If you’re like me, and you use your kids as free tech support whenever you need to configure your wireless router or your TV to play funny cat videos, then it’s probably tempting to let the kids take care of their own online security, as well.
That could be a big mistake.
While your kids might be experts at the technology, they’re not experts at evaluating risk.
You already know that, without guidance, children can be easily manipulated into smoking, drinking, speeding, bullying, and, of course, jumping off of cliffs because all their friends are doing it.
Mistakes can cause a lot of damage — everything from expensive ransomware infections, identity theft, loss of friendships to even putting your child’s life at risk.
Just as in the off-line world, you need to provide guidance, set boundaries, and, depending on your child’s age and maturity level, implement some safeguards.
You also need to be aware of where the threats are coming from.
10 Things You Can Do Immediately to Protect Your Children Online
1. Make YouTube safe for your kids
YouTube is the new children’s TV.
It is one of the most popular sites out there, but not all of those videos might be appropriate for your children.
But the site does have some safety features, and you should take advantage of them.
On the desktop site, if you scroll down to the bottom of the screen, there’s a “Restricted Mode” setting that hides videos that have been flagged as containing inappropriate content.
In the mobile apps, click on the three dots at the top right and click on Settings > General and scroll down until you see the “Restricted Mode” option.
2. Help your kids set the privacy controls on their social media accounts
If your children share messages, pictures or videos on Facebook, Instagram and other platform, they might not be aware of who can see their posts.
Most apps do have privacy settings, however, letting your children control who they let into their lives.
Here are the links to information about the privacy settings on the most popular apps:
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/help/325807937506242/
- Instagram: https://help.instagram.com/116024195217477/
- Snapchat: https://support.snapchat.com/a/privacy-settings
- WhatsApp: https://www.whatsapp.com/faq/en/general/21197244
- Kik: https://kikinteractive.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/217680888-How-can-I-keep-my-Kik-account-private-
- Ask.fm: http://safety.ask.fm/safety-tools/
3. Install anti-virus on your computers and mobile devices
Children are just as vulnerable as the rest of us, if not more so, to clicking on bad links and downloading malicious software.
Install anti-virus software on all computers and mobile devices.
There are some excellent free products available from trustworthy brands.
- Avast: https://www.avast.com
- Avira: https://www.avira.com/
- BitDefender (free): https://www.bitdefender.com/solutions/free.html
VPN (another option)
4. Set up separate accounts for your kids on your computers
If you share a device with your children, consider setting up a separate account, or accounts. Each account would have its own home screen and, depending on the device and platform, a different selection of features, apps, and permissions.
Not only does this help you protect your own data — or video recommendations — but you can also set up customized security and privacy settings for each child.
On Windows computers, you can set up a new user account for you children. Go to Settings > Accounts > Add a family member > Add a child.
You can blog specific apps, games, or websites, or set screen time limits. Visit https://account.microsoft.com/family for more information.
On Apple computers, you can set up Parental Controls for some user accounts, where you can, for example, restrict access to adult websites. Learn more here: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201813
5. Set up separate accounts for your kids on your mobile devices
Tablets and smartphones also allow multiple user accounts on the same device.
On Android tablets, you can create a restricted account for your child, with limits on which apps they can use.
On Android phones, you can create a new user account for your child, but the only account restriction currently available is to turn off the ability to make phone calls and send text messages. However, you can restrict their Google Play account. Go to Settings > Parental controls and turn them on. You will able to set specific content restrictions on apps and games, movies, TV, books, and music.
On the Apple side, iPhones and iPads have controls for apps and features, content, and private settings. Launch the Settings app and go to General > Restrictions and tap on “Enable Restrictions.”
6. Secure your gaming systems
Don’t forget that your gaming console is also an Internet device these days. Children can download games and make in-game purchases, and even surf the Web.
Most devices have features that allow you to restrict the kind of content your children can get, limit their purchases, and restrict or turn off their Web browsing.
7. Consider using kid-safe browsers and search engines
For added control, you can install a kid-safe web browser for your children to use.
Zoodles, for example, offers a child-safe environment, and there’s a free version for Windows PCs and Macs, and for Android and iOS tablets and smartphones. The premium version, which costs $8 a month, includes ad blocking, time limits, and other features.
Another alternative kid-safe browser is Maxthon.
There are also some built-in tools in the browsers you’re already using.
If you use the Chrome browser, you can set up a “supervised profile” that will block explicit search results, show you what websites your children visited, and even restrict what websites they can go to. The way the restrictions work is that you can either have a list of approved websites, where your children can only visit the sites on this list, or a list of restricted websites where they can visit any website except for the ones you’ve banned.
More information here: https://support.google.com/chrome/answer/3463947/?hl=en
Also check out these kid-safe search engines:
- Safe Search Kids: http://www.safesearchkids.com/
- KitRex: http://www.kidrex.org/
- Kiddle: http://www.kiddle.co/
- Kidsclick: http://kidsclick.org/
- Kidtopia: http://www.kidtopia.info/
8. Lock in apps for youngest children
If you want to be able to hand your phone to your child to play with in the back seat of the car without worrying about them messing up your phone or surfing the web for creepy content, what you can do is open up an app for the child and then set it up so that they can’t exit the app.
On phones running Android 5 and higher, it’s called “screen pinning.” First, go to Settings > Security > Screen pinning and turn it on and also enable “Ask for PIN before unpinning.” Then load your app, hit the overview button — the little square on the bottom right — and swipe up until you see a pin icon come up in the lower right corner. Now your child will need your PIN in order to switch apps.
On iPhones and iPads, this is called “Guided Access.” First, go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access to set up Guided Access. Then when you’re in the app you want to lock in, triple-click the home button to bring up the Guided Access settings. You can turn off Guided Access either with a PIN or by setting it up to work with your Touch ID through Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access > Passcode Settings.
9. Consider using an app that limits the time your child spends online
According to the Pew Research Institute, 50 percent of parents have used parental control tools to block, monitor, or filter their child’s online activities.
The ScreenTime app is available for Apple, Android and Amazon devices. The app is free for one child, and includes the ability to monitor the device remotely and to see your child’s web and search history. A $4-per-month premium version adds daily time limits, ability to block apps, and block the use of the device during school hours or after bedtime.
- MMGuardian: http://www.mmguardian.com/
- Mobile Guardian: https://www.mobileguardian.com/
- Net Nanny: https://www.netnanny.com/
- TeenSafe: https://www.teensafe.com/
- Verizon familyBase: https://www.verizonwireless.com/support/verizon-familybase-and-usage-controls/
- Norton Family: https://family.norton.com
- Mobicip: http://www.mobicip.com/
There are also some James Bond-type apps out there that will let you track your child’s location, read their emails and text messages, and spy on their Snapchats and other communications.
Be careful with these. Do you want to lose your child’s trust? And do you really want to engage in a cyberwar with a teenager, where they escalate to using anti-spyware applications and burner phones?
10. Make sure your kids are only using safe chat rooms
Some kid-friendly platforms offer chat rooms where kids can talk to other kids. Vet the sites first, to make sure that the chat rooms are monitored.
In addition, teach your kids not to share their real identities on such platforms, and use anonymous screen names, instead.
Teach, Educate and Talk with Your Children
11. Teach your children not to respond to messages from strangers
If they get a text message, instant message, email or social media message from someone they don’t know — they should just delete it.
Make sure they know not to open it, not to respond to it, and, of course, not to click on any links or attachments.
If those girls from Pretty Little Liars followed that advice, the show would have been over after one episode.
12. Educate your children about the risks of “sexting”
Last year, in a report to the U.S. Congress, the Justice Department revealed that the most significantly growing threat to children was something called “sextortion.”
It’s bad enough when minors send nude images of themselves to boyfriends or girlfriends, and those images then get distributed to others.
In addition to the psychological damage, children who both send and receive the “sexts” are breaking the law — and could result in prosecution and even registration as a sex offender.
And it gets worse.
According to the FBI, the “sextortionists” have gone pro, with individual criminals targeting hundreds of children each. They pretend to be the same age as their victims, trick or coerce them into producing child pornography for them — and even get them to recruit friends and siblings.
In a review of 43 such cases, the FBI found that two victims committed suicide, and ten others attempted to kill themselves. Victims also have their grades decline, drop out of school, get depressed, and engage in cutting or other types of self harm.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of sextortion were up 150 percent during the first several months of 2016 compared to the same time period in 2014.
In 4 percent of the sextortion reports, the children engaged in self-harm, threatened suicide or attempted suicide as a result of the victimization, the Center said.
13. Warn your kids about file sharing
Uploading illegal files is, of course, illegal.
And so is downloading, though fewer media companies seem to be prosecuting kids these days.
But downloading illegal files also carries other risks, such as viruses.
Fortunately, there are now many free and low-cost services out there where kids and teens can get videos and music.
14. Warn your kids about online polls and surveys
There are lot of fun, harmless polls out there, like the one that tells you what kind of poodle you are.
Others ask for too much personal information, and could land your kids on spammers’ email lists, or open them up to identity theft.
Many adults have a separate, throw-away email account for when they need to provide an email address in order to register for something. If your child have a legitimate reason to fill in questionnaires that require an email address, consider helping them set up a throw-away email account of their own.
15. Warn your kids about getting too close to strangers
When you’re meeting someone for the first time after, say, communicating with them via an online dating app, you know to set the meeting in a public location, such as a coffee house, and to let friends know where you are.
This is common sense.
But children and teenagers often lack that basic common sense — or might be tricked into keeping their online relationships secret.
Of course, predators can also communicate with potential targets via traditional mail, or meet them at bus stops. But the Internet allows them to scale up their activities dramatically.
Attackers can use online relationships to lure children to meet them in person. Or, more frequently, they will try to trick children into making unnecessary purchases, or sharing information, photos, or videos.
Know your children’s online friends. And, just as with regular friends, confirm their identities, and talk to those kids’ parents. If those “kids” are, in fact, kids.
16. Help your children deal with cyberbullying
Cyberbullying affects up to 15 percent of children, according to a report released last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
And the rates are even higher for children who are overweight, disabled, or LGBT, or members of a minority group.
Victims have physical problems such as sleeping, upset stomachs, and headaches and also suffer psychological effects, such as depression, anxiety and alcohol and drug use.
Let your kids know that they can turn to you for help, and find out what resources are available from your local schools.
You should save messages and other evidence of the cyberbullying and report the bully to the social media platform, telephone or Internet service provider, school, or local law enforcement authorities. In addition, you should block the bully from your child’s social media, telephone, or email accounts.
More information here:
- StopBullying.org: https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/
- KidsHealth: http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/cyberbullying.html
- Anti-Defamation League: http://www.adl.org/education-outreach/bullying-cyberbullying/
- Cyberbullying Research Center: http://cyberbullying.org/
- Common Sense Media: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/cyberbullying
- Connect Safely: http://www.connectsafely.org/tips-to-help-stop-cyberbullying/
- Delete Cyberbullying: http://endcyberbullying.net/what-to-do-if-youre-a-victim/
- NoBullying.com: https://nobullying.com/
17. Set a good example
How many baby pictures and vacation photos have you posted online? Before lecturing your kids about staying safe, make sure that you yourself are a good model. Learn about the privacy settings in the social media apps you use most, then check that you aren’t sharing private, personal moments with the whole Internet.
Also, don’t drive while texting or talking on the phone.
Wait until we all have those self-driving cars, and do your texting then.
18. Set rules about what your kids can share online
As an adult, you know to be careful about what information you post online. You know not to share your financial information or social security numbers with strangers.
Make sure your kids know the rules and understand the reasons behind them. Even seemingly innocuous information, like vacation pictures, can let criminals know when your house is empty.
Some information, like funny picture of your cat in the snow, can be shared with everyone. Some information, like vacation plans, can be shared with family and close friends. And some things should never be shared online at all.
In addition, the recommended age for children to have their own social media accounts is 13.
The Family Online Safety Institute has a sample family online safety contract here: https://www.fosi.org/good-digital-parenting/family-online-safety-contract/
19. Add your kids as “Friend”
If your children have their own accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat or other social media sites, follow or friend them.
Don’t let your kids tell you that other parents don’t do this. According to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of parents are friends with their teenage child on Facebook.
You’ll be able to see if they are posting inappropriate things online and can step in before problems escalate.
It’s not foolproof — there are ways that children can keep their communications hidden from you. And if you are too heavy-handed in your monitoring, it may cause your children to be more secretive.
20. Set limits on how much time your children can spend online
According to a recent national survey, tweens spend an average of six hours a day with their devices, and that’s not including the time spent on school or homework. And teens spend an amazing nine hours a day staring at their screens..
Sure, some of that is listening to Spotify while exercising. But the bulk of the time is spent watching videos, playing games, and using social media.
The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend that children under two should not have any screen time at all, and had very conservative limits for screen time for older children. In late 2016, the organization re-evaluated current research and loosed its recommendations.
Some screen time, such as video chats with relatives, or educational applications, can be very valuable, even for the youngest children.
Now, the organization suggests that families create a Family Media Plan.
However, the organization recommends that parents limit the use of screens during meals, and for an hour before bedtime. Also, phones and tables shouldn’t be charged overnight in the child’s bedroom, to limit the temptation to check the devices at all hours of the night.
21. Additional resources
Internet Matters: Resources for parents looking to keep children safe online, with age-specific how-to guides, free apps, and device safety checklists. https://www.internetmatters.org/
Family Online Safety Institute: Parenting guides and news and reports about online safety issues. https://www.fosi.org/
Safe, Smart & Social: Social media training guides and safety tips for parents and educators. https://safesmartsocial.com/