To be blunt (no insult intended), most parents are not very computer literate and as a result are also oblivious the dangers of letting their kids loose on the Internet. This is not specifically because you are parents but simply a statistic based on research that shows that 69% of the population are not very computer literate and 26% cannot use a computer at all. In most cases, your kids are probably more computer literate than you are.
But while your kids might be better with technology, they have ZERO knowledge or experience of staying safe online, and will happily look at much of the inappropriate stuff you would rather they didn’t and of course the more you tell them not to, the more they want to.
Are you aware of the most common dangers that the Internet and social media (Facebook, twitter etc) present? children are regularly bullied online, your little darling could even be the one doing the bullying and this cyber-bullying has led to many children committing suicide. They can be easily manipulated into performing any number of dangerous or perverted acts, or groomed into meeting a sexual predator.
Using the internet without protection can also cause you a lot of damage, and if you are allowing your child to use your computer or tablet, then you could end up being the target of cyber-crime. Everything from malware and ransomware attacks, trojans and bots using your computer to attack other people to identity theft, and emptying your bank account.
Just as you do in the real world, you need to offer guidance, set boundaries, and, depending on your child’s age and maturity level, carry out some safeguards.
You also need to be aware of where the threats are coming from, so it is your responsibility as a parent to educate yourself about online security and take action not just for your kids, but for yourself and other people’s children too, who can be indirectly affected by your lack of knowledge or action.
I do of course lock down my home internet connection and my kid’s phones and tablets and PC’s, but the problem is that the majority of their friends parents have not done this. This then means that all the content I have blocked can easily be viewed on their friend’s phones, computers and consoles. This includes looking at porn and whatever else unencumbered, thus bypassing my efforts. So these are practices you not only need to put into place yourself but ideally your friends as well and encourage your school to promote them, post them on social media for other parents to see as well.
If you need help in getting your home network and devices secure, then I can provide this as a service, which in most cases I can do remotely, but can also offer on site support if you are based in Thanet.
Things you can do right now to protect your kids
1. Install Internet security and parental controls on all your computers and mobile devices
Children are just as vulnerable as the rest of us, if not more so, to clicking on bad links and downloading malicious software. Every device that is connected to the internet needs to be protected from malware. You also need the ability to block them from viewing inappropriate websites.
Some anti-virus software has parental controls built in, but generally, it is not very good and you are better off using separate products.
Internet Security / Anti-Virus
Windows computers do have Windows Defender built in, which is better than nothing and will block most malware, but lacks a lot of other cyber security features.
Windows defender may well be sufficient for the security savvy user who never clicks on dodgy links, always checks URL’s and SSL certificates, never visits porn sites or downloads pirate software or movies etc. But for anyone else (including your kids), you need something better with more protection and more features.
There are some of the most popular free products available from trustworthy brands. Bear in mind that the FREE versions are limited in functionality and features, and may not be much better than Windows Defender, so for the best protection, you do need to use a premium product.
For your mobile devices, just search for the names in the Apple or Android store. When it comes to the mobile versions, there is not a huge difference.
If you want maximum protection for you and your family, then there are so many choices out there from excellent to terrible. I would personally avoid the likes of McAfee or Norton/Symantec as these are well known for causing system problems and being notoriously hard to remove.
I personally use and recommend the premium edition of BitDefender Internet Security, which is a full internet security suite and has consistently been the #1 in the industry and is what I use on all my devices, previous to that I used Kaspersky, which is also a good product.
If you have multiple devices in your household, then the BitDefender family pack is a great deal as it allows you to install on unlimited devices, there is also a mobile version. The other very handy thing about BitDefender is that you can monitor and manage all your devices from their website portal.
I suggest avoiding random brands you have never heard of or which you get spam emails about, as these are quite likely malware themselves or next to useless products.
According to the Pew Research Institute, 50 percent of parents have used parental control tools to block, monitor, or filter their child’s online activities.
BEWARE: Most online reviews of this type of software are written by people who have not actually used the software and probably do not even have kids. The reviews are often sponsored or written entirely to gain clicks on affiliate links.
If you have an Apple device, then it has a screentime app built right in, you can find more info on that HERE.
There is also a popular 3rd party ScreenTime app available for Apple, Android and Amazon devices. The app is free for one child and includes the ability to monitor the device remotely and to see your child’s web and search history. A $4-per-month premium version adds daily time limits, the ability to block apps, and block the use of the device during school hours or after bedtime. (nb: I have not actually used this one myself yet)
Some of these apps (such as mmguardian) will let you track your child’s location, monitor their text messages, and generally spy on their activities. Which one you use depends on your requirements.
Of the above-mentioned apps I have used MMGardian and Qustodio. I have explicitly not mentioned any apps I have tested and which I found inadequate and not worth recommending. I have left Qustodio on the list purely as a warning not to use it.
Qustodio is one of the most well known and popular parental control apps, it is also one of the most insecure and useless apps I have tried. I do not recommend it. You can read my full review here.
I currently use MMGuardian and life360 on my kids phones, and they fully understand why, and they do not moan too much. The only time they moan is when I lock their phones at bed time or when they have been naughty.
Of all the apps I have tried thus far, mmguardian was the best of the bunch, although it is only available for Android. The GPS tracking however was not 100% reliable, so I had to use a separate solution for that. I am currently using Life360 for the gps tracking.
Life360 is not just good for your kids, it is also handy for friends and family too. It allows you to create groups with which you can share your location, your kids can do the same with their own friends too. It also allows group chats, thus negating the need to allow social media apps.
Google family link is a relatively new edition, at least it was not available when I originally wrote this article. I have attempted to test it out, but sadly it does not work with Google Gsuite accounts, only free Gmail accounts. It also doesn’t seem to play well with older phones. But I do plan to install it on my spare phone to try it out.
In the mean time, here is a review by zdnet.
When dealing with older children, explain to them why you are using these parental control apps, that you are only protecting them from all the issues with bullying, abuse and threats social media presents and spending all their time on social media turns them into mindless vegetables unable to speak proper english.
Explain the apps to your kids
Remember that you would not be happy with this level of control, especially if it was forced on you with no explanations.
The last thing you want to do is lose your child’s trust and have them go out of their way to bypass your parental controls, which will no doubt figure out how to do given enough time, or to get themselves a burner phone which you cannot tracks.
Explain that knowing their location is important in case something happens to them or they get stranded so you can find them. It is also useful to point out that they can see your location too (using life360) and can use it with their friends so that it seems less of a stalking app to them.
YouTube is the new children’s TV. It is one of the most popular sites out there, but a massive number of videos are not suitable for young children. One minute they will be watching someone playing Minecraft, the next they will be bombarded with swearing and making sexual references, even from children’s characters like Elmo.
My best advice is “Do not give your kids unrestricted access to YouTube”. Ideally, you want to limit youtube to use on a TV or PC where you can monitor what they are watching, if this is not possible then I suggest you block YouTube altogether. This can be done in your parental control software.
The youtube site does have a “restricted mode” safety feature, and if you are going to let your kids loose on YouTube then you should take advantage of this, although be warned that there is absolutely no way to block the majority of explicit content because it has not been flagged as explicit by the maker, so is thus regarded as safe by YouTube. There is also nothing to stop a savvy child from turning this setting off again.
On the desktop site, if you scroll down to the bottom of the screen, there’s a “Restricted Mode” setting that hides videos that have been flagged as containing inappropriate content.
In the mobile apps, click on the three dots at the top right and click on Settings > General and scroll down until you see the “Restricted Mode” option.
If your children have phones or tablets, then you can remove the Youtube app and install Youtube Kids instead, which is a kid-friendly version with filtered content. Don’t forget that you will also need to install some parental controls to stop then undoing your changes.
If you are thinking of buying a tablet, then I recommend the Amazon Fire tablet for kids, which is completely locked down by default and only allows child-friendly apps and content, had child-friendly videos, and also has a 2 year guarantee, during which time they will replace the tablet for FREE if your kids break it for any reason.
3. Help your kids set the privacy controls on their social media accounts
Most social media sites have an age limit of 13, but kids sign up regardless and lie about their age, and frankly, if they have the ability to do this behind your back anyway, then you are better off at least letting them do it so you can monitor their activity.
If your children share messages, pictures or videos on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, they might not be aware of who can see their posts, in fact, many adults do not realise that everything they post/share is public by default.
Most apps do have privacy settings, however, letting your children control who they let into their lives is not really the responsible or safe thing to do, so you should take a hands on approach to this too.
Here are the links to information about the privacy settings on the most popular apps:
4. Set up separate accounts for your kids on your computers
If you share a device with your children, then you need to set up a separate account/user for them. Each account would have its own home screen and, depending on the device and platform, a different choice of features, apps, and permissions.
Not only does this help you protect your own data — or video recommendations — but you can also set up customized security and privacy settings for each child.
On Windows computers, you can set up a new user account for your children. Go to Settings > Accounts > Add a family member > Add a child.
You can blog specific apps, games, or websites, or set screen time limits. Visit https://account.microsoft.com/family for more information. Although I would not rely on this alone, as Microsoft family safety has were notoriously unreliable and randomly breaks.
On Apple computers, you can set up Parental Controls for some user accounts, where you can, for example, restrict access to adult websites. Learn more here: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201813
5. Set up separate accounts for your kids on your mobile devices
Tablets and smartphones also allow multiple user accounts on the same device.
On Android tablets, you can create a restricted account for your child, with limits on which apps they can use.
On Android phones, you can create a new user account for your child, but the only account restriction now available is to turn off the ability to make phone calls and send text messages. However, you can restrict their Google Play account. Go to Settings > Parental controls and turn them on. You will able to set specific content restrictions on apps and games, movies, TV, books, and music.
On the Apple side, iPhones and iPads have controls for apps and features, content, and private settings. Launch the Settings app and go to General > Restrictions and tap on “Enable Restrictions.”
6. Secure your gaming systems
Don’t forget that your gaming console is also an Internet device these days. Children can download games and make in-game purchases, and even surf the Web.
Most devices have parental control features that allow you to restrict the kind of content your children can get, limit their purchases, and restrict or turn off their Web browsing. You should take some time to use your kids games consoles and find out what they can do setup the parental controls accordingly.
The best console for parental control is the Xbox, which because it runs on windows 10, has quite granular controls allow you to set age limits and actions which can be performed, down to allowing and blocking individual games.
More info here on Xbox parental controls
The PlayStation is not so good, you must setup a parent account and then create sub-accounts for your kids, which is an all or nothing solution, with no granular control. This is fine for the little ones, but for your older kids who want to play online with their friends and use game sharing mode, I find it far too restrictive. And the only workaround is for them to setup a full adult playstation account.
More info here on Playstation parental controls
7. Consider using kid-safe browsers and search engines
For added control, you can install a kid-safe web browser for your children to use.
NOTE: This is not an alternative to parental supervision. You need to keep an eye on what they are doing, who they may be talking to, what websites they are browsing.
Zoodles, for example, offers a child-safe environment, and there’s a free version for Windows PCs and Macs, and for Android and iOS tablets and smartphones. The premium version, which costs $8 a month, includes ad blocking, time limits, and other features.
Another alternative kid-safe browser is Maxthon.
There are also some built-in tools in the browsers you’re already using.
If you use the Chrome browser, you can set up a “supervised profile” that will block explicit search results, show you what websites your children visited, and even restrict what websites they can go to. The way the restrictions work is that you can either have a list of approved websites, where your children can only visit the sites on this list, or a list of restricted websites where they can visit any website except for the ones you’ve banned.
More information here: https://support.google.com/chrome/answer/3463947/?hl=en
Also check out these kid-safe search engines:
8. Lock in apps for youngest children
If you want to be able to hand your phone to your child to play with in the back seat of the car without worrying about them messing up your phone or surfing the web for creepy content, what you can do is open up an app for the child and then set it up so that they can’t exit the app.
On phones running Android 5 and higher, it’s called “screen pinning.” First, go to Settings > Security > Screen pinning and turn it on and also enable “Ask for PIN before unpinning.” Then load your app, hit the overview button — the little square on the bottom right — and swipe up until you see a pin icon come up in the lower right corner. Now your child will need your PIN in order to switch apps.
On iPhones and iPads, this is called “Guided Access.” First, go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access to set up Guided Access. Then when you’re in the app you want to lock in, triple-click the home button to bring up the Guided Access settings. You can turn off Guided Access either with a PIN or by setting it up to work with your Touch ID through Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access > Passcode Settings.
10. Make sure your kids are only using safe chat rooms
Some kid-friendly platforms offer chat rooms where kids can talk to other kids. Vet the sites first, to make sure that the chat rooms are monitored.
In addition, teach your kids not to share their real identities on such platforms, and use anonymous screen names, instead.
Teach, Educate and Talk with Your Children
11. Teach your children not to respond to messages from strangers
obviously I am talking about older children here. Small children really should not even have access to apps where they can received messages from strangers.
If they get a text message, instant message, email or social media message from someone they don’t know — they should just delete it.
Make sure they know not to open it, not to respond to it, and, of course, not to click on any links or attachments.
If those girls from Pretty Little Liars followed that advice, the show would have been over after one episode.
12. Educate your children about the risks of “sexting”
Last year, in a report to the U.S. Congress, the Justice Department revealed that the most significantly growing threat to children was something called “sextortion.”
It’s bad enough when minors send nude images of themselves to boyfriends or girlfriends, and those images then get distributed to others.
In addition to the psychological damage, children who both send and receive the “sexts” are breaking the law — and could result in prosecution and even registration as a sex offender.
And it gets worse.
According to the FBI, the “sextortionists” have gone pro, with individual criminals targeting hundreds of children each. They pretend to be the same age as their victims, trick or coerce them into producing child pornography for them — and even get them to recruit friends and siblings.
In a review of 43 such cases, the FBI found that two victims committed suicide, and ten others attempted to kill themselves. Victims also have their grades decline, drop out of school, get depressed, and engage in cutting or other types of self harm.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of sextortion were up 150 percent during the first several months of 2016 compared to the same time period in 2014.
In 4 percent of the sextortion reports, the children engaged in self-harm, threatened suicide or attempted suicide as a result of the victimization, the Center said.
13. Warn your kids about file sharing
Uploading illegal files is, of course, illegal.
And so is downloading, though fewer media companies seem to be prosecuting kids these days.
But downloading illegal files also carries other risks, such as viruses.
Fortunately, there are now many free and low-cost services out there where kids and teens can get videos and music.
14. Warn your kids about online polls and surveys
There are lot of fun, harmless polls out there, like the one that tells you what kind of poodle you are.
Others ask for too much personal information, and could land your kids on spammers’ email lists, or open them up to identity theft.
Many adults have a separate, throw-away email account for when they need to provide an email address in order to register for something. If your child have a legitimate reason to fill in questionnaires that require an email address, consider helping them set up a throw-away email account of their own.
15. Warn your kids about getting too close to strangers
When you’re meeting someone for the first time after, say, communicating with them via an online dating app, you know to set the meeting in a public location, such as a coffee house, and to let friends know where you are.
This is common sense.
But children and teenagers often lack that basic common sense — or might be tricked into keeping their online relationships secret.
Of course, predators can also communicate with potential targets via traditional mail, or meet them at bus stops. But the Internet allows them to scale up their activities dramatically.
Attackers can use online relationships to lure children to meet them in person. Or, more frequently, they will try to trick children into making unnecessary purchases, or sharing information, photos, or videos.
Know your children’s online friends. And, just as with regular friends, confirm their identities, and talk to those kids’ parents. If those “kids” are, in fact, kids.
16. Help your children deal with cyberbullying
Cyberbullying affects up to 15 percent of children, according to a report released last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
And the rates are even higher for children who are overweight, disabled, or LGBT, or members of a minority group.
Victims have physical problems such as sleeping, upset stomachs, and headaches and also suffer psychological effects, such as depression, anxiety and alcohol and drug use.
Let your kids know that they can turn to you for help, and find out what resources are available from your local schools.
You should save messages and other evidence of the cyberbullying and report the bully to the social media platform, telephone or Internet service provider, school, or local law enforcement authorities. In addition, you should block the bully from your child’s social media, telephone, or email accounts.
More information here:
17. Set a good example
How many baby pictures and vacation photos have you posted online? Before lecturing your kids about staying safe, make sure that you yourself are a good model. Learn about the privacy settings in the social media apps you use most, then check that you aren’t sharing private, personal moments with the whole Internet.
Also, don’t drive while texting or talking on the phone.
Wait until we all have those self-driving cars, and do your texting then.
18. Set rules about what your kids can share online
As an adult, you know to be careful about what information you post online. You know not to share your financial information or social security numbers with strangers.
Make sure your kids know the rules and understand the reasons behind them. Even seemingly innocuous information, like vacation pictures, can let criminals know when your house is empty.
Some information, like funny picture of your cat in the snow, can be shared with everyone. Some information, like vacation plans, can be shared with family and close friends. And some things should never be shared online at all.
In addition, the recommended age for children to have their own social media accounts is 13.
The Family Online Safety Institute has a sample family online safety contract here: https://www.fosi.org/good-digital-parenting/family-online-safety-contract/
19. Add your kids as “Friend”
If your children have their own accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat or other social media sites, follow or friend them.
Don’t let your kids tell you that other parents don’t do this. According to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of parents are friends with their teenage child on Facebook.
You’ll be able to see if they are posting inappropriate things online and can step in before problems escalate.
It’s not foolproof — there are ways that children can keep their communications hidden from you. And if you are too heavy-handed in your monitoring, it may cause your children to be more secretive.
20. Set limits on how much time your children can spend online
According to a recent national survey, tweens spend an average of six hours a day with their devices, and that’s not including the time spent on school or homework. And teens spend an amazing nine hours a day staring at their screens..
Sure, some of that is listening to Spotify while exercising. But the bulk of the time is spent watching videos, playing games, and using social media.
The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend that children under two should not have any screen time at all, and had very conservative limits for screen time for older children. In late 2016, the organization re-evaluated current research and loosed its recommendations.
Some screen time, such as video chats with relatives, or educational applications, can be very valuable, even for the youngest children.
Now, the organization suggests that families create a Family Media Plan.
However, the organization recommends that parents limit the use of screens during meals, and for an hour before bedtime. Also, phones and tables shouldn’t be charged overnight in the child’s bedroom, to limit the temptation to check the devices at all hours of the night.
21. Additional resources
Internet Matters: Resources for parents looking to keep children safe online, with age-specific how-to guides, free apps, and device safety checklists. https://www.internetmatters.org/
Family Online Safety Institute: Parenting guides and news and reports about online safety issues. https://www.fosi.org/
Safe, Smart & Social: Social media training guides and safety tips for parents and educators. https://safesmartsocial.com/
Thanks go to John Mason for most of this content, who conveniently emailed me which reminded me I had this article in draft, so saved me a lot of typing.