Children use the internet for many reasons: educational videos and materials, games, and interactions with friends and family members.
Exposing kids to the internet and technology at an early age has been the subject of debate among parents, guardians, educators, and the general public. On the good side, kids pick up information and skills, given the wealth of learning resources. The not-so-good or dark side is that they can come across content inappropriate for their age, or they can get into bad company.
This guide aims to help parents identify risks associated with their children’s internet usage and come up with effective and adequate solutions for the kids’ safety and security in this virtual environment.
For this guide, children refers to individuals below 18 years of age.
The Problem: Scenarios and Risks
The internet is not an inherently bad thing. Still, dangers can lurk for unsuspecting or unsupervised kids treading in the boundless cyberspace, where accessing information or socializing is a few clicks or taps away.
Internet Safety and Children’s Adoption of Technology
Internet safety is one topic parents need to have conversations with their kids about, as young as kindergarten. According to Pew Research Center’s Parenting Children in the Age of Screens, 67 percent of parents said their child ages 11 or younger has interacted or used a tablet computer, followed by 60 percent for smartphones, and 44 percent for desktop or laptop computers and gaming devices.
- Among those whose child has interacted with a smartphone, 60 percent said their child began using smartphones before they reached five years old.
- Seventeen percent (17%) of parents have gotten their child a smartphone, and 51 percent of the said group had gotten the phone when the child was 9 to 11 years old.
The earlier children start using technology, the greater the need to teach them how to protect themselves against existing and emerging cybersecurity threats, as enumerated below. Teenagers may be savvier or more technologically inclined than their parents or younger siblings, but they can also be targeted for online crimes.
Online Dangers for Children
- Cyberbullying happens when negative, harmful, false, or mean content about a person is posted, shared, or sent online or via text and email. Students who are reportedly bullied at school may also be bullied online, as noted in the Indicators of School Crime and Safety by the National Center of Education Statistics.
- Online predators target young and older children. Some of these cyber predators use instant messages, chatrooms, and emails to interact and correspond with victims, while others pretend to be teens, according to an article on the American Psychologist.
- Offensive and inappropriate content involving sex, violence, hate speech, and other disturbing themes is readily accessible to any curious child. It is confusing or difficult for them to make sense of what they saw and read online, and an added danger is not telling their parents about it.
- Spyware is malware that steals users’ sensitive information tied to financial accounts. Kids may have been tricked to download malicious software or happened to click a suspicious link containing other forms of malware.
- Scams seek to defraud people of money or give out their personal information. One scheme entices teens to buy expensive gadgets for cheap; once the victim wires the payment, the scammer deactivates their account or blocks the victim. Another scam is notifying a user that they have won a phone and that they need to click the link and supply the details to claim the prize.
- Child identity theft can use a child’s social security number, name, etc. to commit fraudulent transactions. Visit IdentityTheft.gov or contact 877-ID-THEFT.
What To Do: Solutions and Interventions
Parenting is hard enough, and the existence of the internet makes the job tougher. However, parents and guardians can have the tools needed to guide their young ones into safety.
1. Set a good example.
Children learn a lot of things from adults that influence how they think and act. Parents can be a good role model to their kids on social media by posting information that is safe for sharing and only with people they know personally. While oversharing has become the norm on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok, it doesn’t have to be so.
2. Educate and empower.
The grown-ups can level with the young ones about internet safety when engaging with others on forums, chat groups, or gaming channels and posting information on social media. Show kids how to create a stronger password or passphrase or strengthen their privacy settings. Openly conversing about things that happen on the internet at home raises children’s awareness about the issues and their ability to protect themselves.
3. Learn about internet safety laws.
Read up on these relevant laws in the U.S. that protect the security and safety of minors online:
- The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 covers commercial websites and online services that must ask for parents’ consent to collect information from children below 13.
- The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000 compels certain schools and libraries to filter or block child pornography, obscenity, and content that is harmful to minors, as defined in the law.
4. Take advantage of parental control tools.
Parental controls present a more active way for parents who wonder about what their kids do online. Such tools can filter and block websites based on keywords, block outgoing content, limit surfing-the-net time, and alert parents of kids’ online activities, such as websites visited, per a Federal Trade Commission guide.
Speaking of, kids around the world mostly visited software, audio, and video (39.11%), followed by internet communication media (24.1%), and computer games (15.98%) in their computers, according to Statista. The data from June 2019 to May 2020 is based on a parental control product.
5. Go easy on spying kids’ activities on the internet.
Using parental control tools may work with elementary school kids, but not with teenagers becoming independent and conscious of privacy. Spying on adolescents can be counterproductive as they can find ways to circumvent the controls.
Instead, check on them when they do their homework, play games, or surf the internet. Talk to them, answer questions, discuss safety and behavioral issues. They will listen to you as people they can trust and be able to confide in.
6. Limit screen time.
Kids can benefit from spending fewer hours in front of the laptop, mobile phone, or tablet. For one, they can spend more time at home with their families or go out and play.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’s policy statement cited obesity, shorter sleeping time, and child development issues linked to excessive use of media, including television, among children.
Parents are also expected to manage their screen time to not affect face-to-face interactions with their kids and to act as good role models in using electronic devices.
7. Remind them to be cautious of strangers online.
Experts encourage doing more than warning children of stranger danger on the internet, where people with questionable and malicious motives abound. Parents can explain the idea of caution in scenarios, where kids need to keep their guard up when the following red flags are waving at them:
- Asking personal questions, like age, address, and routines of people in the house
- Asking for selfies, nudes, etc.
- Suggesting the idea of meeting right away or being persistent about an in-person meeting
- Asking for money
8. Dispose of computers and other gadgets properly.
Erasing files from the computer’s hard drive or doing a factory reset in phones is sometimes not enough. Some software can retrieve deleted files, posing a security risk to the kids and adults alike.
Backing up data and wiping out the hard drive are critical steps before any move to recycle or dispose of the item. There are certified recyclers or companies that provide data destruction services to ensure that data is safe when the equipment gets repaired, resold, or recycled.
For information about the data wipeout and related services, ask the professionals.
Banning internet access at home is clearly out of the question, as online learning is seemingly part of the new normal in the time of COVID-19. The best approach to keeping your kids safe online is implementing measures that work for you and for them.
- Auxier, B., Anderson, M., Perrin, A., & Turner, E. (2020, July 28). Parenting Children in the Age of Screens. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/07/28/parenting-children-in-the-age-of-screens/
- Children and the Internet. (2012, October 17). Internet Society. https://www.internetsociety.org/resources/doc/2012/children-and-the-internet/
- Clement, J. (2020, June 17). Kids top online content categories worldwide. https://www.statista.com/statistics/605211/parental-control-notifications-during-child-online-usage/
- Wolak, J., Finkelhor, D., Mitchell, K. J., & Ybarra, M. L. (2008). Online “predators” and their Victims: Myths, realities, and implications for prevention and treatment. American Psychologist, 63(2), 111–128 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.63.2.111
- Parental Controls. (2011, September). Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0029-parental-controls