If you were a child or teenager in the early days of the internet, then you don’t need us to tell you about the dangers children and teenagers face when they go online. While you probably worry most about predators, explicit content and even online bullying from your child’s peers, there are other concerns, too, like malware, scammers or even the prospect of your toddler racking up in-app purchases while you’ve got your back turned.
But just because the internet can be risky doesn’t mean you need to forbid your children to use it. Part of being a good parent is preparing your children to be safe and successful in a world that is full of hazards, and teaching them how to be safe online is part and parcel of that. No matter what age your children are, here’s what you can do to keep them safe online.
Supervise Young Children’s Internet Use
Children under the age of 10 should never be allowed to use the internet without direct adult supervision. Any time you hand your young child a smart phone, tablet or laptop, or let them sit down at the family desktop computer, you should be right there with them, guiding them in everything they do.
As your kids reach their preteen years, you don’t have to stand over their shoulder anymore, but you should still require that they use web-going devices in the family room or somewhere else where you can keep an eye on them. Don’t let your preteen kid browse the web in his or her bedroom with the door closed.
But don’t just tell your children what sites to go to and what to do on them. Talk to them about responsible, safe internet use. Tell them why you’re saying what you’re saying about what sites to use and how to use them. Start talking to your kids about internet safety, especially such topics as why they should protect certain information about themselves, such as their picture, last name, the name of their school, their address, their schedule for extracurricular activities or when they’ll be with a babysitter.
Talk to Your Kids About the Sites They Visit
You should definitely be checking your kids’ browser history after they go to bed, just to make sure they’re not visiting questionable sites. But you should also talk to your kids about the websites they visit and what they do on them, in the interest of keeping the lines of communication about your kids’ online activities open. Warn your kids that the people they meet online, whether in chat rooms or on social media, may not be what they seem. You want to be able to address potentially risky behaviors as soon as possible after they occur, so you don’t want your kids feeling like they have to hide their online activities.
By the same token, you want your kids to feel safe about bringing up anything that happens online that they’re uncomfortable or uncertain about. What happens when a predator approaches your kid online, or a scammer targets him or her? Maybe your kid gets taken in, and perhaps seriously harmed — or maybe he or she brings it up over dinner and you can take the appropriate steps long before things get out of hand.
Use Parental Controls
As a parent, you have plenty of resources at your disposal to limit how your kids use the internet and what they see online. One way to do this is to limit the amount of free, non-homework-related online time younger children have. Limit their web browsing, instant messaging and social media use to a short window when you can be present.
For an added layer of protection, use online parental controls on all your devices to keep kids from accessing explicit content. Most devices have some built-in parental controls, and you can buy antivirus programs that include parental controls, too. In addition to blocking sites with explicit content, you can choose to blacklist specific sites you don’t want your children to visit.
Guide Older Children in Responsible Internet Use
As your children reach their teen years, you’re going to have to face the music — they’ll want to use the internet to stay in touch with peers, explore the world and entertain themselves, just like adults do. If you’ve taught your children well, you won’t have too much to worry about regarding their safety as they begin to navigate the internet with less supervision. But you should still monitor teens’ online activity by checking their browser history and by discussing their internet use with them regularly.
While you may not want or be able to restrict older teens’ access to the internet as much as you could when they were young, you can and should ask for passwords to email and social media accounts, even if you don’t intend to use them. Talk to them about safe and responsible social media use, and especially about not making posts that could compromise their educational or career prospects down the road. Continue talking to your kids about the dangers of trusting people they meet online.
Kids of all ages want to use the internet, and in many cases, they’ll be better at it than you are. But they might not be better at protecting themselves from online dangers. Give your kids the tools they need to stay safe online, so their internet fun doesn’t turn sour.