Updated: Aug 29
If you were born in the ’70s or even the early-’80s, chances are you remember growing up playing board games on weekends, ball games in the garden after school, and exploring the neighbourhood on your bike with mates. Unfortunately for a lot of youngsters today, board games, backyard soccer, and biking have been replaced with online gaming and scrolling mindlessly through social media.
But forget the past. We now truly live in a digital age where modern kids have never known a time when they couldn’t connect to the entire world via the Internet. In fact, they probably spend more time online than anyone else - certainly more than their parents. The digital realm is rich with opportunities for our kids to explore, learn and connect. As parents, we don't want to stand in the way of that. But, it's also a Wild West when it comes to cyber crime.
Now while there may be a good dose of fear-mongering around child online safety, the risks are still real, and parents need to understand them so that they are empowered to take action to protect their families. Cyber bullying, exposure to harmful and inappropriate content, and grooming by online predators are the stuff of parents' nightmares. However, on the plus side, there's also a robust cyber security ecosystem offering significant tools that help parents to protect their families.
One of the biggest hurdles to keeping kids safe online is a parent's lack of knowledge of the cyber spaces where their kids are active. Many parents sanction their kids from having social media accounts from a young age without much clue about how those platforms actually work. Some parents aren't aware that the games their kids play have online chat rooms where they are engaging freely with strangers. There are parents who are unaware that recreational drugs are sold online to minors, or who think it's impossible that their kid may engage with pornographic or suicide ideation content. This all raises the risk that their child could become a victim or even a perpetrator of cyber crime.
Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, reported in 2019 that 79% of Internet users aged 12 to 15 years experienced at least one potentially harmful interaction online over a 12-month period.
This guide will help parents better understand the risks that their kids are facing online and provide simple, actionable advice for securing devices, setting safe boundaries, and being able to have informed conversations with your kids so you can avoid the rolling eyes and “old timer” comments. Isn’t that what parenting fundamentally comes down to?
MOBILE PHONES AND APPS
“I’m going to give my child a phone so that they can fall victim to online harassment, get exposed to violent or sexual content, cyber bullying, and blackmail”. – said no parent EVER.
Rather, parents are giving their children mobile phones in order to stay in touch with them and keep them entertained. According to the Children’s Bureau, 19% of 8-year-olds own a mobile phone. Mobile phones continue to be more prevalent in children’s everyday lives, with some parents having no problem giving their children a cell phone at a young age. Unfortunately a mobile phone, in the wrong hands, is a Pandora’s Box and if we don’t educate parents and children alike, then it can become a tool to be used against innocent victims. So how do you control what your child sees and interacts with?
There are many precautions you can take to implement phone safety:
Child smartphone contract. Have your kid sign a smartphone contract before you give them one. Print out a list of cellphone rules and stick it in a public place in your home.
Set limitations. Set limits on when your child can use a smartphone and for how long each day.
Lead by example. Set a personal example for your child. Never bring your phone to the dinner table and don’t be checking it constantly when in conversation with others.
Family phone docker. Set up a charging station in a central location in your home. Phones should stay out of your child's bedroom so they won't be in use late at night.
Malicious content monitoring. You can install an app to monitor your child's texting. Bark is a great app that alerts parents about harmful, abusive, or suspicious messages, and it includes a tracking device to show your kid's location in real-time. This is especially important, as 19% of youth report having received a sexually-explicit text message.
Set up parental controls. Parental control apps, like Bark, enable parents to limit their child's usage, determine their location, and monitor their calls and messages. Apps also allow you to shut off certain functions at different times. For example, disabling text messaging at dinner times.
Children nowadays also spend an enormous amount of time on social media. A survey by the non-profit group Common Sense Media showed that 8 to 12-year-olds were online six hours per day, much of it on social platforms, and 13 to 18-year-olds a whopping nine hours!
According to a recent Harvard study, even though most social media platforms require users to be 13 years of age to sign up, 68% of parents surveyed had helped younger children set up an account.
Social media can be particularly addictive for tweens and teens. It opens the door to a variety of different issues, like cyber bullying, inappropriate sharing, and advances from sexual predators. Unfortunately, as much as we old timers want to hate on social media, the reality is that access to social apps is central to teens’ developing social identity. It’s the way that they connect to their friends, and it can be a healthy way to hang out. The key is to set boundaries so that it remains a positive experience.
Safety tips for social media
Discuss the pressure of sharing. Talk to your kids about the value of privacy and making their own choices. Keep the personal information on their profiles to a minimum and never give out sensitive info to anyone, especially people they don’t know.
Tell them to think before they post. Removing something on social media doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. What your child posts today could come back and haunt them years down the line. A controversial photo or heated comment posted in anger could result in them getting expelled from school, losing a place at University, or even losing their job in the future.
Talk about stranger danger. Predators use social media to track and contact children of all ages. It’s important to know who they’re talking to and/or adding a friend. If your child doesn’t know someone in the real world, they shouldn’t be befriending them online.
Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV+, BBC iPlayer, YouTube - these are only a number of online streaming services which your children can easily access. Today there are more TV shows and movies available at our fingertips than ever before. While there are great educational shows on these platforms, children will always be drawn to popular shows everybody's talking about - without knowing how violent, sexual, or disturbing they could be for them. According to 2019 JAMA paediatrics research performed in the UK, children aged four to six consume 89 minutes of television every day on average.
How can you make sure your child won't be exposed to unwanted content?
Set up separate profiles for you and your children. Netflix allows you to set up separate profiles for yourself and for your kids. Using these tools, you can ensure that your kids only have access to age-appropriate content.
Set rating levels for the content your children may watch. iTunes and Apple TV allow parents to set rating levels for the content their children watch.
Have frequent conversations with your children about what they watch. They need to know that even if a show's name is mentioned all the time, it doesn't mean it's right for them.
When it comes to games – especially online gaming, it’s one thing to play, but it’s altogether something else to be played!
The online gaming industry is at a crossroads. Due to its remarkable growth and value in recent years, it has become a massive target for cyber crime. Most games nowadays have a multiplayer component or are just entirely based online, which makes them open to abuse from other players, harassment, and sexual advances through the game's chat system. Online gaming forums and chat rooms are breeding grounds for cyber bullies, predators looking to groom young victims, and scam artists after their next target.
Online fraud within gaming is rife and scamming kids is like shooting fish in a barrel for these seasoned criminals. Most online games today make millions of dollars from in-game purchases, game add-ons or battle passes in popular games amongst children such as Fortnite. The necessity for bank cards to be added to online gaming accounts make the gaming world a huge target for social engineers and cyber criminals. The 2011 Sony Playstation Network hack saw 77 million users' personal details and credit card details put at risk.
So how do you navigate safely within the online gaming world?
Know what kind of games your children are playing.
Set their profile to private and choose a fun username that does not include any personally identifiable information.
Understand the games’ ratings and suggested age range.
Monitor their in-game interactions with others.
Adjust the parental controls and privacy settings accordingly.
Keep an ear and eye open for changes in speech and behaviour.
When helping your child to purchase a game from the Gaming Network, make sure to not click ‘remember card’.
Teach your child to ask before they purchase from the Gaming Network.
Never give out passwords or payment information to anyone online.
Predators engage in a practice called ‘grooming.’ In other words, they attempt to form a long-term online relationship with a child with the intention of building enough trust that they can later convince the child to meet in real life and take advantage, often resulting in abduction and sexual abuse.
The Internet has made life a lot easier for child predators. Predators target their victims through any and all online mediums: social media, email, text messages, and more. Predators often create multiple online identities, posing as children to trick kids into talking to them. They discover as much as they can about the children they are targeting by researching their social media profiles – Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, and others.
What should you communicate to your child?
Have a discussion with your child about the risks of online predators. Make sure they know to be careful about who they talk to online, and not to share any personal information with strangers.
Tell your children that they can come to you with any problem, no matter what it is.
Think about working through some educational content with your children relating to this topic, like the excellent videos at Thinkuknow.
If you think that your children are at risk, seek support from their school, a social worker, and the police.
Our children’s lives have moved online. Unfortunately, their bullies have moved online, too.
Cyber bullying is frequently in the news, with reports of child suicides due to online harassment. Cyber bullying starts at younger ages and could have disastrous effects on your child, ones that will require psychological and psychiatric treatments. Young cyber bullying victims are 1.9 times more likely to commit suicide than those who do not experience online bullying.
Cyber bullying is particularly harmful because it is so public. In the past, if a kid was bullied on the playground, perhaps a few of his peers saw. Now, a child’s most private information can be splashed across the Internet and is there permanently unless reported and taken down.
Kids being bullied at school used to be able to retreat from the abuse on the playground to the safety of their home, unfortunately, nowadays, online abuse and bullying follow them into their bedrooms on their devices and online accounts.
What to do if your child is bullied online:
Document it by taking screenshots and recordings of the bullying.
Monitor your child’s communications for harmful language using an app like Bark.
Report the bullying to the school and report the incident to the platform/website.
Educate the children at the school by making sure the school has a dedicated response in place for dealing with cyber bullying.
Reach out and discuss the incident with other parents as their children could also be victims.
Talk to your children and clarify that liking or sharing hurtful content is unacceptable.
Educate your child about the repercussions of bullying.
Encourage your child to reach out to others who are bullied and lend support to them.
PRIVACY AND INFORMATION SECURITY
As parents, we are most concerned about the effect of the online world on our children’s emotional and physical well-being. It's easy to forget that children, just like the rest of us, are susceptible to information security threats that can cause significant financial harm.
Threats such as malware and viruses, phishing scams, and identity theft can have a much better chance of hitting a child – being so much more trusting and less experienced than us adults. To kids, sharing their personal details, such as their full name or where they live, may not seem like such a big deal. They may even be tricked by a malicious third party into sharing your credit card details.
There are a number of ways that hackers and thieves can get information out of children. Free downloadable games, movies, or even ringtones that market themselves to children can place viruses onto your computer and steal your information.
What should you communicate to your child?
Have a discussion with your children about the big threats online today. Make sure they know what a phishing email and a malicious game's website look like, so they know not to fall for these scams. Also, emphasise the impact a virtual cyber attack will have in the real world.
Make sure they keep all of their information private. They should never publish their full name, phone number, address, or school they attend in a public place.
Talk to your children about passwords. Having a strong password is the first and best measure to prevent hacking and identity theft. Using a secure password generator from a trusted Password Manager app, and trying out passwords together is a fun way of ensuring your child’s password is as strong as possible. Set up multi-factor authentication on their devices and teach them how it works.
Tell your children to avoid using public wifi. This is an easy way for hackers to get into their devices.
Talk to your children about identity theft. Once a cyber criminal has their data, they can do things in their name and even hurt people – and it will be extremely hard to stop.
How do you create a safe environment?
Install a strong antivirus program on your home computer and the devices of all family members.
Install a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on your computer. This is software that encrypts your connection and anonymizes your web browsing. It will make it far harder for hackers to access and steal any private information.
If you and your children use a lot of different devices around the house, consider installing a VPN on your router. That way, all Internet traffic that goes through the router will be protected, without having to install the VPN on every device.
Install an ad blocker so your children won’t have to face deceptive advertising that encourages them to download malicious programs onto your computer.
If your children have smartphones, make sure that their security settings are set to maximum.
Set up Password Managers and MFA on their devices.
VIEWING INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT ONLINE
The Internet is open and public, and unfortunately also a place where kids can stumble upon content intended for adults - content that they may find upsetting, confusing, or distressing. “Inappropriate content” can mean many things to many different people, from swearing to violence to sexual nature. Also, our kids might be exposed to political or religious ideas we don't see fit for them.
It’s not easy, but eventually, every parent will need to have a conversation with their children about what they might see online. Many children don’t go to their parents when they see something they perhaps shouldn’t have seen, for fear that their parents will be angry at them, and take away their devices or Internet access.
Young people may see sexual or violent content online for all kinds of reasons. They may have seen it by mistake, a friend might have sent it to them, or they may have sought it out themselves out of natural curiosity.
How to deal with your children seeing inappropriate content:
Let your children know that they can always come to you if something is bothering them, or if they have questions about anything they have seen online.
Let them know that it’s totally normal to be curious about sex. Direct them to positive online resources like Thinkuknow. Thinkuknow is particularly good for younger children, and it includes different, age-appropriate sites for different age groups. You may find it helpful to look through the site together and discuss some of the issues.
Steps you can take to block inappropriate content:
Set filters to block inappropriate content like pornography. Parental control features on mobile devices and gaming consoles are simple to set up, and parental control apps like Bark make this effortless.
Set Google to 'safe mode' so that your children won’t inadvertently see inappropriate content in search results.
Install an ad blocker to prevent viruses that might have inappropriate content.
Make sure your streaming services have active child protection profiles, so your children won't stumble upon rough content while browsing Netflix for cartoons.
As parents we instruct, guide and model behaviours for our children so that they can succeed and make a positive contribution to the world. We teach them all sorts of things to keep them safe and ensure they don't cause harm to others. Today, this vital parental role has to include the fast and ever-changing digital environment. Our kids are not just citizens in the physical world, they are digital citizens too. This demands that parents take a keen interest in ensuring that they are cyber-savvy and that they make good use of the latest cyber security tools that help to keep their families safer.
There are lots of different technical tools available out there to help keep your children safe online. These vary from VPNs and antivirus software to Internet filters and parental controls. But none of these will 100% eliminate the risk and keep your children safe. The far more important, but often more difficult task, is to have frequent, open, and honest discussions with your children about their online lives and experiences. The very best person to keep your children safe online is you. Talking about how to stay safe on the Internet is an excellent conduit to build a trusting and positive relationship with your children.
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