on·line safe·ty | noun

  1. The act of staying safe online. It encompasses all technological devices, from PCs and laptops to smartphones and tablets, which have access to the internet.

I was visiting my four-year old nephew last weekend and when we came in from playing outside, he asked if he could watch Paw Patrol. I said yes and he promptly went to the computer, turned it on, opened up YouTube, found his show and started watching it. Although I found him to be very clever, it made me wonder what else he had access to and what parental controls, if any because of his young age, were in place. Were his parents keeping their children safe online?

How risky is it for kids to be online?

Risks to kids vary from age, gender, online exposure and other factors. This could range anywhere from online bullying to accessing inappropriate websites to sharing too much personal information. Due to the COVID restrictions in the last few years, more kids are accessing the internet for schooling, social interaction and self-entertainment. Unfortunately, this also opened a window for scammers to actively target kids online to capture their personal information for nefarious reasons. Scammers also found that kids can be a gateway to obtaining your personal information too.

However, there are simple ways to make them aware of the risks of online scammers and help them build skills to avoid becoming a victim or opening a gateway to your family’s financial security and privacy. 

Tips to keep your children safe online

1. Talk openly with your child about their online activity

As soon as your child starts accessing the internet, talk to them about what they are reading, watching and who they are communicating with online—and keep the conversation going as they grow older. Ask your child what sites they visit or apps they use, write a list, and look at them together. Talk to your child about what you think is appropriate, and remind them that this may be different for other parents and their children.

Listen to your child and reach an agreement about what is right for your family. Remember the time will come when they will access the internet outside the safety of home and you want them to be prepared for that.

It’s vital to teach them about their online reputation, too, and how they must be careful about how they behave, interact with people and represent themselves in such a public forum. They must always remember that the internet isn’t private.

2. Keep screens and devices where you can see them

Always monitor your child’s time online, particularly younger children. Keep the computer in a central spot in the home where it’s easy to keep an eye on what your child is doing and viewing online. For mobile devices, you can set them to forget Wi-Fi passcodes so your children cannot go online without you knowing. You can also try to make an agreement that there are no tablets, laptops or gaming in bedrooms.

For younger children, you might also consider checking browser histories after your child has been online to see what sites they are visiting. This approach obviously gets harder as children grow older and work out how to clear histories, which is more reason to open the lines of communication about internet use at an early age.

3. Know your parental controls

Innocent searches online can lead to not-so-innocent results, so it’s wise to know how to use the parental controls/search restrictions offered by web browsers, internet service provider and devices. For example, the SafeSearch Filters feature on Google will block sites with explicit sexual material. To turn it on, go to Settings/SafeSearch Filters. Although not 100 per cent accurate, parental controls can help prevent your child from seeing and accessing most violent or sexual material. See https://www.internetmatters.org/parental-controls/. Paid for security tools and features will offer extra protection and control.

4. Know your children’s online friends

As adults, we know that some people online aren’t who they say they are, but children and teens can be alarming naïve about who they are chatting with if they are not taught to be cyber wise from an early age.

Make sure you become friends with contacts within your child’s social media circles and ensure you monitor posts. Your children may resist but tell them that is one of the conditions for you to allow them access.

5. Be ‘share aware’ to protect your privacy

If your child is a regular user of social networks, they must be aware of the risk of personal information or images being made public once they post it. While they won’t fully understand the consequences of revealing personal information online, you should teach them to be cautious and thoughtful about what they post and share.  Encourage your children to ask themselves before posting anything if the information (i.e. name, phone number, home address, email, name of school) or photo is something they would give a stranger. If the answer is no, don’t post it.

If your child is sharing photos or posts online ask your child to let you see what they are sharing or ask an older sibling to check any photos before they’re shared.

6. Keep control of your family’s digital footprint

Every picture and personal detail that is posted and shared on social media and the internet contributes to someone’s digital footprint. The big risk with this is that once information is shared publicly, it can be used in ways you may not expect and cannot control. You should also assume that anything that is put online is permanent (it can sometimes be deleted but not always before others have seen it and saved it). For this reason, children and teens need to be smart about protecting their images and information. The same goes for parents who regularly post pictures of their children’s online.

Teach your child to stay in control of their digital footprint, by only sharing with people who they know and trust. Rather than posting to all their friends on social media, encourage them to be selective and use the privacy settings on the social media platforms they use.

7. Teach your children to keep their location private

Most apps, networks and devices have geo-tagging features which make your whereabouts public and can lead someone directly to you. These features should be turned off for obvious privacy and safety reasons. Digital photos also contain metadata (information about the time, date and GPS coordinates) which may reveal more then you want to. Some social media platforms automatically hide or remove this data, but not all, so do your homework and know how much info you’re sharing.

8. Keep track of online time

Set a time limit for daily screen time. It’s important to monitor your child’s online time, particularly younger children, to ensure they do not develop bad habits. Get your children to agree on a period of time, say 30 minutes per session, and set a timer to go off—don’t forget to make this a non-negotiable finish time. You could also switch off the home Wi-Fi at a set time each night (ideally before bedtime) so everyone has some ‘time-out’ from the internet. A good practice is to try making some days ‘screen-free’ in your home to encourage everyone to pursue other more active and/or less technology-driven ways to entertain themselves.

9. Be #SocialNetworkSavvy

Educate yourself on ways to be safe on social networks so that you can give the best advice to your children. Sign up to the social networks and apps your children are using and find out how to use the privacy settings and reporting mechanisms. Talk about how they can stay safe on social networks, including talking to a trusted person when they are worried, and being aware of what constitutes online bullying – both as a perpetrator and a victim.

If your child uses social networks, be sure they know how to:

  • Report inappropriate and/or offensive posts
  • Block someone
  • Keep information private.

10. Lead by example

Lead by example and always model the kind of positive online behavior you would like your children to use. If they see you being cautious and respectable when you are online, they are more likely to follow in your footsteps. And, yes, this includes limiting your own screen time.

Finally, you don’t want to instill fear in your child or prevent them from experiencing the many educational, entertainment, social and other benefits of the internet, but rather to assist them in maximizing its benefits and avoid its dangers. You can accomplish this while still keeping your children safe online.

Content provided by By Laura Easterbrook, Child Protection and Forensic Medical Service

Read other Mid Oregon View posts on online safety