What does internet safety mean?
As parents, we clearly have a responsibility to keep our kids safe. We put child locks on the medicine cabinet, baby gates on the stairs and child seats in the car. When kids of any age use any internet-enabled device, they’re stepping into a world that has just as many potential dangers – they’re just not as easy to see.
Just like with any part of life, there are aspects of the internet that can be dangerous, exploitative and criminal. It’s scary to think about, but there’s plenty you can do to make sure your kids get the best from their time online without being targeted by scammers or predators or setting themselves up for problems in the future.
How to teach kids to stay safe online
Whether it’s for homework, socialising, gaming or watching tv, children are spending increasing amounts of time online. Looking out for them while they use the internet involves taking practical steps to secure the devices they use, considering your own internet use and finding age-appropriate ways to talk to your kids about the issues.
When and how to have ‘the talk’
Think of internet safety like road safety – talking to a toddler about staying safe is different to talking to a teen. Start as young as possible and have open and honest conversations regularly as your child grows up. There are lots of national charities and organisations dedicated to child safety that offer guidelines and checklists to help you. Some even have helplines you can call for expert advice. This is a whole new world of parenting that previous generations haven’t had to deal with, so don’t feel like you should know everything already or cope alone.
- When your kids start going online, make sure you’re there with them so you can help them navigate the sites and games they use.
- Talk them through any decisions they have to make and why, just like in the real world, you have to be careful sometimes.
- Encourage them to ask you if they ever see anything that they’re not sure or uncomfortable about.
- Use examples from home or school life to help them understand. For example, what would you do if Sam from your class asked you to do something you know is wrong? What would you do if an older person we don’t know said they wanted to be your friend?
- Look together at the apps and sites they want to use and involve your kids in deciding what is and isn’t appropriate for their age so they feel empowered.
- As your kids gain independence, they’ll inevitably want to do more online without you directly involved.
- To avoid your kids hiding their online activity from you, set fair boundaries from the start and try to focus on the positive aspects of life online – like connecting with friends, learning and having fun.
- Create and agree a set of ground rules together for the whole family (see more below) as soon as you think they’re old enough. This should then be a great foundation for them staying safe online.
- Using strong passwords, maximizing privacy settings and not posting anything you wouldn’t want your Grandma to see should become second nature – just like safety measures in real life, like not talking to strangers in the park or keeping your valuables out of sight.
- Keep up to date with the latest apps and social media sites so you can be specific about what they need to do to continue to stay safe online.
- Explain that the reason you need to keep talking about internet safety is because of other people’s potential behaviour, not because you don’t trust your children.
The basics of internet security and privacy
- Once you share something on the internet – no matter what device or app you’re using – it is no longer private and it is to a certain extent out of your control. It can be shared in ways you don’t intend and there is no way to know exactly who will end up seeing it. It also stays online indefinitely, so it’s important to think about how info you post now could affect you in the future.
- Just because you are who you say you are online, it doesn’t mean everyone else is. It’s very easy to set up profiles using false names and profile pics, so always be extra cautious about who you make contact with online.
- Apps and sites all have different terms and conditions that mean they can use what you post and information about you in different ways. Check, check and check again to make sure you understand what you’re signing up for.
- Passwords and privacy settings exist to protect against possible identity theft. That’s someone else using your information for their own gain. Think of protecting your online security like making sure your car and home are always locked to guard against theft of your belongings in real life.
Agree ground rules for everyone
Involve the whole family in deciding what’s acceptable online. You could even print it out and stick it up somewhere as a reminder. There are templates available online for family internet agreements. Here are some suggestions to use for starters.
- Don’t click on links or downloads you’re not sure about
- Only use legal and secure sites to download games and music
- Don’t open an email or message, or accept a friend request, if you don’t know who it’s from
- Don’t give out your personal details including name, address, age, phone number, school, financial details, passwords etc. to anyone online
- Don’t say or do anything online that you wouldn’t do face-to-face
- Set complex passwords and change them often
- Sign out after using public computers
- Use a screen name instead of your real name
- Check what you’re signing up to every time you add a new app or join a new site
- Don’t enter any competitions, giveaways or reply to prizewinning emails unless you’ve checked they’re legitimate
- Don’t buy any in-app purchases without permission
- Check privacy settings, including location settings, are at the most private level
- Keep apps, games and settings updated so you’re always getting the most advanced protection
- Never reply to comments, messages, posts or emails that are frightening, bullying or threatening – delete them and report them
- Don’t arrange to meet people you don’t know in real life
- Don’t share photos without the consent of the people in them
- Don’t share personal photos that could be damaging to you if the wrong people got hold of them
- Don’t share photos that reveal personal information e.g. street name, location, school or activity club locations (including school or sports uniforms)
- Don’t post anything online you wouldn’t be happy for your Grandma to see or know about
- Tell someone if anything happens online you’re worried, confused or scared about
- Stop and think of the consequences, both now and in the future, before you click send. If in doubt, don’t post!
Reducing online risks across all platforms
Tech use is increasing across the board. From social media and gaming to smart watches and virtual assistants, we’re all getting used to our online and offline lives merging more and more. Lead by example and ensure that your own internet use is as secure and private as possible before teaching your kids how to protect themselves. Most apps and platforms will automatically set your profile to public – meaning anyone can see what you post – unless you change it, because that’s the way they make the most money out of you.
Privacy settings for popular platforms
To open up a conversation about privacy settings with your older kids, you could ask them to show you that they’ve got their settings sorted. If they are all set for maximum privacy, great, they’ve obviously been paying attention. If not, you can fix it together. This is a super quick guide. More detailed advice on popular apps, sites and games is available from the UK child protection charity, NSPCC or you can search the platform name plus privacy settings for each full guidance pages.
Even though snaps automatically disappear, other people can take screenshots of them, so you need to be as careful on Snapchat as any other platform.
- To find privacy settings, click the gear icon in right-hand corner of the profile screen
- Change the settings in the Who Can… section
- Contact Me: My Friends
- View My Story: My Friends
- See My Location: Only Me
- See Me in Quick Add: Turn this off
- If you’re in a group chat, remember anyone in the group can see your messages and talk to you
- If anyone adds you that you don’t know, block them
Facebook and Messenger
You can adjust a ton of privacy settings on Facebook under Privacy in General Account Settings. Check these main ones for starters.
- Who can see my stuff: Set to Friends. You can also go back and change the audience for past posts
- Who can contact me: You can either set Everyone or Friends of Friends. Always be wary about friend requests even if they are friends of friends.
- Who can look me up: Set to Friends and choose No for search engines linking to your profile
- If you use Facebook Live, only live stream to friends and don’t share your location
New accounts on Instagram are automatically set as public meaning everyone can see everything you post. To make the account private:
- Go to the user page and click gear icon at the top
- Scroll to Private Account and turn this on
- You can also block anyone you don’t want to see your account
When you open a WhatsApp account, it’ll automatically let people seen when you were last active and what’s on your profile. To change this:
- Click on the three dots in top right corner, select Settings, Account and Privacy
- Last seen: change to My contacts or Nobody
- Profile photo, About and Status: change to My contacts
- Live location: None
- You can also block any contacts here
Tweets are automatically set up to be public. Anyone can reply to, retweet or favorite them. To change this, you can protect your tweets, so that people can’t retweet you and only people you approve can follow you and see your tweets.
- Under Your account, choose Privacy and safety
- Click Protect your Tweets
- Deselect Tweet with a location
- Check Do not allow anyone to tag you in photos
- Remember not to put your location or any other personal info in your profile
When you set up a blog and profile on Tumblr, it’s automatically public. So anyone can find and comment on it. Keeping your account private depends on the device you’re using. The Tumblr Help Center has clear instructions on privacy options.
Kik is an instant messaging app, like Snapchat or WhatsApp, popular with teens and young people. There have been issues with child exploitation on the platform, so it’s important to do your research and talk to your child openly if they’re going to use it. Kik have produced FAQs and a parents guide themselves and the National Crime Agency backed Parent Info site has a more detailed guide to Kik.
This hugely popular social app featuring short videos sets everything to public unless you tell it otherwise. To control who can view, search for and comment on your videos:
- Go to your profile, tap the 3 dots in the top right and choose Privacy and Settings
- Allow others to find me: Turn off so people you don’t know can’t see your profile
- Private account: Choose this so only people you approve can follow you and see your videos
- Who can send me comments: Set to friends only
Public is the default setting for new accounts on this forum-based social news site. The content that’s accessible covers every conceivable topic and it’s all posted anonymously with light touch moderation, so it’s not really designed to be explored safely by children. There’s no way to block specific users, but to set up parental controls go to settings, general, parental controls where you can choose key features to block.
The serious side of online gaming
Whether it’s on a smartphone, computer, tablet or console, playing video games while connected to the internet is now the norm. This means a lot of the time children can play against and chat with people all over the world. While it’s undoubtedly fun and filled with opportunities to develop useful skills, it can also open players up to worrying content, language and behaviour. In-game purchases can also tempt or trick players into racking up large bills by paying to unlock new parts of the game. This is often the main way that free to download apps and games make money.
All of the advice in the basics of internet safety and ground rules sections above apply just as much to online gaming as they do to apps and social media. Kids often play while plugged in with headphones, so it’s even more important to make it an everyday part of family life to talk about what goes on in that online world. Make sure children especially understand the dangers of using the messaging or chat functions of games to speak with strangers.
Maximise in-built settings for safety
Before you even buy a console, do your research to find out what controls you can set to help keep your kids safe online. Get up to speed with what games are age-appropriate and use a step-by-step guide, like these from not-for-profit organisation internetmatters.org, to set the parental controls on the console to a level that suits your family.
Privacy settings for popular games
Chances are high that your kids are going to know a lot more about the games they’re playing than you do. So, ask them to show you how they’ve maximised their privacy settings. For the UK, the Video Standards Council Rating Board – the people who decide the PEGI age rating system – have loads of detailed parent guides at askaboutgames.com, and in the US take a look at the parents’ ultimate guides from commonsensemedia.org. Here’s a brief overview to get you started.
There’s no central way to adjust parental or privacy settings in Minecraft, but there are steps you can take to minimise the likelihood of your kids experiencing unsuitable elements of the game.
- Avoid viruses and malware by only downloading Minecraft and mods from the official website
- Turn off chat: Click options, choose multiplayer settings, click on chat, choose shown, hidden or commands only
- Use a child-friendly server: A server is a single world or place in the game. Lots of child-friendly servers have been set up to help families and children play safely with strict language and behaviour moderation. Find a safe, family friendly server by using your usual search engine
This massive multiplayer online game has become even more popular than Minecraft. From the central dashboard under Security you can add a parental pin and turn on account restrictions and under Privacy you can limit or turn off chat.
Interaction with other players online can be a big part of this hugely popular survival fighting and strategy game. To avoid your children interacting with people they don’t know, they can set up a ‘party’, invite only their friends and make it private, so they’re muting other unknown players. It might also be worth sometimes setting up your console so that sound comes out of the TV as well as headphones so you can be aware of the kind of interactions your child is part of.
If something doesn’t seem right
Even if you’ve checked all the settings, you’re having all the right conversations and you’re being as vigilant as possible with your children’s internet use, problems can still crop up. Because of the open and anonymous nature of the internet, it’s inevitable that it’s hard to control. If anything happens that makes you or your child feel scared, uncomfortable or manipulated, or if you just suspect something, report it.
All of the main platforms and games have a process for flagging, blocking and reporting inappropriate, dangerous or scamming behaviour. And if the problems still aren’t dealt with, contact the NSPCC in the UK or the American SPCC in the US, both of which have detailed advice about keeping children safe online and a phone line you can call to get specific help.
Spotting and handling cyberbullying
One of the main worries about being online that is flagged up most frequently by children themselves is bullying. Reports suggest that over 85% of young people have witnessed cyberbullying in action and around 25% of children have been personally affected by it. Cyberbullying means any form of bullying using electronic means including messaging, social media and gaming on computers, phones, tablets or any other device. It’s different to face-to-face bullying because of how easy it is to do (bullies can hide behind the screen), how many people it can reach, how quickly it can spread and the fact it can happen anywhere at any time.
What are the signs of cyberbullying?
The signs to look out for are similar to those you’d expect for face-to-face bullying, but with added anxiety around use of devices. You know what’s normal for your child, so keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary.
- More upset, withdrawn or angry than usual
- Changes in sleep, mood, behaviour or appetite
- Resistance to going to school or usual social activities
- Avoiding discussions about their activities online
- Nervous when using devices or obsessive about checking all the time
- Stops using devices suddenly or unexpectedly
- Unexplained physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches
What to do about cyberbullying
First, take any suspected or proven cyberbullying seriously. Offer comfort and support and let them know that it isn’t their fault and they are not alone. Praise them for doing the right thing by talking to you about it. Give them reassurance that you’ll figure out what to do together and talk through your plan before taking action. Here are some practical tips to try:
- Save or screenshot messages as evidence
- Stop replying to abusive messages or leave groups
- Block and report cyberbullies to the platform
- If it involves your child’s friends, talk to their school
- Encourage spending more time with people they know they can trust, on and offline
- If the bullying is extreme or you feel your child is in danger, talk to the police
- Revisit or establish your family’s internet ground rules
- Keep talking together and consider counselling to help them move forward
Steps to prevent cyberbullying
There’s plenty you can do up front to help your child avoid being bullied or getting caught up in carrying out the bullying.
- Find a healthy balance of online and offline activities
- Help your child understand that online activities have consequences just like in real life
- Make sure privacy settings and parental controls on all sites, apps and devices are set to maximum
- Discuss how to be a good friend online – thinking before you share, not posting hurtful or embarrassing things
- Discuss what things might be good and bad to share openly online and what’s best kept to just family and close friends
- Don’t comment on nasty posts as this will only boost their circulation
- Come up with a strategy with your child on how to recognise cyberbullying and how to tell an adult if they’re worried
- Model good online behaviour to help your kids focus on the positives of being online
Check your tech is doing the hard work for you
There’s so much to consider when it comes to internet security and privacy, that it can quickly become overwhelming. But most tech these days – whether it’s hardware or software – has settings that can help you take back some control. As with all advice for looking after your family’s safety online, it’s a good idea to discuss your approach and agree the plan of action together, so that no-one feels like they’re being snooped on. It’s also important to remember that no amount of tech management is enough to replace good old-fashioned regular conversations with your kids to keep on top of any potential online issues.
Start at the source – setting up your router
Did you know you can use your router to monitor and manage internet use in your home? With 24-hour access, there’s always the temptation for your kids (and you!) to stay online way past bedtime. But with just a bit of tech know-how you can limit internet access on a set schedule – blocking your children’s devices from 10pm onwards, for example. You can also use your router’s logs to check what sites are being visited on your home network. Often, the logs record this information in the form of an IP address and sites visited using that IP address, so you’ll need to make a note of the IP addresses of all the different devices in your house. This guide from makeuseof.com takes you through the process step by step.
Use built-in parental controls
Every device, operating system, search engine and browser has either built-in dedicated parental controls or account settings you can change to help manage your child’s online activity. The controls on the device itself usually enable you to decide what features and functions your child can use. You may also be able to restrict activities like downloading or purchasing. For content controls you’ll usually need to delve into the settings of browsers, apps and sites. This comprehensive parental controls guide gives instructions for most devices, operating systems and ISPs (UK) and this is a similar one for the US. Meantime, here’s a brief checklist to get you started.
- Set up password/passcode protected accounts for each individual and use child-specific settings for your children’s accounts
- Turn off location services
- Don’t allow apps to share data
- Check cookie permissions to see if you can set them to allow the useful ones and block the bad
- Use your browser’s settings to block specific websites or keep an eye on what sites they’re visiting. Check what extra plug-ins or extensions are available to increase controls.
- Install adblockers or anti-tracking extensions to prevent inappropriate or data mining ads being shown while your kids are browsing online
Consider extra custom software
Once you’ve started investigating the extent of free built-in controls, you may find you want the wider range of controls offered by paid-for parental control software. Popular choices such as Kidslox and Netsanity can help you block inappropriate content, set daily internet limits or monitor usage more closely. You can check out what controls they offer and try them out on a free trial to see what suits your family best.
Keep talking, keep learning
There’s no avoiding it, online technology is advancing at lightning speed. As soon as you’re up to date with the latest apps, ten more new ones come along to take their place. Because kids spend so much time online, they’re likely to be one step ahead, with us parents trying desperately to keep up! Focusing on the positive role tech and the internet can play in our children’s lives and continuing to have open and honest conversations is the way forward.