With more people working and studying from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, online safety has become an even more pressing issue. Video conferences are hacked left and right, vital database work is now exposed due to remote access, and kids are spending a lot more time on their tablets, gaming devices, and computers. When there is more online traffic, hackers and other bad actors take to the digital realm in search of victims.
While everyone was aware of cyber threats prior to recent work-from-home directives and increases, it’s even more important to tighten up personal security online. This page is designed to help inform and provide abundant resources for parents who wish to protect their children, and even themselves, online.
Resources for Kids and Teens
Online Safety for Children and Teens
Young children and teenagers alike face increasing danger online. Every day, child abusers and traffickers try to groom children with the promise of online friendship and there are loads of malware creators seeking to access devices through free software. Other kids can also present a danger in the form of cyberbullying.
While updating passwords is a helpful first measure, there are many other steps parents can take to help keep their kids safe. One of the chief ways to ensure safety is to keep the lines of communication open so that parents and children can mount a proactive response when a bad guy shows himself. Keep reading to learn more about online safety for children and teenagers.
What Dangers Might They Encounter Online?
Unfortunately, children all too often find that the online environment is fraught with danger. They face potential problems from peers who might wish to bully them, nefarious scammers who seek to con them, and abusers who wish to groom, abuse, and traffic them. Cyberbullying has received a lot of attention recently since it impacts people of all ages. According to the CyberBullying Research Center, this phenomenon is defined as repeated and persistent harassment, mistreatment, and mocking of a victim via the means of a cellphone, online platforms, or other electronic means.
All too frequently, online bullying spills over to real life, and vice versa. Schoolyard tormentors seek out victims on social media and begin to make it so that victims fear checking their email, playing games, or using social media. Sometimes, online bullies obtain email addresses, phone numbers, and even physical addresses. Thus, the online bullying is escalated and becomes even more dangerous. The resulting anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts make this a true public health menace. In fact, the statistics reflect a high incidence of cyberbullying that should give every parent pause. Yet there are more dangers online than just bullies.
Scammers also love to lure children into their web of deceit. Colorful ads and apps may entice children to click on fraudulent deals. The scam may be a ruse to obtain personal information, but some bad guys hope that a parent's payment information is available. Scammers can even try to trick children into giving up bits of information, such as birthdays or pet names, that are then used to guess passwords. There are still worse actors out there who seek to harm children more directly.
Online abusers seek out children and attempt to separate them emotionally or even physically from their parents or guardians. The process is known as grooming and it can be a long, drawn-out process that builds trust and confidence before turning very ugly, even violent.
This is every parent's nightmare and it’s designed to begin in seeming innocence. Children may start chatting with a person who presents themselves as an online peer. They may play the same game or establish a social media connection. The abuser's grooming scheme is to establish a connection first by discussing the game or something else they seem to have in common. Soon, they “share” something personal in an attempt to deepen the connection. Before long, the connection can escalate and include sharing photographs, texts of a sexual nature, and more. Some even seek to establish a connection in the real world that can result in abuse, including abduction and trafficking.
The statistics behind these online dangers are staggering. Cyber bullying, online scams, and other forms of child abuse have infected our online lives. While the following statistics may be dismaying, parents and guardians can use this information to help establish protocols that keep children safe.
The CyberBullying Research Center has surveyed almost 5,000 middle and high school students to assess the problem of online bullying. Their findings are staggering. For starters, their work shows that 36.5% of all kids ages 12 to 17 reported having been cyberbullied at some point in their lives. Of those, female respondents report slightly higher numbers with 38.7% of adolescent women reporting bullying. Their male counterparts are slightly lower, as around 34.5% reported bullying.
Furthermore, 30% did report being the target of one or more negative, abusive behaviors within the 30 days prior to the survey. Those behaviors included being the target of rumors (22%), receiving a threatening text message (12%), and having a mean or hurtful image of themselves posted by a bully (10.8%),
As for scams or financial theft, there is little data available. After all, children don't often have money of their own. Thus, their parents or guardians may be the ultimate victim, even if the scammers lure children as unwitting dupes. Nevertheless, the FBI reports that in 2019 there were over 10,000 online crime victims under the age of 20. The total loss from this age group was $420 million. Meanwhile the age group with the largest number of victims were over 60, and 68,000 reported being scammed. The older demographic was more than 6 times the size of those under 20, but their losses were only double that of the youngsters, $835 million.
Safety Basics for Kids Using the Internet
Before kids go on the internet, it's vital to establish some rules and guidelines so that they remain safe. In order to establish those guidelines, parents need to become actively involved. First, parents can have a discussion with their child and have them define why they want to use the internet and what they hope to achieve by using it. This is a good time to talk about how much time is reasonable for use, what time frames are appropriate, and which common room is best for internet use. To enforce these guidelines, parents and kids should agree on an appropriate punishment in case a rule is broken. When kids have a part in creating rules, they are more likely to follow them and are less likely to balk when a restriction is enforced.
Prior to their first solo journey on the internet, children should be fully aware of certain dangers. Parents can even require that kids explain certain key terms. For instance, kids should understand phishing, safe communication, and the dangers of downloading apps without a parent's knowledge and oversight. It might even be helpful to role-play some scenarios where kids may be endangered.
If the child wants to engage with their friends on social media or play games that include online interactivity with other gamers, determine which platforms they want to use and discuss exactly how they intend to use them. Then, set a limit on the number of accounts they can use. This is also a good time to discuss privacy controls and how to limit one's contacts on social media.
Once there's a limit on the number and type of account, parents need to do in-depth research into the platforms their kids are interested in. They should become experts on the privacy controls on those sites and then they should help their kids set up an account. Parents should create and store strong, unpredictable passwords for those sites. Make sure to avoid passwords that rely on names, addresses, birthdays, or pet names. Passwords should be random strings of letters and numbers that include at least one symbol or punctuation mark. Since most browsers store passwords, kids will be able to log-in and use the service seamlessly, but then parents can change the passwords from time to time. If there's a suspected problem, Parents can even log-in and audit all of their child's messages and contacts. Lastly, many browsers and devices, such as iPads, have password managers that simplify the password process, without sacrificing security.
Limit Screen Time:
There are many reasons to limit a child's screen time. Online activities can take us away from friends and family. Plus, the more time kids spend online, the more vulnerable they are to the many dangers.
Have children engage in the process of determining how, when, and where they will use the internet. When kids have a part in this process, they are more likely to feel invested in the process.
Keep all screen-time in common areas of the house, with an adult or responsible older sibling present. Maintain an open dialogue about what's happening online.
Help kids pick a few social media or gaming platforms. This will help keep their time online focused and manageable by all.
Make sure kids understand what constitutes safe and unsafe communication, especially with strangers. This will help them recognize trouble but will provide a context and vocabulary for a parental consultation.
When kids are able to identify and describe various aspects of the online universe, they will proceed with more confidence. Review terms such as phishing, spam, what constitutes malware, and more.
Create Strong Passwords:
Use at least 10 characters for every password, never repeat passwords, and avoid using predictable terms such as names, birthdays, addresses, pet names, etc.
Parents Keep Passwords:
Parents should be able to access their kids accounts when they feel that something is amiss. It's also advised to periodically update passwords on all the kids' accounts. Make sure kids understand that this is for their safety.
Never Share Passwords:
Instruct kids to never share passwords, even with trusted friends. If parents create complex, random passwords they will be harder to remember in any case.
Some browsers, such as Firefox, come pre-installed with password managers so kids only need to remember one password. iPads, Android tablets, and other mobile devices have password managers that maintain security.
Tell kids that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Thus, instruct them to never download free apps, ringtones, etc. If they are curious about a new game or app, have them discuss the decision. There are trusted sites, such as Apple's App Store or Google Play, but even those have been compromised from time to time.
Create a strong password for your home Wi-Fi network. Hackers may be able to access your computers and devices if they are able to guess your Wi-Fi password.
Parents should do their best to stay informed as to the latest threats to cyber security. Discuss the issue with other parents and subscribe to newsletters, Facebook groups, or Twitter feeds that address kids' online safety.
Parents should investigate sites prior to allowing their children to access them. In particular, learn all about the privacy settings and make sure they are implemented.
Hackers are constantly seeking vulnerabilities, so make sure all systems are up to date with the most current security releases. Browsers and other software should also be optimized with the current versions.
Set up Separate Users:
If you have a shared, family computer, make sure that each user has their own account in Windows or MacOS. The parental account should be the administrator and thus have access to all other accounts.
Keep Accounts Separate:
It may seem easy to log in using your social media, or other account. However, this means that, once hackers crack that account, they can exploit the others. A password manager will create a seamless log-in experience while maintaining safety.
This adds an extra layer of protection. When accounts have two-factor authentication enabled, users need both a password and a second code that is sent to the email address or mobile phone associated with the account. When parents associate their own email or phone number, they are immediately involved when kids attempt a purchase or log on to some accounts.
Use Encrypted Sites and Services:
Set up kids' computers and browsers to use encrypted search engines, such as Duck Duck Go, and encourage encrypted messaging software like Telegram or Signal. Encrypted searches keep advertisers from tracking and targeting children. Encrypted messaging software likewise keeps kids safe from digital interlopers.
Audit Devices and Accounts:
From time to time, parents should inspect their kids' devices and computer accounts. Parents should ensure that they still have current passwords, that kids haven't downloaded any nefarious software, and that all systems are up to date with current security patches, etc. If kids feel that this is invasive, do the work with them and discuss what you find.
Support for Parents Looking to Protect Children While They are Online
Parents can't hover over kids' shoulders 24/7. That wouldn't be good for anyone. However, there are software solutions that allow parents to set up digital boundaries which the software can enforce, often invisibly. Whether the solution is an encrypted browser, search engine, or other security software, parents can relax a bit more when these are installed.
More and more, browser developers are taking their users' safety and security into account. Browsers such as Firefox, Brave, and Chrome provide a way for users to save their passwords. Firefox users can set a master password that will restrict automatic logins until the master password is entered. Brave's settings allow automatic login but that setting can be disabled. Both allow users to set an encrypted search engine as their default and Brave automatically blocks advertising so that kids aren't tracked by toymakers or other marketers when they peruse the internet. The Chrome browser also allows a great deal of user control. Parents can block specific sites, refuse access to webcams, and more.
While kids may become savvy enough to change settings on their web browsers, parents can install additional security software. This software will block adult websites, steers kids away from content related to harmful substances, and more. Parents can access these apps as an administrator and thus monitor their online activities from their own devices. It's also possible to track kid’s physical location via the GPS on their mobile device. These packages also let parents set time limits for internet usage. In fact, it's possible to set up weekly schedules that can be moderated to suit vacation times or other exceptions.
It should be noted that these packages are not fool-proof and certain search engines and browsers have such strong privacy software that parental blockers aren't effective. While this may only be an issue for older, teenage kids, younger kids may pick up tips from their peers. In particular, encrypted search engines such as Duck Duck Go will circumvent most parental controls. While those search tools provide privacy for everyone, they will also shield naughty searches from parental control software.
Furthermore, parents should note that the best parental security software is available for Android and Windows devices. While there are options available for MacOS and iOS, those are, so far, not as well supported. On the other hand, Apple's Screen Time and Restrictions is available for those users. Apple's security tool is built into iOS and thus may provide additional protection.
When kids begin to subvert online safety precautions, it's time that parents have a discussion with them. While parents only want to ensure the maximum level of safety and security for their kids, teens may see these efforts as controlling and limiting to their individuality. At this point, it is important to sit down and reevaluate the family's approach to cyber security so that everyone is happy, and safe.
Software provides many excellent layers of protection, but a hardware solution is an at-home, first responder in the quest for online safety. Hardware solutions generally boil down to the home Wi-Fi router. Most routers provide some level of parental control, including the one provided by an ISP. However, third-party models are available that are specifically designed to offer more robust security.
When parents access their home Wi-Fi routers, they can set parameters for when the network is available, restrict specific sites, set new passwords, and more. For instance, some families may wish to set times for offline, analog activities such as observing a religious or other holiday. In that case, they can shut down the network altogether for a set window of time.
However, parents may only wish to restrict their children from accessing the network or regulate only certain devices. In that case, parents can log into their router's software and set specific parameters for certain devices. For instance, parents may wish to limit online gaming via certain game consoles or handheld devices. The router software will provide a list of every device that has accessed the internet and then parents can tweak that device's ability to get online.
Parents can also block their kids from accessing certain specific websites via their home modem. In fact, they can set specific restrictions for each individual device that accesses their home modem. Thus, older kids may have access to more sites than their younger siblings and parents can have free reign, if they like. When these restrictions are added to the software solutions, kids are sure to find total safety.
Checking what devices have accessed a router is also a great way to assess the network's security. If there are unknown devices listed as current or previous users, parents can change the Wi-Fi password and thwart future, unauthorized use. If an unknown device is currently on the network, parents can immediately restrict it and then block all future access, regardless of their ability to crack a password.
Some of the top router solutions include the following:
There are indeed a multitude of apps that cover online safety. Some are created to work with routers so that parents don't need to worry about their kids logging in. These apps make total control of their home network a snap. However, there are other mobile solutions that help parents monitor and regulate their kids' online behavior as well.
For instance, Bark is an app that allows parents to monitor their children's social media accounts, text messages, and emails. Social media can be a dangerous place. Bullies, predators, and other ne'er do-wells are known to lurk there, waiting for victims. Bark also monitors the account user's language using advanced AI technology to assess their word usage. It can assess whether a child may be depressed or angry. The algorithm also measures patterns over time and may send alerts to warn of suspected bullying and more.
Qustodio is another app that helps parents monitor their kids' electronic behaviors. This app enables parents to actively block certain websites, set limits for apps and games, monitors physical movement via GPS, and can set limits on screen time. This solution works on most any laptop or mobile device, including Kindle.
There's even an app specifically for Facebook Messenger. With Facebook Messenger for Kids, parents can monitor their child's contacts and messages. This tool will allow parents to block certain contacts who may be bullying their child and they'll receive reports if their child blocks another. Thus, parents may be able to intervene and help their child find a more satisfactory way to resolve a relatively minor conflict.
Online Safety for Those Schooling from Home
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many have turned to Zoom for online learning and social connections. Group video chats instantly became the default solution for learning and socializing. However, Zoom also was targeted by vandals who burst into virtual chat rooms with inappropriate material. Many children were assaulted by these criminals.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it's likely that more parents than ever will take their kids out of school and teach them from home. This is sure to increase their exposure to online dangers. While parents seek out more physical books and other learning materials, their children will still seek out friends and fun online. To help keep kids safe online, parents should be ever vigilant to check and monitor the platforms their children are using. In the case of Zoom, make sure that the company has updated their security and ensure that your child's apps are updated with the latest security patches.
Children should also be warned to avoid providing personal information online and that they should always report if anyone sends or request inappropriate images. Parents can help their kids by installing parental controls on their devices and otherwise monitoring online use. Open communication will likewise help maintain safety. When kids see their parents as trusted allies more than just authority figures, they will be more likely to report when things feel weird. Further, when they are taught to recognize those feelings they will be further empowered.
Online Kids Safety Resources
- Childnet International:
This coalition of education leaders seeks to help children become empowered so they can use the internet with more confidence and safety.
- Internet Matters:
This organization seeks to empower parents and other child caregivers to keep kids safe online.
The world leader in internet software offers advice and resources for kids of all ages, and their parents, too.
- Federal Trade Commission:
This government agency has loads of resources to help families stay safe on the internet.
Stop by the UNICEF site for a detailed report on internet safety.
This online security company offers a handy, detailed breakdown to help keep kids safe online.
- The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program:
This extensive network of government agencies and 61 task forces offers a stunning array of safety resources.
- National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children(UK):
This site provides a range of tips and loads of information, including timely reports on cybercrimes and online predation.
- National Children's Advocacy Center:
This national advocacy center has centers throughout the nation and world. Their mission is to provide a proactive response to child sexual abuse.
- Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA):
This legislation was designed to keep kids safe online. Review the law and know your rights as well as your reasonable expectations for safety in schools and libraries.
Safe Online Learning Resources for Kids
- U.S. Department of Education's Early Learning Resources:
These resources are aimed at anyone who works with preschool aged children.
- Storytime Anytime:
This YouTube channel is aimed at early childhood learners who love story time.
- The Moth:
This site provides weekly intriguing stories and activities for parents and teenage children. The aim is to help build community through storytelling.
- PBS for Kids:
This site, aimed at younger learners, covers social skills, academic topics, and more.
- Khan Academy:
Kids can learn pretty much anything through the Khan Academy. Whether kids are entering third grade or medical school, this site keeps them on track.
Teens and their parents alike are sure to find courses that intrigue and enlighten through Coursera. While most courses are free, many have a nominal fee for a certificate from schools such as Harvard.
- National Geographic:
Whether kids are in pre-k or high school graduates, this site offers top-notch educational resources.