As a resource, the internet is a wonderful place for children to learn, explore ideas, and express themselves creatively. The internet is also key in a child’s social development, helping to strengthen communication skills, for example when playing games or chatting with friends.
However, parents should be aware that all these activities often come with risks. Kids online can be exposed to inappropriate content, cyberbullying, and even predators.
While keeping an eye on what your children see and do online helps protect them against these risks, it’s not easy monitoring your kids without feeling like you’re invading their privacy. Just asking what websites they visit may give the impression that you don’t trust your child.
The key to combatting any big risk is education. It’s important for you and your children to be aware of the dangers, how to protect against them, and how to identify the warning signs. This is why we’ve put together this guide, to help both you and your kids* understand how to navigate the internet safely.
*Look out for our “For Kids” tips below, which you can share with your kids and teens.
A 2020 study by the Pew Research Center found that:
- 86% of parents of a child under age 11 limit their child’s screen time, while 75% check what their child does online.
- 71% of parents of a child age 11 or under are concerned their child has too much screen time.
- D66% of parents think parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago, with 21% blaming social media in general.
- 65% of parents believe it’s acceptable for a child to have their own tablet computer before age 12.
Online Threats to Kids
Exposure to Inappropriate Content
Children are becoming more active online and at a younger age. This increases the probability that they may see something inappropriate for their age. Online activities that increase the possibility your child will see inappropriate content include:
- Joining social media platforms before reaching the minimum age
- Watching live streams without knowing if they are age-appropriate
- Using apps and playing games not suitable for children
Without proper online supervision and content blockers, an innocent internet search can expose your child to content that causes confusion and upset.
Inappropriate content is not just sexual in nature. It also includes material directed at adults, upsetting information or images, and misinformation that encourages your child to dangerous or unlawful behavior. Inappropriate content could be:
- Pornographic material
- Content containing explicit language
- Images, videos, or games with graphic violence
- Sites that encourage harmful activities like crime, terrorism, self-harm, racism, and suicide
- Unmoderated chat rooms
- Gambling sites
Your child may meet individuals online who are not who they claim to be – and who may single out your child to be the victim of predatory behavior. Online predators like these will normally use a fake profile to build an emotional connection with their young, impressionable targets.
Grooming is a term used to describe when predators befriend minors online in order to exploit them. Grooming can be used for sexual purposes or to radicalize young people.
The aim is to gain your child’s trust and groomers may do this by pretending to have similar interests, or giving gifts and compliments. Once a relationship is built, the conversation may take a sexual one, often with the groomer encouraging the child to send explicit images.
Usually, online predators will target children on sites popular with young people, like social media, online games, and chat rooms.
Cyberbullying is a term used to describe abusive communications received via digital channels, like social media posts, instant messages, and email, etc. As with any form of bullying, cyberbullying can be very distressing for children, especially if the activity is public.
These communications can reach a vast audience within seconds, as hurtful posts can be shared multiple times. The perpetrator can retain a degree of anonymity, which makes it difficult to police.
The main difference between cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying is that harmful activity online can lead to a massive scale of harmful exposure. With the internet being ubiquitous in everyone’s lives, your children can be bullied anywhere, anytime – even within your own home. The abuse can consist of:
- Rejection and exclusion from online groups or chats
- Threats and intimidation
- Rumors and defamation
- Manipulation and extortion
- Stalking and harassment
- Identity theft and hacking accounts
- Publicly posting secret or personal information
Cyberstalking: Sending repeated threats and messages online.
Exclusion: Deliberately excluding someone from online activities.
Fraping: Hijacking someone else’s account and impersonating them to post inappropriate content.
Griefing: Cyberbullying through online gaming platforms.
Outing: Publicly shaming someone by sharing personal or private information about someone online.
Masquerading: Creating a fake identity to cyberbully someone anonymously.
Trolling: Posting insulting messages about sensitive subjects, like inciting racism, homophobia, or targeting an individual.
How to Protect Your Kids from Online Threat
Protection Against Inappropriate Content
At times your child may discover content that’s inappropriate for their age or stage of development. You can’t check everything your child sees on the internet, but you can help them avoid unsuitable content.
Teach Kids How to Navigate the Internet Safely
Show your kids how to browse the internet safely. Talk about only visiting secure (https) websites, how to enter safe search terms. Switching on YouTube Safe Mode and Google SafeSearch to make sure they see age-appropriate results.
Explain that many sites, like Facebook and TikTok, have minimum age restrictions which are there to protect them from improper content. Agree on which websites and apps are appropriate for your child to use.
Inform Kids of What to Look For
Teach your children that inappropriate and graphic content is not limited to websites. Explain that they can be exposed via email and direct messages too. Talk about when it’s okay to click on a link or download, and the dangers of pop-up ads.
Install Firewalls and Content Blockers
Make use of the built-in safety apps that come with your devices and download parental control apps to provide an extra layer of protection. Install a firewall (internet filtering/blocking software or hardware) that is designed to protect children from age-inappropriate content.
What to Do If Your Child Has Been Exposed
Be prepared with a plan if your child has been exposed to inappropriate content. Find the source of content and immediately block access to unsuitable or dangerous sites, to help your child feel safe online.
Don’t shame or blame your child. Instead, keep the lines of communication open and encourage your child to come to you if something upsets them online, no matter how insignificant it seems.
Protection Against Online Predators
Grooming can be a difficult topic to discuss with your children but it’s important you encourage an open dialogue.
Educate Yourself on the Danger
Establish what online predators are, the methods they use, and where they attack. Explain to your child never to talk to strangers online and that they should tell you straight away if someone they don’t know makes contact.
Teach Proper Online Behaviors
Discuss with your child the types of online interactions that are okay and ones that aren’t appropriate. Teach them how to recognize red flags and that they can come to you if they’re concerned.
Monitor Devices and Online Activity
Keep the family computer in a common area and monitor the use of mobile devices. Parental controls, a shared email account, and beefing up security settings will further protect your child’s privacy.
Control access to photo apps, webcams, and digital cameras. Ensure your child knows that they can’t download or upload images without permission. Regularly check camera rolls and photo files on your child’s devices for anything inappropriate.
Warn Kids About Risky Online Places
Discuss the risks of social media platforms and online chat rooms. Set time limits, rules, and always follow age restrictions for apps and websites.
Even “safe” online places still require you to be on your guard. For example, online predators may pretend to be children in child-friendly chat rooms and games. Vigilance in all your child’s online activities is important.
What to Do If Your Child Is A Victim of Online Grooming
If you suspect your child is being groomed online, it can be very distressing for both of you. Swift action is key to protect your child and others:
- Let your child know they’re not at fault
- Save copies or screenshots of all communications from the predator
- Cut off all communication with the predator, blocking them on all platforms
- Change login credentials for all online accounts and secure them with unique, complex passwords
- Report the grooming incidence to website administrators and law enforcement
The internet and social media have changed the way children experience bullying – the amplified effects can be emotional and devastating. Start a conversation with your child to help equip them to recognize and tackle cyberbullies in the right way.
Discuss What Cyberbullying Is
Understand what cyberbullying is, how and where it happens, and what the warning signs are. Discuss what types of communication are acceptable and unacceptable, both from your kids and from those they talk to online.
Point out that cyberbullies can be friendly at first, but to be aware of any interactions that make your child feel distressed, upset, or scared. Encourage open and honest discussions to ensure your child knows they can talk to you about online interactions that make them uncomfortable.
Keep an Eye on Online Interactions
If you let your children have social media or email accounts, ensure you have access to manage or monitor the accounts. Parental control apps are also great for staying informed. Check in on the accounts periodically, but let your kids know you are doing this, as this helps maintain mutual trust and respect.
Set time limits for all screen time, including browsing the internet, playing online games, and doing homework. Put rules in place for instant messaging and social media. Again, make it clear to your kids that you’ll be checking regularly what they’re doing online.
Be Prepared Should the Worst Happen
Learn the proper actions to take should your kid become a victim of cyberbullies. Rather than react emotionally, rationally discuss what happened with your child to help them deal with what they are going through.
Form a real-life network consisting of the parents of your children’s friends. Make a plan to look out for each other’s kids online and enlist help from community leaders. The more people you can recruit, the more likely you are to keep the children in your community safe online.
Keeping Kids Safe on Social Media
As soon as they are allowed, kids will sign up for some form of social media profile. Many will visit their profiles several times a day, as social media starts to form a major part of their social life.
What Parents Can Do To Protect Their Kids on Social Media
Teach your kids to:
- Be Kind Make it clear that your kids are expected to always treat others online with respect. Online abuse or bullying should always be reported to administrators and their parents.
- Think Before Posting Once something has been posted online, even if it’s been deleted, it’s still probably online somewhere. Teach your children to think carefully before posting anything – if they wouldn’t want their grandma, teacher, or future bosses to see a post, don’t share it.
- Use Privacy Settings Ensure your child knows the importance of privacy settings by going through them together. Explain that strong and unique passwords, and enabling 2-factor authentication protects them against identity theft. Make it clear that they should never share their online credentials with anyone.
- Not Interact with Strangers Teach your child if they get a message or a friend request from a stranger, to ignore it and delete it. If they are unsure of who the person is, they should always ask a parent or adult.
Make A Social Media Contract
Forging a social media contract with your kids not only creates a sense of trust between you but also encourages safe online behaviors. Make is a real contract that they can sign and ensure they understand there will be real consequences for breaking the terms.
The child agrees to protect their privacy, not share personal information, reject contact from strangers, and not to use their social media accounts to hurt anyone else through cyberbullying.
In turn, parents should agree to trust their kids to make smart choices, monitor their kids’ online activities but also respect their privacy as they get older, and set a good example with their own social media activity.
Online Security Tips for Parents
Set Clear Rules and Boundaries
Discuss and agree on rules and boundaries on internet use upfront. Things to consider include:
- The amount of time your kids can be on the internet or their mobile devices (e.g. how many hours a day).
- What time your kids can surf the web (e.g. after they finish their homework).
- Where internet-connected devices are permitted to be used (e.g. in common areas only).
- What sort of things they can do on the internet and browse online (e.g watch videos, use social media, do research for school projects, chat online).
Set Up Parental Controls
Windows and Mac operating systems allow you to add parental controls to individual user accounts. Control settings include website and content restrictions, online time limits, and app usage. It’s also possible to set up parental controls to your router, ensuring all devices connected to your home network are covered.
As your children grow older there should be less reliance on parental control apps and more emphasis on teaching kids to self-regulate their internet use.
Use a Suitable VPN
Protect your family’s online privacy with a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPNs safeguard your sensitive data with an impenetrable wall of encryption. This prevents prying eyes from knowing what your child is doing online or where they’re browsing from.
Encourage your child to connect to a VPN every time they go online and they’ll also be protected from dangerous websites, inappropriate pop-up ads, malicious malware, and other viruses.
Note: free VPNs rarely have security features that are as robust as their premium counterparts. To monetize their services, free VPN providers may sell your data to third parties and bombard you with pop-ups ads, which may be unsuitable for children.
Keep Everything Updated
Set your operating software to update automatically when a new version is available. Doing so will help iron out any security issues by fixing bugs or vulnerabilities in software that can be exploited by cybercriminals. Install antivirus software to protect your kids’ devices from being infected with harmful malware that can harvest personal information.
Add extra layers of protection by installing firewalls on both your devices and router. They work by monitoring incoming and outgoing internet traffic and will block or allow certain traffic depending on your chosen security rules.
Teach Your Kids About Online Privacy
Children grow up with computers and smart devices forming an integral part of their lives. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, games consoles, LeapPads, Kindles, and smart TVs all provide easy access to the internet.
It can be difficult to control everything your child does online, but it’s never too early to teach your kids how to be safe online.
Warn About Phishing Emails
Phishing is a method used by cybercriminals to steal sensitive and/or personal data using deception by impersonating genuine companies or individuals. The theft of personal data can ultimately lead to identity theft.
In 2020, phishing was the most common type of cybercrime and more than 96% of phishing attacks arrived by email. Teaching your children how to identify fake emails will help protect them against becoming a victim of phishing.
Email providers do a decent job of filtering suspicious emails into spam folders, however, some slip through. Make sure your children are aware:
- If something is too good to be true, it probably is. Your child may get an email telling them they’ve won a prize. They just need to provide some personal information to claim it. This is a scam!
- Not to click on links or downloads in suspicious emails. Clicking links could take you to a website that looks genuine but steals your data when you log in. Opening attachments may download dangerous malware that gives hackers remote access to your computer.
- A sense of urgency is a big red flag. e.g. A threat that your Netflix account will be suspended unless you immediately update your payment details. Never respond to these emails, instead contact the organization directly using contact details found on the official website. Also report or flag such emails to your email providers.
- Poor spelling and grammar are often signs that an email is fake. While small typos may occur on legitimate emails, it’s rare to see multiple and glaring spelling errors and misuse of punctuation.
- To never share personal information such as login credentials, home address, or phone number, over email without talking to their parent’s first.
The Internet and Teenagers
The internet forms an integral part of a teenager’s everyday activities like doing school work, keeping in touch with friends on social media, and streaming their favorite shows. For many teenagers, the internet is also a safe place to explore different ways of expressing themselves and seeking help or advice for physical or mental health concerns.
However, as teenagers are often online without supervision or parental control, they need to be able to independently identify acceptable and unacceptable online content. While teenagers are usually savvier than younger children on the usual online risks, they can still be vulnerable to online safety issues.
Clickbait, misinformation, fake news – whatever you call it – is a major online concern. As more teenagers take to social media networks for news and information, it can get hard for them to identify what’s real.
According to a study by Vodafone, 46% of teenagers claim they have fallen for fake news before and 29% believe they are susceptible to fake news. Therefore, it’s critical that teenagers have the digital skills they need to spot fake news and think about whether what they’re reading or sharing online could be misinformation.
With more internet freedom and access to their own money (or ability to spend money), teenagers are at risk of signing up to unfair contracts with terms and conditions that they don’t fully understand. This can make them vulnerable to identity theft or fraud, as well as nuisance marketing messages and scam emails.
Teenagers also may not realize that the apps they use are harvesting their data or tracking their location.
Radicalization is the process where impressionable individuals, such as teenagers, switch from expressing moderate views to supporting extreme ideological views. It often occurs through online exposure to – often violent – ideological propaganda.
Teenagers can be especially vulnerable to extremist influences as they are likely exploring other issues around identity and self-expression. The internet has an ever-growing amount of unfiltered content creating ample opportunities for radicalization – this constant content exchange also makes it easier to meet others who share and validate extreme opinions.
Extremists use social media sites – Twitter, Facebook, Ask FM – to identify and target vulnerable young people they believe can be swayed to their views. Your teen may not realize their views are being shaped by others, believing their new friend is a mentor or the only person who speaks the “truth”.
Stress the importance to your teenagers of using strong privacy settings on their social media profiles and never engaging with people they don’t know.
If you’re worried your teenager is becoming radicalized online, taking an understanding approach is key. Speak to your child calmly and try to understand why they have adopted these new extremist views. Research these new beliefs and discuss the counter-narratives to delegitimize the logic used by extremist groups. If necessary, seek professional help.
Magazines and advertising have long been criticized for upholding unrealistic standards of beauty, lifestyle, and financial success. Young individuals and teenagers are often bombarded by these so-called standards, even at home.
On social media, teenagers see a carefully curated edit of only the best parts of celebrities’, influencers’, and even their friends’ lives. The use of filters and photoshopping creates idealized images that can fuel negative feelings some teenagers have about themselves. For example, a study by the United Kingdom’s NHS found that girls that compared themselves to others on social media were more likely to suffer from mental health issues than those who didn’t.
If you’re concerned about the influence unrealistic standards online is having on your teenagers, teach them:
- Digital resilience The ability to assess online images critically, to understand they’re might be fake or retouched, and realize that there are many positive role models online that don’t conform to a single view of perfection.
- To be kind to themselves Talk to your teenager about the accounts they follow online and how they make them feel. If they are following hashtags, threads, or accounts that make them question their own worth, encourage your teen to unfollow or block these accounts. Help your teen find accounts to follow that they already relate to, whether it be a hobby, personal interest, or career aspiration.
- To take a social media holiday If your teen is feeling overwhelmed by social media, suggest they take a break for a little while and join them in solidarity. Help them fill the time they would usually spend online doing something positive that will boost their self-esteem.
The Bottom Line
The internet has been intrinsically woven into the fabric of children’s lives – from learning and development to socializing and entertainment – and it is continually encroaching on young people, with more and more devices becoming connected. Therefore, it’s never been more urgent to make sure you’re helping your child stay safe online.
In this guide, we’ve covered the most relevant areas that can help protect your kids: younger children benefit from parental control apps, whereas older children usually require less supervision online; teenagers benefit from being able to make informed decisions about their online conduct, what they share, and when they may be being exploited.
The most important lesson, however, is that you talk to your kids about appropriate internet use – teach them about online dangers and how to protect their privacy, and advise your kids when to come to you if they are concerned about any of their interactions online. A foundation of trust is critical for maintaining a safe, rewarding internet experience for kids.