Tips for keeping children safe online

Psychologist Emma Kenny’s advice on how to keep children safe online in the digital age.

They’re more withdrawn and quieter than usual. Come to think of it, they’ve been on their phone for a while now, but they finished their homework hours ago.

“What you doing over there?”

No answer.

You try again. “Sweetheart, what are you doing on the phone?”

“Nothing! Leave me alone!” your usually sweet child snaps back.

What’s happening? Did they see something they shouldn’t have? Is someone bullying them? You’re not sure what’s happening, but you know it probably has something to do with something on their device and the Internet. But how can you best get to the bottom of this and tackle this thorny issue?

The online world is full of education, information, and fun, and used correctly it can offer huge benefits to every child. The problem is, according to a recent survey from Kaspersky, parents are struggling with how best to keep their kids safe online, with 84% feeling worried about what their child may be exposed to when surfing the Net.

Globally, more than 9 in 10 children 7- to 12-years-old have an Internet-enabled device, smartphone, or tablet. It seems that while worried about the many threats to children online — from exposure to sexual and violent content to active grooming — parents still feel the need for their children to have online devices. Understandably, this exponential growth of technology in our modern lives has left parents feeling unsure how to balance the need to protect their children’s online experience with giving kids access to the Internet for basics like school work and socializing with friends.

I have two teenagers, and as they have grown up, it has become more and more important for me to educate myself about the risks and responsibilities of allowing my children time online — particularly as the Internet has evolved.

As a psychological practitioner, I am well aware of the harm that can befall children and young people when they are left to navigate the complex cyberworld without appropriate advice, guidance, and supervision. Among families, 60 percent say they’ve directly experienced or seen an online safety threat incident, with children seeing sexual or violent content and Internet addiction being the most common real-life experiences. Even scarier, 13% have experienced online grooming and 14% identity and information theft. All too often, we hear about unfortunate situations where young people have trusted online connections with personal and sensitive information only to discover that the “friend” was a predator in disguise.

And it’s not just intentionally malicious actors that parents need to worry about. We see things every day that add pressure to conform with certain body image standards — ads with troubling messages about diet pills, cosmetic surgery, and more are often seen by very young children, and even though some parents may not find these types of messages too worrying, growing evidence suggests they affect young people’s self-esteem and can cause body dissatisfaction in children.

I have read countless stories in the press about children who unwittingly spend thousands on in-app purchases without their parent’s knowledge, and yet these stories don’t seem to act as a deterrent, suggesting parents are not savvy about the risks children face from smart technology.

I completely understand that parents do not want to fear the online world; it is a realm of mass information and a democratic platform where education is concerned. As a mother, I embrace everything that the Web has to positively offer my children, but I also recognize that as the adult in the family, it is on me to educate myself about how best to police and protect my children’s online experience. We need to balance monitoring with fostering independence, which is a complex requirement. All this isn’t something we necessarily understand when signing up to be a parent, teacher or carer, which is why we often look to reliable educational resources for parents and children.

The average parent discusses online safety with their children for around 46 minutes in total through their childhood, and yet, this research demonstrates that young people are spending many hours unsupervised online. Think about all the other areas where children have to learn new skills, whether that is a new sport, learning to read, or understanding how to negotiate an art project. In all of those cases, children are taught, advised, supervised, and guided to ensure that they fully understand what they are doing. Moreover, this type of instruction lasts for their entire education.

Parents must take a similar approach to the online world. This means checking in on your kid’s online behavior regularly — which can be as simple as asking what they’ve been up to online, discussing their positive and negative experiences. It’s also critical to get to know the type of things they are being exposed to so that you can fully inform and protect them.

I think of my online world in much the same way that I do my physical one. In my home, I have many security measures, from windows that lock to an alarm system that notifies me should my home be compromised, because I want to keep my children safe. I know that even while my kids may be safely in their bedrooms, they can be exposed to a host of dangers online — unless I have a highly effective cybersecurity system that provides features such as content filtering, app usage control, and real-time alerts.

No parent wants their child to be a victim of phishing, doxing, bullying, or other predatory behavior, and that is why protecting them as best you can from online threats and exploitation is key. It requires a mix of parental monitoring and software tools, such as Kaspersky Safe Kids. This technology means you can manage your child’s screen time and monitor the apps they use, and you will be notified about their Facebook activity, which means you’ll see any new connections.

Sometimes kids find themselves being singled out by trolls simply for commenting on a social media post, so it can be really helpful to keep track of the interactions they have online.

Kaspersky ensures that adult websites are blocked, meaning your kids won’t be subjected to age-inappropriate material, and we work closely with psychological experts to get you the information you need to feel equipped about how to talk to your kids about online dangers. The cybersecurity industry doesn’t necessarily know everything about parenting, so this part for me is vital.

But sometimes, software alone is not enough. You may notice a change in your child’s behavior after they’ve been online alone, for example. Even with protective solutions in place, nothing beats face-to-face communication when it comes to educating your children. So even if you do use these types of online cybersecurity solutions, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discuss your child’s Internet behaviour and exposure on a regular basis.

If you notice that your child seems unusually quiet, or conversely snappy after spending time online, or on their smart technology, it may be that they have had a negative experience online and it’s best to open a dialogue.

What is fantastic about this type of open communication is that you identify risks and problems before they spin out of control, and you simultaneously give your kids a direct message about how much you value them.

Education is power, and as a parent it is your duty to ensure that your kids are kept safe and informed in both the physical and cyber worlds. If you take the issue of cybersafety seriously, so too will they, meaning they can enjoy their lives online without fear, and grow into teenagers and young adults with an understanding of “Netiquette.”

It really is time for action if we want to offer our children the happy, healthy, and cybersecure futures they unquestionably deserve.

Tips to keep children safe online

Here are my top tips for helping your children stay safe online:

  • Surf together. Seeing where your child spends their time online means you can explore how best to keep them safe, and have more meaningful conversations about their activity. By spending time online together playing games and so forth, you can learn from each other.
  • Keep devices out in the open. Instead of letting your kids use the Web in their bedroom, keep devices in communal areas to help you stay on top of any potential issues. Bonus: Kids will self-check because they know you are right there.
  • Use safe search technology such as Kaspersky Safe Kids for a sense of ease when you are not around to monitor your child’s Internet use in person.
  • Limit online time. Kids need boundaries, so agree the amount of time they can spend online and stick to it. Children need a balance of activities to enjoy a healthy childhood. Most operating systems allow you to set online activity to a timer.
  • Block and report. Teach children how to block and report when they see, or experience something problematic online. This helps create good online etiquette and empowers your child to feel in control.
  • Share responsibly. Teach your child how to act online as they would offline. If they wouldn’t send, share, or say something in the physical world, then they shouldn’t do it online.
  • Chat with your child regularly to discuss their online experiences. That means checking in about their concerns and being open to concerns they bring to you. Create a communication strategy in which they understand they can reach out whenever they have any worries.
  • Don’t judge! From time to time kids will get themselves in hot water online and the way you react can have a very big impact. Instead of getting angry, help them to work out what they can do better next time and check in with them to ensure the lesson has been learned.
  • Be real with your children about how information you put online can remain there for the rest of their lives. Talk about the consequences of photos being seen by a teacher or grandparent, or when they’re older and working in an important career. Help them frame potential actions as potential consequences.
  • Debrief daily! Every day, spend ten minutes before bed discussing your kids’ day — including their online activity. Ask them to discuss a positive and a negative that they encountered online. This normalizes conversation and contributes to a cybersmart approach to safety — and after a short time, it feels less like making a special effort to “check in.”
  • Educate yourself! When you understand the cyberworld, you will feel more confident talking to your kids about it. Take the time to read up on emerging trends, games, and channels to understand how they may affect your child’s online activity.

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