The moment you begin using technology to keep your young children busy, they get exposed to online threats. So it’s never too soon to take proactive measures to protect your children online.
As your kids grow up, they learn to navigate apps, games, online stores, social networks, dating sites, and virtual worlds. By early teens, they become Internet-savvy and self-confident and want to explore more of what the Internet has to offer. That’s when monitoring their online behavior may no longer be enough because they learn how to bypass your safeguards.
You need to teach them privacy and safety basics before they strike out for online independence.
The best way to protect your children online is to equip them with necessary skills and tools and make sure they know what to do – or where to ask for help – when you’re not there to check in on them.
This guide helps parents make sense of the online threats relevant to different age groups – from young children to teens. It also dwells on how families can:
- Protect their kids online
- Teach their children safe and responsible online behavior
- Seek help or report online threats
Online Safety for Preschoolers
Children are the fastest-growing group of smartphone users
Smartphones are ubiquitous across households and children are the fastest growing group of smartphone users.
But while some suggest smartphone addiction has adverse effects on children’s mental health, others are more concerned about predators, cyberbullying, sexting, malware, identity theft, and inappropriate content.
Before your child gets her first smartphone (at the age of 10, if stats don’t lie), she’ll be playing and watching videos on your phone.
It makes sense to lock in-app purchases on your devices before you discover your kids have spent a few hundred dollars on Smurf’s Village or Candy Crush.
Apple once got into hot water with parents for not providing enough safeguards against unauthorized use of IAPs by children. After Cupertino had to settle a $100M class-action lawsuit, all tech giants beefed up their safeguards and policies. Therefore, you’re the only person responsible for controlling the money your kids spend on gems, tokens, and crates.
Video games rating
Trust me on this – you can’t entirely rely on Apple and Google to vet games for kids properly at all times. Too many factors are at play here, and what’s been rated as appropriate for all ages may turn out to be a violent game, have explicit imagery, or worse.
Notorious was the Roblox incident when some parents discovered their children were abused online by predators when exploring the open world of a mobile game. Little has changed after the news went viral, and Roblox is still among the top mobile games for kids.
Likewise, games like Kick the Buddy sport 4-5-star ratings on iTunes and Google Play while parents who bothered to check it were awed by the explicit violence it glorifies.
70% of unwanted exposure to inappropriate content occurs in the home. When young kids browse the Internet unsupervised, it’s only a matter of time when they navigate to a page full of explicit material.
Camfecting, or webcam hacking, is the reason Mark Zuckerberg covers his laptop’s webcam with non-transparent duct tape. Unfortunately, young children are under a far greater danger of becoming the targets of webcam hackers.
The problem isn’t just in your laptop, smart TV, or a smartphone. Many smart toys and baby monitoring devices come with embedded webcams.
Monitoring devices’ primary purpose is to let you keep an eye on your baby while she sleeps. Unfortunately, developers of smart toys and baby monitoring gadgets rush to push a product onto the market ahead of the competition. Too often, they neglect security, so smart Internet-of-Things gadgets come loaded with vulnerabilities.
DDoS attacks that use IoT microwaves, smart fridges, and CCTV cameras aren’t new. But predators hacking baby monitoring devices to watch young kids make for a far more sinister reality than a DDoS attack.
One Washington family realized their baby monitor was hacked when the hacker spoke to their son through it, saying “Wake up little boy, daddy’s looking for you.” In Indiana, a mother heard “Every Breath You Take” playing through her baby monitor accompanied by “sexual noises.”
What You Can Do
- Create a separate account with limited privileges if your child uses your device.
- Lock or disable IAPs altogether until your kids are old enough to use them correctly.
- Install a parental control app and limit the time they spend playing mobile or computer games and watching cartoons.
- Set your device to Airplane mode or disable wireless connection when you don’t want your children to access the Internet unsupervised.
Don’t let kids play with devices that store your sensitive information, especially if you use that device under a BYOD policy at work. Kids can download ransomware or spyware that can expose your personal or work data.
Online Security for School-Aged Kids
Increasing use of the Internet
Sometime between elementary and middle school, most kids learn to rely on the Internet for entertainment, socialization, and help with homework or school projects.
Smartphone or tablet is no longer the only gateway to the online realm. They master other Internet-connected devices such as consoles, smart TVs, computers, and laptops – the threat landscape increases significantly.
But this is also the right time for parents to step up online privacy talks and teach their kids basic cyber security notions.
Socialization and virtual worlds
Online gaming – through consoles, PCs, and smart TVs – have long been the source of parental concerns since many games feature sexual or violent content.
But open-world games, the so-called virtual worlds, where players can freely roam the game’s realm and chat with others, often harbor predators and bullies. It’s not uncommon when kids get cyberbullied or harassed by other players.
Chats and texting
Younger kids might not be overly interested in texting. But by middle school, they get more interested in socializing with their peers.
When chat apps and social networks become a part of your kids’ lives, it’s time to have a talk about “stranger danger online.”
Unauthorized posts on social media containing your kids photos
Let’s assume you control how your children’s photos are shared among your friends and family on social networks. But once your children go to school, you have to rely on their teachers to protect their privacy online.
Sharing photos online has become so commonplace most people don’t give it a second thought, unfortunately.
What You Can Do
- Monitor what your kids are up to online and provide guidance.
- At this age, they’re too young to seek privacy from you. Instead, kids enjoy doing everything with you. So teaching them online privacy and safety is a lot easier than when they turn rebellious a few years later.
Teach them about ads and spam
- Show them how to identify ads, spam and show examples of chain messages.
- It might be a good idea to have a separate talk about why online ads are a threat in the first place. You may not realize your kid thinks ads are messages from good guys who want to help you (to have new toys, white teeth, you get the point).
Introduce them to password basics
- As they begin to do things independently, help them to set up their account with a gaming or educational website (i.e., Hot Wheels, Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters).
- As you guide them through the signup process, explain the importance of having strong passwords and storing them in a safe, organized way. Don’t forget to teach them to use different passwords for each account.
Play their games
- You want to know what they’re playing to identify the threats and explain to them before something creepy happens. It’s okay to vet all the apps and games they download at this age. Explain your judgment – don’t just ban something without reason and cause frustration.
- Remember – communication is key and awareness is the best tool against many online dangers.
Bookmark favorite sites
- Let your kids have a separate browser, where you teach them how to customize their browser privacy and security settings.
- Also, bookmark their favorite sites and offer help to navigate to new sites. Try to limit the time they spend on the Internet unsupervised.
Solving the unauthorized photo sharing problem
- Unless a photo violates the site’s Terms of Service, there’s little you can do to take down a picture of your kid someone posted online without your consent.
- Try asking the person who posted it to remove it, crop it, or apply a filter to hide your kid’s face and remove the tag name.
- If a teacher posted the photo, and you haven’t signed a consent form for the educator or school to do so, you can file a request for removal to your school administration.
Things You Should Know – and Teach Your Kids – about Predators
As a parent, you are your child’s first line of defense against online predators.
Unfortunately, the Internet provides pornographers and pedophiles with an unprecedented opportunity to target victims. No longer do they lurk around school playgrounds because they search for their victims while hiding behind a computer screen, a fake identity, and other anonymizing tools.
An online predator isn’t someone you’d normally view as such. It’s a well-adapted, functional and maybe even successful individual who:
- Blends well into society
- Is law-abiding, pays his taxes
- Has a good job and reputation
- Engages in charity and volunteer projects often involving children
- Appears trustworthy
Online predators often introduce themselves to their targets as teens of the opposite gender – someone who the victim would be interested in talking to. They emulate the teen writing style and vocabulary, and have easily accessible images of teens to use as their profile photo.
Grooming is the process in which a predator gains a child’s trust. It may begin with a child’s favorite sports team, but predators often build it around the teen’s yearning for romance or sexual information.
A predator is an excellent listener; he sympathizes with the child’s problems and supports her choices. At the same time, he exploits a child’s natural sexual curiosities, and gradually introduces the topic into their conversations (via text or pornography).
A predator is generous in sending gifts, money, and attention. But the crucial point of grooming is driving a wedge between the victim and his or her parents (either through promises of an exciting experience or threats and blackmail).
The following red flags in your child’s behavior may signal the presence of an online predator:
- Becomes secretive, withdrawn, and obsessive about being online
- Turns off computer or quickly changes screens when a parent enters the room
- Begins consuming pornography
- Receives phone calls and/or packages from someone parents don’t know
Talk, explain, but don’t over-react
Did you know that:
- American children begin viewing hardcore pornography online at an average age of 11.
- 1 in 7 kids gets a sexual solicitation online.
- In 82% of online sex crimes against minors, the criminal used the victim’s social media profile to gain information about the target.
- 14% of 13-15 year-olds accept an invitation to meet an online stranger in-person.
It’s imperative that parents befriend their kids on social networks and keep an eye open on their activities. When a child’s online behavior gets risky (posting sensitive information, chatting with and befriending strangers), it’s high time to have another stranger danger conversation, but this time – the explicit version.
Avoid over-reacting when spotting something suspicious. Instead, ask if their new online friend has:
- Asked for personal information and pictures
- Talked and encouraged conversations about sex
- Sent explicit photos or videos, or links to explicit content online
- Offered gifts, favors or money
If you suspect your teen might be a predator’s target:
- Collect evidence
- Make screenshots
- Involve law enforcement
Online Privacy for Teens
Reasoning with kids may get tough during puberty. Hormonal changes coupled with a yearning for more freedom, independence, experiences, and privacy may make it difficult for parents to monitor and protect their kids online.
At the same time, teens become increasingly dependent on peer approval and pressure to share. They may engage in risky or regretful behavior to gain popularity.
As social networks take center stage in teens lives, enter cyberbullying and trolling. Some engage in cyberbullying, while others become their victims. It’s not uncommon when teens engaging in online harassment become victims themselves.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying occurs across all major social networks and takes many forms:
- Spreading rumors
- Defamation, slander
- Threats via texts, social networks, or email
- Impersonating the victim and posting embarrassing information under their name
- Sharing explicit photos without the victim’s consent
- Posting degrading, humiliating information about the victim
- Excluding the victim from online activities
Having your most private information posted online for the world to laugh is devastating to an adult, let alone a kid. The consequences can be far-reaching – from health problems to hampered employment opportunities at a later point.
Trolling, or making deliberately offensive, degrading, provocative comments is somewhat different from cyberbullying. Whereas cyberbullying is persistent, trolling can be a one-off and aims to incite an emotional response from the victim and disrupt a conversation.
What You Can Do
Researchers state fewer than half of children bullied online share their struggle with their parents. Some are concerned about their parents’ efforts to stop bullying will only make it worse.
As a parent, it’s your responsibility to treat cyberbullying as a serious threat. Again, befriend your kids on social networks and keep tabs open on their timeline and peer comments:
- Collect details, take screenshots, copy URLs
- Report cyberbullying to the social network involved
- Block or unfriend the offender not just on the social network but also block their phone
- Talk to your kids and see if they show signs of significant emotional distress
- Seek professional help, if needed
Social Networking Risks
Oversharing and identity theft
The pressure to overshare may urge teens to disclose private information online. There are multiple problems with oversharing on social networks:
- Peers may use that information to harass the victim or humiliate them publicly.
- Hackers use social engineering for identity theft (mining personal information from the victim’s social profiles).
- Burglars may use information about your vacation plans to break in when you’re away.
- Predators use that information for grooming.
- The teen loses control of where their pictures and videos are posted, discussed, and shared.
What You Can Do
Teach your kids about safe social media behavior:
- Explain that everything they say online is backed up on the social network’s servers and other people can take screenshots of it. So being polite online is just as important as good manners in the offline realm.
- Explain the things they should never post online – full name, phone number, address, SSN, school, or their mother’s maiden name. Vacation plans and details about their home alarm system fall under this category, especially when sharing pictures.
- Teach them how to disable location services.
- Help them beef up the privacy and security settings of their social networking accounts, make their accounts private.
- Help them set up alerts when someone tags them online.
- Reiterate the importance of verifying the identities of their online friends.
- Stay involved, be friends on social networks.
- Help your child report and block offenders.
Vet new apps
Teens are tech-savvy and independent enough to customize their devices and experience without adult supervision. But many apps and games are expensive or too difficult to beat.
Enter cheats, hacks, and doctored software. More often than not, sites distributing pirated software and games also distribute malware, spyware, ransomware, and other badware.
P2P has taken piracy to a new level, but the problem is it’s hard to persuade avid torrenters to stop downloading pirated movies and games.
From installing malware to exposing themselves to offensive content, kids also can get their whole family in trouble with copyright trolls and Internet Service Providers.
Possible solutions include:
- Teach them to install games and apps only from the official online stores
- Encourage them to play without installing cheats
- Limit the time they spend online when inappropriate content takes center stage
- Show them how to use antivirus, antimalware, anti-keylogging apps, and VPNs
Must-have apps that protect kids’ privacy and security
- Antivirus, antimalware, and anti-keylogging apps are a good start.
- Add in a reliable VPN and a firewall that’s easy to customize and block/allow apps from accessing the Internet in the background.
- Don’t forget to install ad-blockers for all browsers and to disable location services, where possible.
- Together, go through your kids’ social networks to tweak privacy settings.
- Introduce your kids to encryption and encryption-based software – secure chatting, emails, and vaults for storing photos.
Parental Control and Monitoring Tips, Apps, and Services
Don’t know it? Learn it
As a parent, you need to understand what your kids are doing online, what games they like and why, and what challenges they face. There’s no way you can do this by simply talking about their online privacy.
You need to participate in their online lives – play their games, try their apps, visit their websites and share experiences. While you do, read the services’ ToS and Privacy Policies.
This way, you know what they’re up to online but also remain in their closest circle of trusted adults.
Monitor your credit reports and bank accounts
As your kids get used to shopping online, it gets hard to resist the urge to invest in a solid identity theft protection service. Otherwise, you need to monitor your credit reports and bank statements religiously.
The selection of anti-identity theft apps and services is ample. The benefits include timely notifications about suspicious charges and a faster way to report stolen cards or hacked accounts.
Teen online dating
One of the biggest issues with teen dating services is the mismatch between how easy “hooking up” is on these platforms and teens’ failure to appreciate the safety risks and privacy consequences.
Stalking, harassment, and sexting are topped by online predators frequenting teen dating sites specifically.
- Poor or no age verification protocols
- Explicit content in blog articles and forums
- Lax privacy protections
- Extensive use of location services
Parental control and monitoring apps and services
- Set up web filters to block inappropriate content.
- Set Internet usage and gaming time limits.
- Track their kids’ location.
- Block specific apps, including social media.
- Alert parents to offensive language and inappropriate content.
- Monitor their kids’ social networks and contacts, among other things.
Technology, when used appropriately, provides excellent benefits. But when it comes to teaching your kids cybersecurity and privacy, face-to-face interaction is essential because you need to embed trust into your relationship. No parental monitoring app can do that for you.