a first step in helping them avoid them.
- Use an antispyware software, and secure your home network with a good password and security settings.
- Teach your kids to avoid clicking links or opening emails from someone they don’t know.
- Help your kids to come up with a unique and complex password for their social networking and email accounts.
2. Cyberbullies. One in three teens has experienced some type of online harassment, making cyberbullying the single most common online harm our children will experience, according to NetSmartz. If your child is being cyberbullied:
- Teach them not to respond.
- Ask them to keep a copy of all the messages.
- Report the cyberbullying to the school, website, or—if it includes threats—the police. The STOPit app works on Apple and Android devices and allows kids to report cyberbullying anonymously to their school, trusted adults, or a crisis center.
- Advise your kids to never share passwords and to always log out of computers when they finish their work, even at home. This will help prevent others from using their account to send hurtful messages.
Most importantly, however, we need to teach our kids that it’s never appropriate to bully others, and that includes online activity. The best way to prevent cyberbullying is to instill a sense of empathy in our kids. Remind your child to think about how he would feel if someone posted or texted a similar message or picture about him.
3. Online predators. The anonymity of the Internet can also put a child at risk of falling victim to imposters and predators. To help minimize this potentially very dangerous risk:
- Work with your kids to pick a username that does not identify age or gender.
- Insist that children never accept “friends” or “buddies” whom they do not know personally.
- Set rules about never disclosing phone numbers or addresses over the Internet.
Talk with your kids about the dangers of online predators, and let them know to alert you immediately if someone is sending unusual or inappropriate content to them.
Protecting Kids from What They Put Online
The final category of online risks is arguably the most important because it is the most common. With every online click, your child is building a composite online portrayal that tells a story about who she is, what she likes to do, who her friends are, what she buys, and where she goes. You can minimize your child’s profile by using a search engine such as DuckDuckGo, which protects its searchers’ privacy by not tracking their online movements or creating profiles of its users.
Your child’s digital profile can be used by potential employers, colleges, credit agencies, and others. We’ve all heard the stories of young people self-sabotaging their academic or professional futures by posting controversial pictures, videos, or statements online. Kids need to be taught early on that what they put online could potentially be viewed by anyone and last their lifetimes. You should ensure that your child uses the security and privacy settings available on social networks to limit who can access their posts.
Remind kids that privacy settings may not be enough to stop someone from copying and pasting certain information more broadly. Talk to your kids about the fact that what they post online is a reflection of them. Remind them of the “mom test”—would they want their mom to see that? If not, it’s probably best not to post, text, or upload it.
In addition, remember that geolocation data from mobile devices can jeopardize a child’s physical safety. Turn off the geolocation capabilities of your kids’ apps and remind them not to “check-in” their location.
Develop a Safety Strategy
The Internet has drastically changed the way our kids spend their time and interact with the world. Like anything in the physical world, we need to talk with our kids about the issues they face online. Parents should develop an overall safety strategy that includes limits on screen time and rules about how children are allowed to use the Internet. Using an app such as ScreenTime can help you manage your kids’ time online and teach them to save minutes for delayed gratification or earn minutes via chores and good behavior.
But most important, remember to keep a constant dialogue with your children about online safety, learn about the new tools they are using and how they are using them, and enjoy time together exploring the great parts of what the Internet has to offer.