As parents, our number one priority in life is to keep our kids safe; to allow them the space to grow and develop into the people they were meant to be. For this reason, we work so hard to put a good roof over their heads and provide them with everything they need to thrive.
However, in today’s digital age, keeping kids safe requires going beyond just the physical realm in which they live. Children are picking up connected devices earlier and earlier in life, and while these tools have tremendous potential when it comes to learning and development, they also expose our kids to a whole range of threats that can be unnerving at best and downright terrifying at worst.
To keep your kids safe, the goal should not be to keep them away from the internet; this not only won’t work, but it would be denying your children the chance to take advantage of all the internet has to offer.
Instead, what we need to do is help our children develop safe online habits, and to introduce them to new corners of the web one by one. This way, as they are exposed to more and more risks, they will be increasingly capable of handling them.
How you do this will depend slightly upon your children, but if you follow this approach, it will be much easier for you to help your children stay safe.
Understand the Risks
First and foremost, to help your children stay safe, you need to understand what risks they face. In truth, they are limitless. But, in general, they breakdown into three risk areas:
- Sharing financial and personal information: Although kids don’t have much financial information on their own, if passwords are saved on a shared device, and your kid comes across someone asking for it on the internet, there could be trouble. More likely, though, is that your kid will give out personal information, such as their address, full name, phone number, email address, etc., which can have some pretty terrifying consequences. To give you an idea how serious this risk is, consider that around 1.3 million kids have their identities stolen each year.
- Unwanted advances from sexual predators. We don’t want to think about this, but it’s a thing that can happen. In fact, the FBI estimates there are between 500,000 and 750,000 sexual predators active on the web in any given day. In most cases, if you and your children are being smart, they won’t come into contact with any of these creeps. But it’s important to be upfront about this threat so that you can take necessary measures.
- Cyberbullying. This is an especially high risk for children, particularly teenagers, as the brutal commentary that can sometimes take place on school playgrounds and at social events goes digital. Cyberbullying can often be a more difficult burden for children to bear because they typically are forced to suffer in silence. Some 34 percent of kids say they have been cyberbullied in their lifetime, with around 17 percent saying it occurred in the last year. And while it’s important to protect your kids from this practice, it’s also important they know what it is so that they don’t wind up accidentally being perpetrators.
Talk With Your Children
Now that you have a better idea of some of the risks that are out there, it’s important to start your strategy for helping your kids by opening a dialogue with them. How you do this will be up to you, but you should try to include the following in your conversation:
- Ask your children to identify the risks that they feel are out there. If they don’t see any, ask them questions. Them realizing on their own that there’s danger is likely to be far more effective when trying to get them to adapt security measures then a parent simply telling them something is dangerous and that they need to be careful.
- Talk to you kids about what they do online and what the internet is for. Most will likely already have an idea, but a conversation about how the internet works, one that emphasizes its openness and lack of regulation, will go a long way towards helping them see the dangers.
- Ask them if they’ve ever come across anything suspicious or that they felt was wrong while on the internet. This is a good opportunity to discuss cyberbullying, as it’s likely they’ve seen it but maybe didn’t know it was wrong.
- Discuss some strategies for staying safe. Making comparisons to the real world is often quite effective. For example, you’ve likely already talked with your children about why they shouldn’t speak to strangers or other people they don’t know. The same principle applies online, but it’s important you emphasize with them that the risks can be just as serious. It might also be helpful to show them what suspicious websites look like so that they will recognize them when they come across them on the web.
- Create strategies that allow kids to get help. If children find themselves in a sticky situation on the web, then they need to know how to get help. Make sure they know they won’t get into trouble and that the most important thing is that they speak to someone when they find themselves in an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous conversation.
Depending on who your children are, it might not be possible to talk about all of this at once, and this might not be the most effective way to do it. But, in many ways, it’s better that this dialogue be a running one. Constant, open online communication with your children will go a long way towards helping them stay safe online.
Limit Screen Time
While we all would like to think that all we need to do to keep our kids safe is have a conversation with them, the reality is that this is usually not going to be the case. As a result, you may need to adopt some additional measures to help keep your kids out of danger.
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to do this is to limit the amount of time your kids spend online. Of course, if they’re working on a school project or doing something else beneficial, maybe you don’t want to be so strict. But there really isn’t a ton for a kid to be doing online that’s not related to school, and the more exposure they have to the internet, the more likely they are to find their way into a dangerous situation.
How you do this will be up to you, and maybe it’s best to include your children in whatever discussion you’re having about screen time so that they understand what you’re doing and why.
Make Browsing Public
Another thing you can do is to establish rules in your household about using the internet only in public places. Obviously, you don’t need to and probably don’t want to be over your kids’ shoulders while they’re on the web, but if they are in a public area, they are much less likely to engage in risky behavior.
This could mean limiting internet use to your desktop computer so that kids are always in view, or it could mean establishing a rule where phones and tablets don’t go into the bedroom. What you do is up to you, but your kids, especially the younger ones, will be safer if they are browsing the internet in a public space.
Use Parental Controls
Another thing you can do is to use parental controls to limit the types of things your kids can do online. For some people, the notion of these tools seems a bit overbearing, but in reality, there are a lot of different options, and when used wisely, they can be very effective.
For example, you can directly block kids from accessing certain websites (think gambling and pornography), but you can also set things up so that they can’t share things on social media without entering a code, or so that they can’t access the internet at a certain time.
The mix of parental controls that you use will depend pretty heavily on your children and how they manage their online lives, but it’s probably a good idea to establish some safeguards.
Listen and Adapt
Helping your kids develop safe online habits is not a one-time job. You need to keep an open dialogue, look for signs that your kids might be in trouble (being withdrawn or reclusive, acting out of character, being secretive when on devices), and step in before things become a problem.
Of course, this approach won’t keep your kids 100 percent safe, but it will do a pretty good job. And it will help them develop the habits they need to continue to stay safe as they get older and their lives get even more digital.