5 tips to keep your children safe online

Although it might not make the news very often, children can be exposed to a whole host of threats online. Many parents recognise that in this day and age, their children must be allowed access to computers and to the Internet, but are quite concerned about the dangers that exist. Suggested in this post are some measures parents can implement to keep their children safe online.

The safety and protection of children on the Internet is a major concern of most parents, especially those with school-age children. A primary issue is the availability and easy access to pornography and other offensive material, but a number of other dangers do exist:

  • spam, viruses, and other malicious threats
  • online scams and phishing
  • cyberstalking
  • using the online space to initiate crimes in the real world, such as theft and kidnapping.

A few years ago, persons could only access the Internet via PC and laptops. However, now, mobile devices, especially smartphones and tablets, are overtaking computers as the most popular means to get online. Due to their relatively low cost, access to those devices is widespread resulting in more opportunities to be exposed to Internet dangers. Outlined below are some key steps parents and guardians can implement to protect children online.

1. Sensitise your children. It is never too early to speak with your children about the dangers that exist on the Internet. The language might be simpler for younger children, but the message could be the same. It is also important to establish some ground rules for conduct online, for example, with regard to the disclosure of personal/family information.

2. Establish boundaries for Internet use. Parents/guardians are strongly advised to establish boundaries for Internet use by their children, and to think about their own expectations and reasons for allowing them online access. As a guide, the discussion can cover a broad range of matters, including:

  • the purpose(s) for which the child is being allowed to use the Internet
  • the sites and material that can be accessed
  • acceptable behaviour and conduct online
  • the times, frequency and durations that Internet access is allowed
  • matters related to ownership and control of the computing device
  • any expectations of privacy that the child could have.

3. Block access to offensive sites and materials. Most web browsers have some parental control features, these should be activated. However, dedicated software is also available (both for free and for purchase) that provide a more comprehensive suite of measures that can be implemented.

On shared computers within the home, it might be appropriate to establish separate accounts for each family member (or for parents and children), to allow different security measures and controls to be introduced for each member of the household.

4. Supervise computer use. This tip is particular useful for younger children, whose online activities parents should be prepared to directly oversee. As a starting point, computers could be placed in a common or open area where it is easy to glance at the screen.

For older children, it can be misleading to assign the same degree of privacy to a personal computer that one would give for a diary, for example. For those who might have their own computers and are able to connect to the Internet at will, parents should still ensure that they can supervise them and their Internet use.

Further, it goes without saying that parents should be familiar with the equipment that they wish to oversee. Especially for younger children, it is important they they have access to all areas of the device at any time; maintain administrative control; know all passwords; and be prepared to do spot checks as and when necessary.

5. Limit online chat and messaging. Chat rooms and online messaging forums are considered high-risk areas for children. They are usually set up around a specific interest or subject matter, which usually anyone can join. There is a certain anonymity that participants enjoy, but there can be a false sense of security that “friends” made in those environments are all good people. It is important to note that predators are known to frequent such forums, so extra attention might be necessary, such as regularly checking your child’s online friends list, if he/she is allowed to access chat rooms and online messaging environments.

With some modifications, the above tips can be applied to smartphones and other computing equipment. However, it is critical that parents establish and enforce whatever ground rules they have set out for use of those devices.

Finally, while adults who are aware might be more vigilant, children can unwittingly expose themselves and their families to a broad range of risks on the Internet. For older children, issues related to balancing any independence that they might be afforded, against a parent’s responsibility to protect them from online threats, may need to be considered. Nevertheless. parents and guardians should attempt to proactively manage the online situations to which their children, regardless of age, are exposed.