Today’s children don’t know a world without the internet. To them, going online for information and entertainment is as natural as breathing.
This digitally powered universe has done wonders for kids, opening vast new worlds of learning and opportunity. However, this vast world has dark corners where danger lurks. Internet safety for children protects them from the bullies, predators and cybercriminals who prowl, even when a child is seemingly safe at home.
Fortunately, children don’t have to fear the internet but can, instead, learn to respect it. Teaching children about internet safety can protect them from harmful forces while instilling lifelong habits of responsible digital citizenship.
What’s the Internet Safety Risk for School-Age Children?
Bad actors love the internet for its anonymity and its broad reach. Through the internet, kids can be threatened by disturbing content, contact with malicious strangers or bullying conducted by other children.
To understand why internet safety is important for kids, it helps to know the kinds of threats out there. It’s the first step in teaching children internet safety.
- Cyberbullying. Nearly half of all young people have been victimized by cyberbullying, defined as bullying that takes place over such digital services as cellphones, computers and tablets. Children today live comfortably on social media and in the world of online games, but these “virtual playgrounds” also attract cyberbullies. These cyberbullies might ridicule their classmates on social media or humiliate player personas on gaming platforms. About six children in 10 have witnessed some form of cyberbullying but, for various reasons, most of them ignore it.
- Sharing sensitive information online. Comfortable on the internet, children don’t realize that some information must remain private. When they innocently post a phone number, home address, birthday or even the family vacation plans, cybercriminals can find ways to take advantage of those insights.
- Online predators. Predators trying to find child victims will go where the children are – to social media and gaming platforms. The internet allows them to conceal their identities and lure children closer through exploitative means such as playing games in a virtual world.
- Phishing and scams. In phishing, cybercriminals use email to trick readers into clicking malicious links or attachments. Even adults can be tricked into clicking on a note from a friend that says, “Hey, check this out.” Children can be especially susceptible because the emails – and their app and social media equivalents, “smishing” – often look like legitimate messages from friends and family. Children also can fall for scams offering enticing rewards, such as free access to online games or prizes awarded through a few simple keystrokes – of a parent’s credit card number.
6 Ways to Teach Children Internet Safety
How can we promote internet safety? Parents can’t simply take away the device, because the internet is ubiquitous and its benefits are tremendous. The key is teaching children about internet safety so they can build their own safeguards even as they explore the wonders of the digital universe.
1. Establish Ground Rules
Internet safety for children is built on trust. Children must feel that they can trust a parent to protect them and be truthful. Children who trust their parents feel more comfortable opening up about their own use and sharing their concerns, rather than concealing any uncomfortable encounters that could balloon into major threats.
Start the conversation by explaining that the internet holds pictures and words that aren’t meant for children and, if they ever see anything scary or rude, to let you know. Set rules for their internet use that include not sharing personal information and not talking to strangers (just as they wouldn’t in person). Limit daily screen time. Keep computers out of private spaces such as bedrooms, and put them in common areas of the home.
A family media plan developed with input from your child can include safety rules and the programs and apps that the child can safely use. Make sure the plan applies to older children, too, ensuring that they don’t watch inappropriate videos or content with their younger siblings. Update the plan as your children grow older.
2. Use a VPN
Hackers, malicious software and identity thieves are constantly looking for unprotected networks that they can access. Once inside, they’re like burglars looking for valuable material they can turn into money – not the TV or jewelry, but family details, phone numbers, email addresses and Social Security numbers. A virtual private network, or VPN, can be a powerful tool in protecting the whole family from these bad actors. A VPN is a service that uses encrypted channels to block out intruders. While free VPNs seem tempting, be aware that they make their money from ads and possibly from tracking your data and selling it online, which defeats the purpose of getting a VPN in the first place.
While you’re at it, make sure that privacy settings and parental controls are set properly on all of the family’s browsers, apps, search engines and YouTube. Let your child know what you’ve done, and ask to see the settings on their own social media accounts, to make sure that unwanted visitors can’t enter their virtual spaces.
3. Explain the Dangers of Public Wi-Fi
We see it everywhere, and so do our children. Many of those people tapping on laptops and tablets at airports and coffee shops are surfing the web via the public Wi-Fi at those establishments. Seen through the eyes of a child, it must be safe because everyone’s doing it. Right?
Not necessarily. Children, and their grown-ups, need to know that public Wi-Fi can be hazardous. Businesses offer it as a free service to entice customers, but there’s no way of knowing how strong the security is. Set a good example, and don’t let your children see you using public Wi-Fi. When you’re in a shop where people are using it, take the opportunity to explain that public Wi-Fi allows other people to eavesdrop on all that computer activity. It’s as if they were having a private conversation with a friend in the school cafeteria, but someone at the next table could hear every word.
Cybercriminals also use public Wi-Fi to slip malware into computers. They can even create rogue “malicious hot spots” that look like legitimate Wi-Fi, letting them spy on your information after you’re connected.
4. Avoid Communicating With Strangers
You’ve had this talk with your child about in-person strangers. Now is the time to give it a virtual spin. If it helps, put the talk in “stranger-danger” terms, explaining to your child that talking to a stranger online can be as unsafe as opening the front door to someone they don’t know. In age-appropriate language, explain that:
- Some bad people will pretend to be nice. Flattery can be a sign that a bad person is trying to gain their trust.
- Bad people might pretend to be someone they’re not, such as another child or teenager. They might use a fake picture and make up a profile. Explain to your child that it’s as if they were creating a gaming avatar – but it’s not a game to these people.
- Your child should immediately stop any conversation that gets personal or sexual. If anyone is making them uncomfortable online, they should tell a trusted adult immediately.
Parents should know that occurrences of child sexual assaults initiated over the internet are rare, but the threat is real. For instance, one in five teens who regularly uses the internet says they’ve received unwanted solicitation.
5. Use a Child-Safe Search Engine
Search engines for children are curated browsers blocking access to the enormous amount of inappropriate content on the web. These search engines allow children to reach only preapproved websites and games. They include Kidoz and Zoodles for preschoolers, Kiddle and Fact Monster for elementary school students, and SweetSearch and Google Scholar for teens. Common Sense Media offers reviews of child-appropriate games, websites and TV programs.
To protect family finances, block all in-app purchases and one-click payment options on your computers, tablets and phones.
6. Monitor Your Child’s Internet Use, As Necessary
When your child is online, be there at his or her side. Be aware of what’s going on, and be prepared to offer reassurance if something upsetting or inappropriate pops up. When pop-up ads appear, teach your child why it’s important not to click them, perhaps saying that they could lead to disturbing images or sites that will ask for none-of-your-business information. Experts advise against using surveillance apps to monitor your child because it can undermine the child’s trust in you. Instead, talk openly about internet use – your own and your child’s – and find opportunities to discuss internet safety.
Internet Safety Resources for Children
Fortunately for parents, there are many resources to answer the question, “How do you teach your children about internet safety?” Look to these internet safety resources for information you can trust:
- ConnectSafely.org: Silicon Valley’s joint effort to educate technology users about safety, privacy and security.
- Cyberbullying: Find advice on how parents, teachers and kids can prevent and address cyberbullying from the American Psychological Association, Cyberbullying Research Center and StopBullying.gov.
- Childnet International: Online safety guidance from this London-based nonprofit was developed with a lot of input from young people.
- CyberTipline.com: Turn to the congressionally established tip line to report child sexual exploitation and unsolicited obscene material sent to children.
- Family Online Safety Institute: Offering tips for parents and kids navigating the digital age.
- NetSmartz.org: Online safety education for kids, parents and educators.
- McGruff Safe Kids: McGruff the Crime Dog is still taking a bite out of crime, offering straightforward internet safety tips in language that kids can understand.
- Internet Safety 101: Kids’ internet safety needs change as they grow older. This offshoot of the Enough is Enough campaign offers parents practical tips to deploy through the years.
Safety Is the Top Priority at CCA
At Commonwealth Charter Academy, safety is our top priority. As a leader in cyber education, we understand that a secure, comfortable environment is critical to helping students get the most from a rich online learning experience. We incorporate online safety into everything we do, from teaching children how to find and use credible sources for classroom discussions and research projects to enforcing our strict anti-bullying policies. Find out more about how we can provide your child with the ideal learning environment by contacting us today.