Every parent wants to keep their child safe when they’re online; however, this is a daunting task, as many don’t know where to start, or they don’t fully understand all the tech and platforms their kids are using. An initial tip for parents navigating online child safety is to discuss the dangers of online activity with kids from a teaching instead of punitive standpoint. Kids will rebel against strict rules like “if you post on Instagram, we’re taking your phone for a month.” Parents of course need to set firm rules, especially with younger kids, but for teens it’s best to take a collaborative approach. Keeping kids safe online requires a multitude of tactics because kids have so many routes to other people. They can text through their phones, talk with people over Fortnite games, use Zoom to setup calls, and use their browsers to connect with any type of content. Managing all these communication channels is difficult, but parents can put in place some safeguards by following a few of these actionable tips:
- Discourage them from sharing personal information
Unfortunately for kids, there’s peer pressure for them to engage on social media. Many if not most of their friends are sharing pictures at the beach, fun parties, and the latest brands to earn some money. With Instagram posts with their location tagged and TikTok routines from their homes, teens give away a considerable amount of information. These might seem innocuous but it provides others with insights into their daily lives. If someone is a frequent poster then it’s easy to learn their daily routines, whether they have adults in the home during the day, and other facts that might not be apparent to the poster. On Instagram, some teens are tempted by the allure of fame and turning their profiles to “Business” accounts. This change makes their personal details public, including their email address, making them easier to contact and potentially dupe.
Parents should talk to kids about the dangers of sharing personal information, as it can generate attention from offenders and others. It also frequently leads to cyberbullying and dynamics where normally nice kids and grownups say terrible things to posters online that they’d never dream to state in person. Encouraging kids to wait until they are 18 is an ideal route for social media usage. It helps them avoid posting during their most impressionable years and gives them time to see the negative consequences posting might have on their social circle.
- Understand if they’re talking to friends or “friends”
During the ongoing pandemic kids are eager for social interaction. They’re talking to their friends through social platforms and texting, but it’s hard to determine if they always know the person.
Again, be sure to tread lightly with kids on this topic and develop a partnership with them so their opinions are valued. For example, if they’re playing Minecraft with someone they don’t know and that person uses offensive language and the child blocks them, give your child credit for taking the right action. Understand they live in a largely online world, and some interactions will happen with rude people, just as they do in the physical world. Help them to understand the difference between rudeness and dangerous behavior such as invitations to meet in person or comments about the child’s appearance or maturity level. Try no to become angry when kids break the rules and have a discussion with someone online. Make it clear you’re disappointed but use it as a teachable moment and then gauge if the contact warrants talking to the police.
- Show them how to search safely
Kids are unpredictable. They’ll say and do things that seem out of place because…they’re kids. When they’re surfing the internet, they might type in a word from a TV show that seems harmless, but they click on the “Images” tab and see some unintended content. And children are naturally curious, so if they know certain things like pornography and violence are taboo, there’s a temptation to see what those things are about.
To encourage safer search habits, parents should openly talk with their kids about the dangers, including what the kids should do if they see something disturbing online. Even adults occasionally mistype search queries or click on a bad link, it happens. If the searches elicit questions, then parents should engage in age-appropriate talks with the kids to explain what they saw and to provide some context. That’s a better approach than yelling and making the subject matter seem mysterious and illicit.
Between remote learning, research for homework and online social events in a COVID-era, it’s nearly impossible to keep kids off computers. They use and rely on them every day. Instead of restricting access, parents can use a safe online resource like GOFBA – a secure search engine and communication platform – that blocks out anonymous browsers and proxy servers, which are just a few of the tricks hackers use to offer unwanted content. The platform blocks users from reaching pornographic or violent content while still allowing them the freedom to access information they might need to complete school projects or their own interests.
Parenting is often a case of “doing the best you can.” This sentiment is very appropriate for parents’ efforts to keep their kids safe online because it’s a complex undertaking. Kids will sometimes bend the rules, technology doesn’t always work right, and new social platforms will appear. Despite the challenges, our children still need guidelines and protection when they’re online, and parents should stay actively involved by asking questions, treating them as partners, and giving them tips for staying safe.