Are you confident that your kids are safe online? Or are you panicking over all the potentials — from phishing schemes and Nigerian princes to far worse? These days, with murmurs of Momo threatening our kids through Peppa Pig, it’s hard to be confident about any of this stuff.
Many of us spend an inordinate amount of our day on the internet, and despite our best intentions, our kids are internet-obsessed, too. But do we as parents know how to keep kids safe in today’s digital environment? A watchful eye over their shoulders can’t protect them at all times.
“It can take a second for a child to see porn on a parent’s phone, or be approached by a stranger online through a messaging app or an online game like Roblox, Fortnite or Minecraft,” said Cyber safety educator and advocate Leonie G. Smith, also known as The Cyber Safety Lady. “Take your eye off your child for literally seconds when they are on a device, and your child may get hurt online. Many parents tell me the first time they know their child was hurt online was through the parent’s own device. The parent in some cases handed their phone to their child and within a short time, the child navigated to a place that they cannot unsee.”
We spoke with the experts at Google and YouTube for their top tips on keeping kids safe in the wild, wild web.
Immediate steps to take
If the task of keeping your computer — and your kids — completely tech-safe seems Herculean, these quick steps are an easy way to start.
- Mind your passwords: Password-protect your sites and accounts using unique passwords, and use a manager tool to store complex passwords. You can also set up two-step authentication with a recovery phone number to stave off account hacks.
- Software updates: Make sure your software is updated; this is one of the easiest things to forget and a super-simple way to protect your computer from hackers.
- Assess your risk: Take the Google Security Checkup and find out what your areas of vulnerability are — from unused apps and sites to recent security or recovery events.
Apps and games that teach safety
Part of learning how to keep your kids safe online is teaching them how to make appropriate, secure choices. It’s something akin to giving a kid a fish versus teaching them how to fish. A simple way to start is with these accessible (and even fun) apps and games:
- Be Internet Awesome: This app teaches kids about “digital citizenship” and how to surf safely
- Family Link: An app that lets parents monitor their kid’s devices, including setting timers and controlling which apps kids are able to access (the top-rated Apple equivalent is FamiSafe.
- Internet safety hangman: This browser-based game puts the fun in education and lets kids learn about internet safety through the simple, time-honored classic game of hangman.
- NetSmartzKids: Created by The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, this site offers workshops and online resources to teach kids ages 5 to 17 to stay safe on the web and beyond.
Safe places for kids
After you’ve protected your computer and helped provide a baseline education about online safety to your kids, follow these tips to ensure maximum protection:
- Parental controls: Every operating system — Microsoft, Apple, Google Chrome, etc. — has parental control settings that you can tweak to gain your kids’ access to certain content (or block it, as the case may be).
- Privacy settings on social: Make sure your kids’ social media accounts (and yours, especially if you’re posting pictures of your kids!) are set to the maximum privacy settings so strangers can’t access the content or try to engage them in conversation.
- Set up safe search: The easiest way to ensure safe search is to enable Google’s SafeSearch option. Alternatively, you can turn off search altogether.
- YouTube kids: Ever watch your kid peruse one YouTube video after another, horrified as the seemingly innocuous cartoon about the alphabet was followed by a recommended video that might not be appropriate? YouTube Kids offers the antidote to potentially misguided algorithms (and the Momo phenomenon). Don’t take your attention away from your child regardless, but do know that the content they’re viewing on YouTube Kids is likely to be safer than on general YouTube.
In addition to the above, don’t forget to:
- Keep kids within your sight (no closed doors): Especially if your kids are on the younger side, they shouldn’t be online by themselves. Sitting with them to play games or watch videos has the added bonus of helping turn an isolating activity into a bonding one. Plus, you won’t have to wonder whether they stumbled on something inappropriate while you were in the shower.
- Talk to your kids about safety: Your kids, even the very young ones, understand more than you may think they do. Talk to them honestly and openly, and let them know you’re placing trust in them. Help maintain an open dialogue so they feel comfortable coming to talk to you if they have questions about content they encounter — or if they come across something that doesn’t feel appropriate. Discuss topics such as solicitous strangers, bullying, oversharing, and password privacy.
- Model good behavior: Practice internet safety with your own browsing, and your kids will pick up on your cues.
“Parental control settings are vital to protect young eyes from stumbling across upsetting content online. But they will not work 100% of the time; parents still need to supervise closely and be aware of the platforms that are risk-free [so] your child [won’t experience] an upsetting incident,” says Smith.
The internet is an amazing resource for engagement, connection, and education. But just like the real world, the web will never be an entirely safe place. Still, if you practice due diligence and follow the above tips, your kids will have fun and learn while minimizing the risks.