Keeping our kids safe is one of the most important jobs we have as parents. Traditionally we though of safety in the physical sense. Living in a safe neighborhood, wearing a seatbelt, and similar ideas constituted safety. Today we must also consider how to protect our children in the digital world. In this guide I’ll go over some tips parents can use with their children to explain how to stay safe online. This won’t require expert knowledge or a bunch of expensive software. Just some good advice on how to keep everyone online and happy. This will be a relief those folks who may be in the odd position of having kids who know more than the parents about technology.
How To Stay Safe Online
Start With The Talk
Thankfully this isn’t that difficult talk. This talk is all about staying safe online. Parents should approach this conversation with the goal of educating their kids on the dangers of being online without creating a “boogeyman” out of tech. What I mean is that the risks of being online should be clearly explained without sugarcoating. Risks are real and should be taken seriously. However, we don’t want kids so scared of going online that they never hit the web.
Let your children know that they can bring problems and questions to you at any time. This can be tough as kids might fear consequences if they accidently land on the wrong site or click a bad link. While bad behavior deserves some action, it is also tough to penalize someone who just didn’t know better. Use each conversation as a learning opportunity. Explain why, for example, a link shouldn’t have been clicked.
Of course we all know that anything parents say is boring. We’re all smarter than our parents when we are kids, right? If your kid needs some outside guidance Google provides a free resource to teach kids how to act online and how to identify threats. Be Internet Awesome provides lessons on security, spotting fake people and news, and how to be a good online citizen. The fun and interactive learning will help reinforce the knowledge you’ve already shared with your child.
Keep Clear Line Of Sight On The Computer
I’ve yet to come across a compelling reason why young children need a computer or laptop in the bedroom. By keeping computer usage in common areas, such as the kitchen table, lets you keep an eye on what your kids are up to. Parents don’t need to constantly stare at the screen. Your child should have the opportunity to earn your trust. Passing by and casting a glance at the screen every now and again ensures your child knows you are attentive, but not micromanaging.
Using technology in the home has many benefits, but isn’t a pass for an “anything goes” mindset. Children should be afforded the privilege of internet access once it’s earned. As a condition to this privilege the computers staying in a common area is a fair requirement.
Know Attacker Tactics
To defeat an enemy we must first understand their motives and behaviors. While I don’t expect that many kids are countering cyber attacks, they can learn how and why attackers behave in certain manners.
Kids on social media are exposed to potential unsolicited advances from attackers. The attacker could be seeking information, such as a parent’s credit card number, or have much worse intentions in mind. Educating your kids on some of the common tactics can help them spot and avoid trouble.
Let’s say your child uses an online chat for school projects. Nothing wrong here as they may be chatting with friends or teachers. However, if a new student enters the room and wants to start a private chat, your child should be on alert. Similar requests to text, talk on the phone, or start a video chat should also be considered suspicious.
Attackers may also ask odd questions of children. “Where is the computer in your home” is a question designed to assess if the child is in an isolated or public area. See the prior rule on keeping computers in your line of sight. Other tactics might include overly flattering statements designed to gain a child’s trust.
This is where we must walk a thin line as parents. We don’t want children growing up thinking that anyone who says something nice is after them. On the same token we also don’t want our kids overly trusting of online strangers. Reminding children that people can lie about their true identity online can help focus their attention to online threats. If their friend at school says something nice they shouldn’t run away in fear.
Be Stingy With Personal Information
Would you share your Social Security Number (SSN) with me if I asked really, really nice? Probably not.
That’s simple because you don’t know me and have no idea why I would even need your SSN. That is the proper mindset to have with such sensitive details.
Unfortunately, lots of legitimate institutions ask for just this type of information. Schools, doctor’s offices, clubs, and many more will ask for your child’s information. When your child is old enough to land that first summer job they will likely need to provide their SSN once they are hired.
The problem with the above is that these organizations need the SSN for a legitimate purpose, but aren’t equipped to keep is secure. Think about your local pizza joint. If your kid works there during high school that would be great! Do you think, however, that old man Aldo (from where I worked as a kid) really keeps the employment records secure? I know my application and details were kept in a folder in a cabinet that had a broken lock.
As parents we must guard this information to the best of our ability. Ask if an SSN is really required. If so, what steps with the organization take to keep it safe? It doesn’t hurt to ask and is actually our duty. I’ve had some offices tell me I’m being difficult when I do this. My response is “I’m good with that”. I will be difficult because it’s my job to protect my children’s information while they are young. If I can’t be assured their SSN won’t be visible to others then I can’t hand it over in good faith.
Parenting note: be sure you and your spouse align on this topic. Nothing is more awkward than getting into a debate on personally identifiable information in front of a soccer coach.
Freeze Credit Reports
When talking about how to stay safe online the conversation inevitably covers credit reports and checking for unauthorized accounts.
What does a credit report have to do with kids? I’m glad you asked!
Identity theft can happen to anyone of any age. This includes your new bundle of joy who has no idea what a credit card is or why they need one. Basically, if you have a Social Security Number you can become a victim. Attackers like using kid’s SSN’s for credit cards because:
- A child has no prior credit history
- The theft won’t be noticed for many years
Parents can proactively take steps to freeze their child’s credit to prevent identity theft. I won’t lie and say that the process is easy. You must prove your identity, your child’s identity, proof of the relationship, and then send these documents to all the credit reporting agencies. Don’t be surprised if some fees are also required.
Yes, this process requires a bit more effort than others described in this article. However, the benefits far outweigh the hassle.
Create a Data Checklist
As a society we are sharing more data, and personal data, than ever before. Social media encourages us to share everything that happens in life. Just got your first driver’s license? Why not share that on Facebook!
You can see that this presents many issues. Kids should have clear guidance on what is and is not acceptable to share. A checklist can remove any guess work for your children. Items to include might be:
- Credit card details
- Driver’s license
- Date of birth
- Current residence and address
- Medical details
- Vacation plans
This will be tough for kids and even for some parents. We must remind our children and ourselves that once information is posted online it lives forever. To stay safe we have to think before we post. Encourage your children to ask themselves questions such as “how could a bad actor use this information maliciously?” and “can I share less and still get my point across?” before hitting the post button.
In closing out this note I realize I’ve likely missed a ton of other methods we can use to educate our children about how to stay safe online. As parents we are always on edge trying to protect our kids. In real life kids might incur some minor injury like a bruised knee, and the same is true in the digital world. What we want to avoid are the serious injuries like a broken arm or giving out a home address. Continuous education is one of the best solutions to keep your kids safe online.