The Internet may not be the wild west, but it’s still a dangerous place for children: Why parents must teach their kids online safety as early as possible.
Parents today are pressed for time and on the other hand online activities are the easy way to go. In the age of innumerable logins and accounts, it’s easy to procrastinate when it comes to setting our children up with SAFE internet access. Even if parents are not rushing to log children into their first journey in cyberspace, rest assured – the kids are impatiently awaiting their first device with web access – they expect it.
As a parent it’s easy to be amazed at how fast a child can operate a tablet or smartphone the first time you hand them one but the chances are high that they’ve already been exposed in your absence.
Rather than being reassured by their competent swiping and fast fingers, this is a moment for pause: Check what and how much your children know about the internet and take an inventory of safety precautions you will need to put in place to protect them from the dangers lurking out there. Neglecting to take precautions can put both your child and family at risk as viruses and malware, adult content not appropriate for children, and malicious hackers are always looking for the next easy mark and children are the most naïve of internet users. That being the case, there is really no time like the present when it comes to establishing safe internet protocols for children.
But what’s so dangerous about the internet?
As adults we are acutely aware and often even paranoid of internet threats. Millennials which were the first generation to become broadly versed with the internet and its applications grew up with spam, pop-up ads, and digital threats such as malicious software or data breach.
Many of them are now parents and they would do well to reacquaint themselves with the lessons they learned through their own challenges with the web. The millennial parents need to find ways to condense the lessons learnt from their first steps into the digital world into right tools and child friendly educational resources.
In two words, educate your children to benefit from your experience and stay safe online.
So, what are the main threats to be aware of in the digital world?
The short list of cyberthreats to you and your family
Viruses and Malicious Programs
One of the common threats are viruses. These are capable of permanently disabling not only the child’s computer or tablet, but also all the other devices on a shared home network.
Content that is NOT Age Appropriate
Parents may not always be present to close the “adult” video ‘in time’ for example or notice that a site the child has gone to contains frightening pictures, aggressive behaviors, abusive language and so on. Personalized content filters will protect your kid.
Con-artists, fraudsters, and hackers develop new schemes every day to exploit the naiveté of inexperienced internet users. The most common ones today are “phishing” attacks which invite users to share private information that can be used to launch subsequent attacks often involving fraud and identity theft. For kids, a phishing attack could like an invitation by email for fun games that will steal sensitive information instead. Messaging apps from fake accounts are also another channel of phishing.
Trolls and Detractors
Trolls and detractors represent other types of social threats. There are unhealthy people in the world with internet access. The anonymity of the internet provides a framework for these people to spout their toxic opinions, to which children are inherently the most sensitive to. Keeping kids safe from them can be particularly difficult but begins with a solid education in internet citizenry.
Risks to the Psyche
Just as trolls overtly try to put people down, still can have that same effect without even trying: Glossy social media profiles presenting picture-perfect lives can leave those viewing their profiles feeling jealous or inadequate. It’s important that naïve users recognize that what someone presents on their profiles and feed is generally an inaccurate representation of the life they actually live, and more often than not, it is an idealistic representation of what they desire and how they wish to be seen.
Cyber security for early age
What age then should we teach our children about cyber security?
Many parents haven’t completely decided on whether they find the internet a source of good or of ‘evil’, and their opinions can often be compartmentalized in the different facets of using the web. At the same time, the internet evolves rapidly making it difficult for anyone to keep up with changes in how we use it. As such, parents must do their best to take note of evolutions and how they can affect the lives of their children.
According to ESET research, almost all parents (97%) worry that there are too many internet gadgets in their children’s lives, and that children are getting acquainted with the possibilities of the web way too early. Furthermore, children learn how to use the new gadgets far quicker than adults can keep up with, which puts a concerned parent at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to regulating their usage and identifying threats.
Surprisingly though, many children receive a tablet as a gift before they even start school! Smartphones are not uncommon for 7-year-olds, and children are registered on social networks at an average age of 8.5 years.
Ironically, courses having to do with internet security typically only begin in high school. And even in computer training classes and programming courses, the curriculum usually neglects the elements pertaining to the “how” of working safely on the internet, or the principles of being civic-minded and responsible for one’s behavior on the web.
Internet literacy lessons for children and parents
As soon as you give your child a smartphone to watch a cartoon on YouTube, or play a mobile game, write a log in your personal diary/journal – that way, you will be reminded of the need to discuss the rules of safe internet usage with your child at a point in the near future if you haven’t already.
Age-appropriate internet education:
As soon as your child gets their first gadget with internet access, lessons on network security should become mandatory – at an age-appropriate level, of course. Internet citizenry programs exist and teach the responsible use of technology.
How to teach a child responsible online behavior?
● Do not leave a child alone with the internet when they make their first plunge. Participate with them and teach them not only how to use a tablet or smartphone or computer, but more importantly how to avoid downloading suspicious files, clicking superfluous links, and not be detracted by glossy banner ads. Create an internet mindset and routine rules of behavior when browsing that are closely followed and monitored by you, THE adult.
● If the child is very small, you might benefit from devising fairy tales about evil characters (e.g., internet boogeymen) and encourage your child to participate in the story so that you’re sure they get it. Try to come up with a happy ending so that the experience ends on a positive note wherein the ‘bad guy’ is foiled by sound internet practice.
● Role Play “dangerous” situations with action figures and act out scenarios of fraud and deceit. The bad guy might say: “Masha dolls are free online and deliverable to your home address – just enter your address here:”. Ask your child what their response will be – do they give up the home address, or do they decline, and why?
● Older children are capable of abstracting and discussing threats posed by the Internet in non-fairy-tale language. With them, it can be helpful to discuss and educate about real life examples of threats faced by you or people you and how problems were safely resolved.
● When discussing safety topics in general with your child (traffic rules, rules of behavior in a crowded place, rules of communication with strangers, etc.), supplement them with network security rules. Encourage them to make their own analogies to the various risk scenarios and how they might interact and handle them. In doing so, they’ll not just be practicing language skills, but also demonstrating what they know about internet safety best practices.
● Find age-appropriate free child friendly educational resources about network security on children’s YouTube. If the child attends paid programming classes, invite the teacher to talk about the topic of cybersecurity in the classroom if they haven’t already.
● Establish immutable laws. If necessary, write and hang them on the wall of their room. Some examples might include: Register on websites and social networks using pseudonyms and strong password
- NEVER provide private information (personal document numbers, financial information such as account numbers, names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.) without at least confirming legitimate use by a parent
- Disallow the posting of all photos without parental approval
- Disallow online purchases without parental approval AND hold them to account by checking your banking statements for extraneous purchases like a long list of charges or services from the Google Play Store or the App Store from Apple.
- Consider taking a password manager to get notified when there is a change in the accounts
It is not enough just to teach children about behaving responsibly when using the internet – parents must also behave responsibly themselves and model this behavior too. If you’re friends with your kid on Facebook engage in a responsible way and make sure YOUR posts are age-appropriate, and NOT abusive just for starts.
Finally, here are a few quick tips for parents wanting to make the internet a safer place for their kids.
- Install a children’s browser of set up a filter using a conventional browser
- Check the details of the security settings of social pages of your kids
- Install a comprehensive antivirus with adequate parental control functions working on all devices distributed across the home network
While these are great starting points, in the end, there is no substitute for constant watch and vigilance as the internet evolves rapidly as do the various schemes employed by those seeking to take advantage of the naïve – children.
Ultimately, involvement with the child and knowledge of what it is they’re doing online and participation when possible is the best way to halt them before they head down the wrong road for their own protection.
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