Keeping Children Safe Online (Updated for 2019)

Experts agree that children are at a greater risk for unwanted contact and exploitation by criminals than ever before.  Unfortunately, this is due to the advent of the commercial Internet and, more specifically, social media.

While the Internet is a source of great knowledge covering almost every subject imaginable, as well as a portal into the wider world, it can also be dangerous – especially for children and teens.  Though many sites, companies, and communities do what they can to police activity, upsetting speech and images, disinformation, and cyberbullying are common across the World Wide Web.

Even today, television accounts for the majority of “screen time” in children under age 8.  The typical American child consumes an average of three hours of screen time per day.  11% of these children use a cellphone, tablet, or computer.  And, by age 8, 90% of all kids have used a computer in some capacity.

The Internet is undeniably a staple of everyday life for most people, including children and teens.  Unfortunately, this includes a lot of criminals and predators who have developed sophisticated methods of hacking into home networks, personal computers, online accounts, and more.

Securing your child’s safety online by following some simple steps is no different from fastening their seatbelt or reminding them to brush their teeth.

  1. Be involved.
    Children crave structure but they also vie for independence, which can lead to dangerous activity without understanding the possible consequences. Being involved in your child’s online activity can be an enjoyable, and enlightening, way to spend time with them and also the best way to ensure they stay safe.
  2. Use a family computer in a high-traffic area.
    Depending on their age, children do not need their own devices or online accounts. By only allowing them access to a single computer in a high-traffic area, such as the kitchen or living room, you can better monitor their activity and time spent online.
  3. Set reasonable limits.
    Studies prove that there are both benefits and disadvantages to the time children spend online, and this time should be closely monitored by parents to ensure healthy consumption of media. If you are on a Mac, you can find Parental Controls in the System Preferences. From there, you can set the hours and days on which the computer is available to your children (with their own login).  You can also exclude specific websites or set it so that only a handful of websites are available.  Explain why you have set these limits in an open and constructive discussion; if you scare your kids, they might fear confiding in you when they encounter issues online.
  4. Set limitations in your browser.
    With many modern browsers, you can limit or entirely restrict access to specific websites through the Preferences or Options tab. Domains can be tricky.  Some sources suggest that up to 60% of children have inadvertently viewed online pornography.  For a great example, be sure to block “www . Whitehouse . Com” (don’t include the spaces).  By using “wildcards,” you can change the access to websites across entire domains – such as *.xxx.  A “wildcard” is simply an asterisk in the place of unknown information and can be used in many ways.  The designation, “*.pornhub.*” entirely restricts access to all pornhub domains and sub-domains, for example.  (Pornhub is a registered trademark.)
  5. Protect your data, or digital information.
    Predators are sneaky and may stalk you and/or your children’s online activities for a long time before initiating contact. They can do this a number of ways but, with some practical security steps, you can make their attempts much more difficult.  First, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network).  Secondly, choose passwords carefully, using at least eight characters with some capitalized letters, some numbers, and at least one symbol ($, &, ^, etc.) – but not an asterisk.  Do not keep a list of your passwords on your computer.  Lastly, we have provided a handful of add-ons, or extensions, for browsers below that can help protect you and your data.
  6. Disable Location Settings.
    Many sites, apps, and even operating systems immediately share your location with others. Although this is largely used to target advertising demographics, it can be accessed by anyone who knows how to get it.  You may have to disable this in many places, from your System Preferences to your WiFi router to each app you use.  It can be tedious and time-consuming but, if not done, anyone can not only find you through your device, they can also track where you’ve been, how much time you spent at each location, and more.
  7. Do not login with other accounts.
    Create a unique account and password for every app and site instead of logging in using Facebook or Google (for example). While lists of passwords can be difficult to keep up with, anyone who gains access to a “master account” used to login to numerous sites will immediately gain access to all of those sites, as well!  Remember, do not keep a list of your passwords on your computer or “in the cloud.”

Follow the links below for more facts and information on the Internet and children’s usage, as well as protective measures you can take to secure your connection, privacy, and communications.

Common Sense Media provides reviews and guidelines to help parents decide which apps, games, and sites are appropriate for their kids.  They cover more than just video games and apps – you can also find reviews of books, movies, TV shows, and more.

The ESRB, or Entertainment Software Rating Board, has been providing guidelines for video games and entertainment since the 1990s.

This guide from the US Department of Homeland Security Cyber Safety Division covers more specific information about browser settings.

HTTPS Everywhere helps to ensure that the URL you type into the browser is the real site and not a “spoof” or hijacked site.

Privacy Badger catches invisible tracking files other programs overlook.

IPChicken tells you your IP address and generalized location (but not geolocation).

How to Choose a VPN from How To Geek.

A detailed how-to guide on setting up Parental Controls on Windows 10.  Check out more about setting up Parental Controls on other operating systems and programs in the sidebar.

iMore explains Mac’s Parental Controls in detail and provides tons of information on Mac products, in general.

Scholastic‘s Parents’ Guide to Protecting Children Online.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is an increasingly global problem which has continued growing over the last several years.  While anyone can be bullied, it mainly affects children, especially teens – both in frequency and severity.  The facts below come from the sources provided at the end of this section.

According to some research, roughly 25% of teens and pre-teens (11 to 16) have experienced online harassment in some form.  The most common forms of online harassment are mean comments, rumormongering, and sexual remarks or images.  Boys and girls are equally likely to be bullied and boys are less likely to discuss being harassed.

The good news is that up to 38% of victims talk to their parents about their experiences.  You can improve your chances of being in that statistical range by promoting open discussions about your children’s online activities and interactions.  Children take risks and push boundaries so, if they fear punishment or scorn, they are less likely to discuss important issues with parents or authority figures.

The Cyberbullying Research Center includes up-to-date statistics, information on handling online harassment, and more helpful information.

100 Facts on Bullying from Facts Daily.

TechJury provides an exhaustive list of cyberbullying facts.

How to handle and Report Cyberbullying from Stop Bullying.

Delete Cybercullying is a larger movement for stricter regulation of cyberbullying and online harassment.

The CDC (US) provides a more generalized list of points to prevent bullying both online and offline.

An informational (only) guide to Cyberstalking from Privacy Rights.

Most popular for its anti-virus software, Norton provides a comprehensive guide to online criminal activity and associated terminology including cyberstalking, catfishing, and more.

Staying Safe Online from Childline.org (UK).

Surveillance Self Defense from the EFF, or Electronic Frontier Foundation, provides seven steps to digital security.

Social Media Privacy Settings

The first thing to establish on any social media app or site is a family account.  This way, you can not only control what is seen and shared but also activity on the account.

There are so many social media sites and apps that it would take a much longer article to explore the specific privacy settings for each one.  But, whether it is Facebook [Messenger], Twitter, Snapchat, or some other platform, you can usually find the Privacy Settings where you setup your Profile.

From there, be sure to set everything to “Private” and/or “Friends/Contacts Only.”  Again, each one is slightly different, but the settings you are looking for here include things like, “Who Can See My Posts,” “Who Can Contact Me,” “Who Can Follow Me,” and so on.  Most of these platforms set Profiles to Public by default, so this is an important step.

Then, disable any settings that allow others to add you to their Friends or Mailing Lists without permission.  This way, you must approve everyone who wants to be on your Friends/Contacts list and follow your account; those who are not approved will not be able to see your account activity or, on some platforms, even that you have an account.

Do not provide your home telephone number, address, or any other private information that could compromise your safety.  In some cases, such as sites where you wish to enable two-party verification or provide payment, be sure to list an adult’s cellphone number and not the home number.

Finally, be picky as to the pictures you share, including the one you use for your profile.  Consider using the same picture on every profile – including social media, gaming apps, and communications platforms.

Gaming Platforms

The most popular gaming platforms, including Steam and Origin, have relatively similar settings for Privacy.  One helpful tip is to set your account to “Invisible” – that way, no one knows when your account logs in or is online.

Another reason for maintaining a family account on gaming platforms is controlling payments and payment methods, as well as the information surrounding those payments and methods (invoices, associated e-mail, et. al.).

The Parents’ Guide to Technology explains how to setup Parental Controls on different computers, operating systems, and devices.

This guide helps you with specific browser settings you can use to increase privacy and security.

Google Privacy Center allows you to change settings for all of your Google-related accounts, apps, and devices (Android, YouTube, et. al.).  Some Google-owned sites also have their own Privacy settings to modify, though.  Check all sites you allow your children to view thoroughly.

USA Today provides a quick list of Amazon Privacy Settings to change.

Microsoft’s guide to Parental Controls for Xbox accounts.

Tech Junkie explains how to find out if someone added you on Snapchat and has a lot of useful tips for safety, privacy, and security.

TekRevue shows you how to see recently added friends on Facebook.

iMore goes into detail on how to keep your information private on social media.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (US), or COPPA, limits certain entities from collecting information on children under 13.

PC Magazine‘s guide to Changing Settings on Your Wifi Router.

Conclusion

Remember that online predators usually know more about online security than their victims.  Delving into your computer’s security can be daunting and confusing, but the time you spend on it could literally save your child’s life.

Also remember that you are not only protecting yourself and your children from strangers in chatrooms and video game bullies, you are securing medical information, contacts, credit cards and bank accounts, and much more.  An offhand comment on social media or being a member of an online group dedicated to your highschool marching band can be all a dedicated hacker needs to gain access to your network.