The internet is believed to be a great equalizer in the 21st century. It has democratized access to information and is a great learning tool. But as great a gift technology is, in a world of webcam hacks and cyberbullying, everyone needs to be careful about what we are getting ourselves into. This is important for parents because children and teens are particularly vulnerable.
They are often excited about access to devices and come from an innocent place with respect to consequences. They take more risks than grown ups and it is the job of those responsible for them to educate them about the dangers out there and help them make better choices.
Even if you are not tech-savvy individuals, internet safety for kids is your responsibility and you need to keep an eye out to see how the world is progressing so that the children are protected from the dark underbelly of the interweb.
But like any other aspect of parenting, all it takes is a little awareness and a few safeguards. It is not a Herculean task to give your kids access to information and entertainment while keeping them safe. Here are a few tips that can get you started on that path.
Bullying Doesn’t End in School
Cyberbullying is one of the biggest threats on the internet. It means negative, harmful or even false comments being made and circulated about a particular person or group leading to embarrassment and/or humiliation. When it crosses the line, it becomes criminal behavior with disastrous consequences.
Many believe that life is hard and a little bit of hazing in school might just prepare your tweens for what lies ahead. It is a popular notion that teasing can lead to stronger friendships, might toughen them up or get them out of their shell. But even if you believe it to be true from experience or anecdotal evidence, it is a problem when parents or other authorities assume that it is all “good fun” and neglect the issue until it is too late.
Headlines like “Cyberbullying pushed Texas teen to commit suicide”, family says or “Cyberbullying Tragedy: New Jersey Family to Sue After 12-Year-Old Daughter’s Suicide” in the news, send a chill down the spine of caring parents.
Anonymity on the internet has emboldened many a user and we have entered the dangerous phase of accepting trolling as the norm. Despite several awareness campaigns and alarming statistics, pushing this agenda on mainstream media, this is a problem that is refusing to go away.
According to the Pew Research Center, one in three teens experiences online harassment. In fact, surveys have found that most teenagers say they are bullied more on the internet than in real life.
Bullying is not an uncommon aspect of teen life. But the advent of message boards, social media and chat rooms has made it possible for bullies to enter your living rooms and access the bedrooms of your children. It can happen right under your nose if you are not mindful and it goes on 24×7.
The solution is not to worry for an hour during the evening news, express sympathy for the victims and their families and move on claiming, “what can we do?” Because there are a lot of things to do in order to prevent such a situation and it is easy too.
Talk to your children about what goes on with them at school and otherwise. Be involved and find out if anyone is giving them a hard time. Encourage them to be open with you without the fear of reprimands. Educate them about how bullies operate and do not leave room for victim shaming. Let them know that you are on their side and that making mistakes is how they learn.
Do not violate their privacy but monitor what they do online. Be aware of the websites they access and how they communicate with their friends. Tell them that there is no bravado in hiding behind a mask.
Watch out for Online Predators
Gone are the days of predators only lurking in street corners or hiding in the bushes and near peepholes. In the world of selfies and video chats, predators too, like bullies, can research and reach your children without your knowledge.
Online predators are defined as people who seek to exploit the innocence of a child by pressuring or gaslighting them for a variety of reasons including soliciting sexual favors.
The same platforms that provide information (message boards), entertainment (games), and connectivity (social media) are home to creeps and criminals. From cyberstalking to hacking webcams, predators have a lot of choices.
This often leads to severe repercussions in the real world.
Predators could be impersonating someone the child trusts or gain their trust by pretending to be a well-wisher. Through a process called “grooming”, predators form a relationship with their victims and force them into silence once the abuse begins. Your children can be tricked or forced or blackmailed into sexual activities.
In the US alone, one in five teenagers who goes online has said that they were recipients of an unwanted sexual solicitation, according to PureSight online child safety. That’s not it. What is alarming furthermore is that only a quarter of those who experienced this reported it to their parents. The survey also reported that online sexual predators range from 18 to 55 years of age and their targets are often 11 to 15-year-olds. And in all the cases, the victims agreed to meet the predators offline.
And it is not just sexual exploitation. About 75% of teens are prepared to share personal information with strangers. They are also friends with strangers on various social media platforms, especially Facebook.
Like cyberbullying, this is also a problem you can solve to an extent by being more involved in the lives of the children you are responsible for. Take an interest in what they do when they go online while giving them the privacy they need. Teach them about stranger danger on the internet.
Tell them why it is a bad idea to engage with strangers on the internet. Talk to them about the cons of revealing personal information. And most importantly, let them know that they can always come to you for help in any situation without fear.
Theft of Information and the Threat of Pop-Ups
The problems with strangers online go beyond those of a sexual nature. Children who are still being inducted into the world of multiple devices and the internet, have a lot to learn. For example, theft of personal information is as much a danger to kids as it is to adults. In fact, kids are more vulnerable because of their trusting nature and lack of education on these matters.
Tricksters are constantly trying to gain access to such vulnerable parties by sending malicious spam links and pop-ups with toys or games. Free downloadable movies and music are also popular traps. A lot of these links are capable of infecting your device with malware.
Malware is software that is downloaded on the device without the knowledge of the user for harmful purposes. It can slow down the device and steal any personal information stored on the machine. While you may know better than to click on those links and pop-ups, your kids might not. Especially those who are just beginning to use the internet.
Be sure to educate the kids about best practices. Tell them about pop-ups and prevent them from sharing details like their full name, home or school address, and phone number. Tell them about the importance of privacy and teach them how to create strong passwords. Warn them about the risks of using public Wi-Fi.
And before giving them unsupervised access to devices, make sure you install AdBlocker extensions and get rid of the obvious traps. It is also wise to get a cross-device security system with appropriate parental controls. Get a good antivirus program and keep the security settings at the maximum.
Consider this to be an ‘introduction to the World Wide Web’ class.
Social Engineering: Hacking and Phishing
Social engineering is a way of tricking users by using psychological techniques. These are methods used by hackers and the end goal is to gain access to your device. It usually starts with offering something for free and tricking you into clicking the right link. Understandably, children are more susceptible to such attacks.
One of the most common ways to do that is to mislead the user by claiming that their device is infected with malware and offer free software to get rid of it. When the user agrees to install the software, it infects the device with malware. In the world of cybersecurity, this technique is called phishing.
It is a process where users get emails with suspicious links and/or attachments. This is a challenge even for adults who are not tech-savvy. So one can only imagine how tricky it can be for kids to decipher that it is spam.
When played on websites that are popular among children, hackers use these tricks to gather email IDs of friends and family and send more emails using familiar names as bait.
These emails have attractive subject lines like, “we thought you might like this,” “you’ve won a lottery among 10,000 participants,” “we chose you for this prestigious offer”. This could happen via text messages or messaging apps and is called smishing. Direct messages are a popular hangout spot among cyber thieves.
In your ‘introduction to the internet’ class, tell your kids about phishing and the various games hackers play to get your information. Let them know that if a message seems suspicious with no familiar context or relevant message, they should not be clicking on any links or attachments.
Tell them to avoid clicking on messages with an unusual number of typos or punctuation marks. Do not give out passwords or credit card information on direct messages (or otherwise). Those often redirect you to websites of scamsters.
Speaking of Scams
When there is a prize in return, kids are motivated to finish a task. That might be a good thing otherwise but you might want to teach your kids that on the internet there are no free lunches. Because that is exactly the kind of attitude that makes them easy targets for cybercriminals.
One of the most popular tricks is for hackers to pose as gaming companies and offer access to an online game in return for credit card information. Another way of doing the same is to offer a free trial for some “amazing product”. The trial is free but they will need to enter credit card information for authenticity.
The users are often told that they have “won a lottery” or can install an antivirus program for free. Scams also come in the form of asking for help from a person in need outside your own country, often Nigeria. It is referred to as the Nigerian prince scam. The extortion could also be emotional.
So you might not have to give money or credit card information but reveal personal information.
Kids are also popularly the targets of talent acquisition scams. They might be required to send in a video as a “screen test” for an “agency” or to apply for a “scholarship” for a fee. LIES!
Online shopping is another way of getting money for knock-off products or none at all. Beware of clicking ads on Instagram or other social media platforms from companies that offer branded products for a huge discount.
Since children don’t have the cynicism and in this case skepticism of adults, they are likely to fall prey to such offers. It is crucial to tell your kids not to engage with deals that sound too good to be true.
It’s important to remember your children that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is and they should be wary when someone tries to offer them something on the internet.
Revealing or Receiving Inappropriate Content
This is an easy one to understand. Every parent lives in fear of the day their little girl or boy regrets posting sensitive information on the internet when they were too young. Anything that they post online, whether it is information, selfies, videos, vlogs, or posts on social media, will be there forever for anyone from a potential partner to an employer to see. Harmless pranks are alright and might even suggest an affable personality but what about the serious stuff?
An inappropriate photograph from a party or a comment on Snapchat could make a world’s difference in their future. So how do you protect your child in a place where there is no delete key? Take their own route and teach them about, “no backsies”.
Explain to them that right now they might feel like, “it doesn’t matter” or “I don’t care” or “our generation is not like yours” or “we are not going to live in a shell out of fear” but that might change in the future and there is no way to undo the action.
Their opinion on a subject might be the polar opposite of what it is now because that is how life is in an ever-changing world and that they must be prepared for it. Everyone has skeletons in their closet but when they are online for the whole world to see, it puts them in a place of extra vulnerability.
The other side of the story is access to inappropriate content. That includes pornographic material, adult content of other kinds, violence, or accessing websites of extreme political or religious views. This quest often begins with a simple Google search that you can keep tabs on it by checking browser history.
There is more than one way to keep this under control. You can enable SafeSearch on Google but since this is not 100% effective, you might want to get search engines that are made for children, like KidzSearch or Kiddle. These search engines are like Google but they are for kids and are quite popular.
Over time, you might want to create a separate user account for your kids and enable parental controls. Make sure your kid is not a wizard and somehow steals the admin password to make their life easy and yours a living hell.
Some Generic Tips for All Parents
Many people believe that not letting children access devices is a great solution. You cannot hold the fact that they are born in the information era against them. It is also unfair to keep them from accessing the greatest learning tool. Statistically, around 45% of the kids between the ages of 10 and 12 in the US own a smartphone.
That number is obviously higher among teenagers and the overall count is only going to increase with time.
You might also want to read this: How to Setup Set Up Parental Controls on Google Chrome
Like a wise man once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. So with the power to raise a child also comes the responsibility of raising them to be intelligent and educated human beings while remaining responsible individuals. That might sound heavy but if you pay attention to their lives (as you should), it is not a task. And here’s a shortcut that will help you in the long run.
- When they first start accessing devices, do it together. It is not the best idea to leave them unsupervised with your phone or iPad because you have other things to do. Teach them how the internet works and promote better uses of the medium.
- As you let go of control, (because helicopter parenting is a terrible idea), make a few basic rules on when and how to access devices. Take a printout and place it in the public areas of the house and also your child’s room.
- Enable strict parental controls on all the devices. Install antivirus, anti-malware security systems, and AdBlockers to save them from themselves (and, of course, the hackers).
- Limit their screen time and monitor their activity online. Check their social media accounts to make sure they are not crossing lines with posts, photos, and videos. This is also helpful in keeping an eye out for cyberbullies and stalkers. With their consent, monitor their calls and messages. Gain their consent by explaining the purpose of doing so. Meanwhile, understand that they are kids and are allowed to do a few silly things and give them the freedom to do so.
- In the beginning, it might be a good idea to keep them from using their phones late at night and in their bedrooms with the doors locked. You can also check for apps that let you perform specific actions like shutting off certain functions for a defined period of time. For example, with the right app, you can stop them from texting while driving. You can also enable location sharing services to make sure they are not loitering in places that could be dangerous, especially at night. You will also find apps online that track messages with suspicious, harmful, or abusive language. Look into those options and discuss them with your children.
- But don’t go installing trackers and spying on them because that leads them in the other direction. You don’t want to get into the secret-second-phone and fake-social-media-accounts space. That is not just a can of worms, it is Pandora’s box.
- Keep yourself informed of the new tips and tricks in the market. Be in touch with the lives of your young ones and make sure you are in the loop as to what they do with their digital time. Ask them about the apps they use and what is the “new rage” out there.
- Let your home be a safe space and lead by example. Allow your kids to make small mistakes and forgive them. Build trust in the family so that when in trouble they come to you instead of trying to solve it on their own or going to their friends for help.
The safety of your kids surfing the web is something that can get to you, but it’s important to address it from the get-go rather than let things spiral out of control and then step in. Taking some of the measures we’ve outlined above should help you stay in control of the situation and not panic unnecessarily, while still allowing your kids the freedom to explore the digital world.
Lorenzo has been using the internet for as long as he can remember. He was there for the early days of message boards, he watched social media take over, and he’s excited to see what comes next.