Internet safety for children involves not only keeping them safe, but parents and guardians taking some simple steps to dramatically reduce online threats, especially those that prey on kids, protect the data on computer devices, and keep them safe online.
This is even more critical now as we are in the middle of a health pandemic and children are made to learn from home, and have limited physical interactions with their peers.
What unique Internet safety risks are associated with children?
In terms of Internet safety, when a child is using your computer, normal safeguards and security practices may not be sufficient. Children present additional challenges because of their natural characteristics: innocence, curiosity, desire for independence, and fear of punishment.
You need to consider these characteristics when determining how to protect your data and the child.
You may think that because the child is only playing a game, or researching a term paper, or typing a homework assignment, they can’t cause any harm. But what if, when saving their paper, the child deletes a necessary program file?
Or what if they are tricked by a malicious advertisement to unintentionally visit a web page with inapprorpiate content, or accidentally download a malware that infects the computer with a virus?
These are just some possible scenarios. Mistakes happen, but being children, they may not realize what they’ve done or even think it is dangerous enough to tell you what happened. Even when they do realize that they made a mistake, they may be too afraid to raise their hand to avoid getting the parent or guardian upset.
Online predators present another significant threat, particularly to children. Because the nature of the internet is so anonymous, it is easy for people to misrepresent themselves and manipulate or trick other users (see Social Engineering: Protect Your Organization From Social Attacks for some examples).
Adults often fall victim to these ploys, and children, who are usually much more open and trusting, are even easier targets.
Another growing problem is cyberbullying which according to the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention, “takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets.” Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content.
Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation.
Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.
These threats are even greater if a child has access to email or instant messaging programs, visits chat rooms, and/or uses social networking sites because the most common places where cyberbullying occurs are:
- Social Media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok
- Text messaging and messaging apps on mobile or tablet devices
- Instant messaging, direct messaging, and online chatting over the internet
- Online forums, chat rooms, and message boards, such as Reddit
- Online gaming communities
What can you do about Internet safety?
Consider activities you can work on together, whether it be playing a game, researching a topic you had been talking about (e.g., family vacation spots, a particular hobby, a historical figure), or putting together a family newsletter. This will allow you to supervise your child’s online activities while teaching them good computer habits.
- Keep your computer in an open area
If your computer is in a high-traffic area, you will be able to easily monitor the computer activity. Not only does this accessibility deter children from doing something they know they’re not allowed to do, it also gives you the opportunity to intervene if you notice a behavior that could have negative consequences.
- Set rules and warn about dangers
Make sure your child knows the boundaries of what they are allowed to do on the computer. These boundaries should be appropriate for the child’s age, knowledge, and maturity, but they may include rules about how long they are allowed to be on the computer, what sites they are allowed to visit, what software programs they can use, and what tasks or activities they are allowed to do.
You should also talk to children about the dangers of the internet so that they recognize suspicious behavior or activity.
Discuss the risks of sharing certain types of information (e.g., that they’re home alone) and the benefits to only communicating and sharing information with people they know.
The goal isn’t to scare them, it’s to make them more aware. Make sure to include the topic of cyberbullying in these discussions (see How to Prevent Bullying for more information).
- Monitor computer activity for Internet Safety
Be aware of what your child is doing on the computer, including which websites they are visiting. If they are using email, instant messaging, or chat rooms, try to get a sense of who they are corresponding with and whether they actually know them. See Staying Safe on Social Networking Sites for more information.
- Keep lines of communication open
Let your child know that they can approach you with any questions or concerns about behaviors or problems they may have encountered on the computer.
- Consider creating separate accounts on the device
Most computer operating systems (whether it is on a laptop or tablet) give you the option of creating a different user account or profiles for each user.
If you’re worried that your child may accidentally access, modify, and/or delete your files, you can give them a separate account and decrease the amount of access and number of privileges they have.
If you cannot create separate accounts, you manage access and protect your data through the security settings of the device.
In addition to limiting functionality within your browser (see How To Protect Online Data Privacy), avoid letting your browser remember passwords and other personal information (see Browsing Safely: Understanding Active Content and Cookies).
Also, it is always important to keep your virus definitions up to date (see Understanding Anti-Virus Software).
- Use Parental controls to improve Internet Safety
Most network routers have built-in parental control features that allow for time scheduling which you can use to set up time limits for a specific device, and web and applications filters that allows you to block access to unwanted websites and apps.
In addition, some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Spectrum, Grande Communications etc., offer services designed to protect children online. Contact your ISP to see if any of these services are available.
There are also special software programs (some free), from computer security companies like Sophos or Bitdefender that you can install on your computer. Different programs offer different features and capabilities, so you can find one that best suits your needs.
Additional information About Internet Safety for Children
The following resources offer additional information about protecting children online:
- Talking with Kids About Being Online:
- Homeland Security Investigations iGuardian Program to Prevent Child Sexual Exploitation:
- Stop. Think. Connect.:
- Concerned Parent’s Internet Safety Toolbox:
Some of the content for this public awareness article is sourced from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).