Technology is integral to a child’s life. They will see it everywhere from birth and will inevitably grow up using it. It can be extremely educational, help build skills, and be a creative outlet. It can also be dangerous — predators, hackers, identity theft, and other threats use technology to hurt others. We’ll teach you how to protect your children from the wide variety of threats out there, including the over-usage of technology itself. By knowing the risks and having the tools available, you can make technology work for you and your youngsters.
Kids and tech
- 88% of children use the TV
- 67% of children use a tablet
- 60% of children use a smartphone
- 44% of children use a laptop or gaming device
Technology is here to stay. Our children will grow with it and want to utilize it. While not all parents may agree with kids’ use of technology, cultivating skills and literacy with tech and the internet is increasingly important for school and work later in life. Here are some ideas to incorporate tech literacy at every age.
Ages 2 – 5
While technology typically isn’t at the center of every preschooler’s life, the reality of parenting is that kids do get more screen time than most of us would like. For young kids, it’s good to model behaviors that normalize doing non-tech things. Be intentional about putting your phone down for conversations and playtime, and resist the urge to take pictures to document each day of life. While there’s nothing wrong with photos, showing kids how life is when our phones are put away is important.
Ages 6 – 9
Smartphones, computers, and tablet games are likely already a part of your child’s life. Now is an important time to set screen time boundaries and encourage healthy “offline” activities. Exercise and good rest are key to growing bodies; blue light can interfere with sleeping patterns. Encourage kids to balance their tech time going outdoors, moving their bodies, and socializing in real life. Screen time modes can be used on Apple and Android, but having a sit-down conversation about these boundaries is also very important.
Ages 9 – 11
As children begin using the internet even more at school for research and reports, now is a great time to talk about information bias, journalism, and fake news. Some great resources for learning about bias on the internet include:
- BBC iReporter tool to understand why bias exists in the news today
- Fake or Real? headline game to learn how easy it is for fake information to seem real
- Harmony Square game to better understand how fake news spreads
Ages 12 and beyond
By this point, children are highly internet and technology literate. This is an important time to speak to them about being a good digital citizen, avoiding cyberbullying (we’ll talk more about this later), and thinking about their long-term online presence. Remind them that what you post on the internet follows you forever, so making good choices today can avoid embarrassing and harmful issues later in life.
At this age, many kids are also learning about potential future careers in the internet and technology industries. If your teen shows a propensity toward all things digital, exploring those career paths can help them feel more confident about the future. Here are some great resources to learn about digital careers:
- 10 Free Coding Programs for Kids
- Teaching Your Kids About Digital Marketing
- Get Kids to Create Media, Not Just Consume It
Risks of the internet
The internet is a way of life for most of us. That said, it’s important to be aware of the damaging risks of the internet and to have conversations about these risks with your kids.
Explicit content. The list includes content containing swearing, depictions of violence against animals, gambling, unmoderated chat rooms, sites that encourage unlawful, cruel, or harmful behavior (think racism, suicide, eating disorders, terrorism), pornography, and sexism.
Some platforms have age ratings you can check for their content. Youtube rates music videos in the Partner Rating. Like in a film, the major streaming services have ratings on their shows. Age ratings on apps can be helpful, but they don’t necessarily consider all the risks (such as chatting with strangers). Online games use a Pegi rating (PEGI 3 – PEGI 18) to indicate appropriate age ranges. All social media, by US law, is aged 13 and up.
Interacting with strangers. There’s a high possibility of children online speaking to strangers. Research shows that 40% of children aged 9 – 12 have talked to strangers online. Those numbers only get more alarming the more they’re broken down. Of those, 53% gave their phone number to the stranger, 30% texted strangers from their personal devices, and 15% attempted to meet the stranger. The best way to prevent this is through education.
Children don’t understand that these strangers could simply be lying. Teach them about the dangers so they know. It helps to ask many questions and get involved in their online games. By investing time to educate your kids, you can protect them better.
IRL threats. For kids who make connections online with strangers, there is also the threat that these relationships can enter their real life (IRL). Strangers can use information that kids give them to pursue inappropriate relationships, find their physical location, and even hack their devices or steal from them.
- Doxxing is all about revealing personal information online. According to Avast, “Doxxing is a form of online harassment that publicly exposes someone’s real name, address, job, or other identifying data. Doxxing happens without a victim’s consent, with the aim of humiliating or bullying a victim.” While small children are generally not the target of doxxing, older kids do run the risk, especially if they are in touch with inflammatory online communities. Once personal information is published, the thread of real-life harassment skyrockets.
- Identity theft is also a risk with online activity, albeit less risky for children who don’t have access to or own a credit or debit card. That said, certain identity thieves specifically target children, finding it easy to learn where they go to school and their birthdays.
- Stalking and harassment are both risks when you meet strangers online. Once a stranger learns how to contact you through your phone or location, this can lead to unwanted communication and stalking in real life.
The dark web. Another potential risk is the dark web, an entirely anonymous place on the internet, only accessible through a specific software called TOR. While the dark web isn’t illegal, its anonymity makes any illicit behavior hard to track and laws are challenging to enforce.
To protect from this, there are excellent privacy filters you can set up across all devices. A VPN, or a virtual private network, can provide a great additional security measure. One of the best ways to help is to continually build your child’s critical thinking. If they can figure out a dubious site or detail, it can really help them steer clear of these harmful sites. Parental control apps are the best way to manage your child’s online presence. They filter content, block specific apps and sites, set screen time limits, monitor social media, calls, texts, and more. Most of these require an annual subscription of anywhere from $10 – $100/year.
Hacks and data leaks. Hackers may try to gain access to accounts and embarrassing or harmful information about you, then extort you with that information. Children online are susceptible to this because they may not understand the importance of a strong internet password or two-step verification. They may not know how others can turn their private photos against them. As with the rest of these threats, education is critical. Communicate so your child knows what can go wrong.
Access to the internet isn’t limited to just phones, tablets, and computers. Remember the many devices that are in your home that can become a cybersecurity threat. Be sure these are password-protected and you know how the data collected is being used.
IoT (Internet of Things) are the everyday gadgets that connect to the internet outside our mobile devices — fitness Trackers, digital watches, and any “smart” technology. If it connects to the internet or can be controlled via Bluetooth or a phone app, it’s an IoT.
IoTs are a growing phenomenon, and how much data they collect from children is uncertain. It’s also possible for children to get around parental controls through these devices, allowing them to see explicit content or spend money. They’re vulnerable to hacking.
Like everything else, setting up parental controls and privacy is the first step towards keeping your IoT and children safe. Keep an eye on the data saved on your devices. Talk to your children about them so they understand.
Smart Security Cameras
Smart cameras are security cameras, and baby monitors you would use to see the activity inside your home. They connect to the internet, so you can watch via a live feed and even possibly record the event. If someone hacks their way into the camera, they can see what you’re seeing.
If the camera comes with a default password, change it. A good password connects three random words. Regularly update the camera. Updates usually contain many security enhancements to products. If you don’t need to view security footage, disable it remotely. Generally, teaching your children to cover their cameras, such as webcams, is good practice.
Cybersecurity 101 for kids
As discussed, hacking, identity theft, and data leaks are important risk to be aware of on the internet. Just like most risks, it’s important to talk to your children early and often about data security and avoiding hackers. Set ground rules with your kids to keep them safe, but be sure to keep an open-door policy to encourage them to come to you if they fear they’ve downloaded a virus. Ground rules can include:
- I won’t download anything onto the computer without an adult present. This is often when “exploit kits” from harmful websites are downloaded, and viruses install themselves. Other viruses to keep an eye out for are worms, which spread on their own accord by multiplying themselves. Trojans masquerade as real programs, such as anti-virus programs, so it takes over when a user boots it up. Ransomware is when a program holds your PC hostage unless you pay (now in cryptocurrency) to get it back. Adware is invasive ads designed to take you to fake sites.
- I won’t click on links that are sent to me by people I do not know. Clicking on web or email links can lead to inappropriate or harmful content.
- I will only use the computer in a shared space, like the living room or kitchen. This can help ensure that an adult can monitor the child’s activity and act quickly if a cybersecurity threat happens.
A strong cybersecurity system is an excellent defense against these threats. Anti-virus programs stop a lot of these from running. They can include anti-phishing and prevent you from opening malicious links. You can get programs with web camera protection so a hacker can’t take it over and spy on the user. Content blockers are also helpful.
Another major aid in the fight against viruses is a VPN or virtual private network. It can come with antivirus and malware protection, making it difficult to hack if you’re on wifi with a weak password, such as something public.
Password protection is another great way to stay sharp on the internet. Consider different passwords for everything. If you have only one, and someone gets it, they have all your passwords. You can also use a password manager, which remembers your passwords for you and stores them for future use. Great options include LastPass, Dashlane, KeePass, or 1Password.
As we discussed earlier, cyberbullying and your child’s digital citizenship are critical for a healthy relationship with peers and potentially their future success. Easy to spread and very difficult to stop, cyberbullying is defined as sending or posting harmful, false, malicious, and damaging content about someone else. It can also be intentionally sharing embarrassing or private personal information about someone intending to humiliate. 37% of teenagers claim to be bullied online, with 30% claiming it happened more than once. Of those surveyed, girls tend to be more likely to be perpetrators and victims of cyberbullying.
Currently, most states in the US have both cyberbullying laws and policies to back them up. However, if you live in a state where only laws exist, things can become a little more tricky. Be sure to review your state’s law and policy yourself and with your child. While your child hopefully will never need to face the law, it can help them better understand the seriousness of being on both the giving and receiving sides of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying creates an enormous sense of rejection, leading to feeling anxious, ashamed, nervous, and insecure. Victims of cyberbullying tend to withdraw from their friends and family. They experience high amounts of guilt and think of themselves negatively or self-talk to themselves cruelly.
Be sure to speak to your kids about setting online boundaries to protect themselves and their peers. These boundaries can include things like practicing good digital citizenship and keeping private things private. It’s also a good idea to teach children about the permanence of what they share online, even with someone they think they can trust.
Education is a great tool. Teach your children to think about their posts before they publish them. You can teach them social media etiquette as well and take away access to their screens if they ignore it. Another great strategy is to have a social media audit monthly to ensure everything is okay.
If a child does experience cyberbullying, they mustn’t respond in any way. Tell them to take screenshots of the harassment and then report the cyber bullies. Once reported, block the bullies. It also helps to encourage your child to be a good bystander if they witness this. As a parent, be sure to keep an eye out for signs your child is experiencing cyberbullying, and don’t be afraid to ask if something is going on online.
Here are some numbers to keep in mind. 85% of teens use Youtube regularly. 72% use Instagram, and 70% use Snapchat. 51% are on Facebook, and 32% are on Twitter. Social media isn’t all doom and gloom. It promotes a social connection, and the oxytocin one gets from receiving a like or positive comment is relatively easy to obtain. Of course, it has the power to incur the opposite effect for negative comments. But it can foster education, creativity, and globalization. Aside from the security risks, the downsides are addiction and lack of focus.
If your child is being cyberbullied, follow the steps outlined above. Listen to them, and help them make a plan for dealing with it. They’ll need guidance, free from judgment or retaliation.
How parents can keep kids safe online
As a parent, you have a lot of tools at your fingertips to monitor and guide your child’s internet use.
Parental controls. Some great apps you can check out our Net Nanny, which comes highly recommended; Canopy, which is relatively basic but inexpensive; Qustodio; and Bark, which has a great notification response to potential danger.
Parental controls will block inappropriate content, intervene in risky situations, monitor screen and online time, as well as prevent unauthorized spending. They limit your child’s privacy, and a clever kid can find ways around them. They can’t stop predators from talking to your children. It’s up to you to check conversations and identify the problem. In the same way, it’s fundamental to be aware of and prevent the ways in which kids may bypass parental controls. Keep in mind that these are the only tools that can help you, but your supervision remains essential.
Screen time. It’s good to have parental control whenever your child is online. You can always lessen the control more and more as the child grows and as you both communicate effectively about their online behavior.
Privacy settings. They’re no silver bullet, but they do indicate what a program is allowed to gather and utilize. For best practices, use the strictest set of privacy policies possible. On social media, set whether your posts are private or public. Control who can “tag” you. Turn off location tracking — it doesn’t need to know where you are. If you have the option, make your profile “invisible” from search engines.
Digital detox for children
A digital detox takes steps away from screens to create a balance. The idea is to have a healthy relationship with electronics rather than be glued to them. If your child argues every time a screen is turned off or is dependent on screens for entertainment, that’s a good sign they need a digital detox.
Excessive screen time can cause increased aggression, sleep issues, and social problems (like communication or difficulty recognizing people’s faces). A digital detox can improve one’s feelings and give one a sense of contentment. It can improve productivity and sleep, and it encourages more healthy behavior. Here are some ways that you as a family can exercise digital detox:
Create tech-free areas in your home, such as the dinner table or certain play areas. Bedrooms are great places for a tech-free zone. Ensure there’s a place to put the tech near the room, so your youngster can leave it where it belongs.
Set and respect screen time rules. Some great apps are around to assist you, such as Offtime, Flipid, and Space. Once you’re off the tech, consider some activities that suit your child’s interest. Set a good example, and follow these rules yourself. Kids have an extreme sense of fairness, and if you can do it, they’ll also know they can.
Set “offline” family traditions. Does your child like to dance, play games, or go for walks? Find their offline love language and set daily, weekly, or monthly traditions that celebrate bonding time with technology put away. By creating routines around digital detoxes and no-tech zones, you can create a very healthy balance between this world and the digital one.
How parents can protect the family from real-life threats
The reality is online activity can create threats in our real lives. Follow these guidelines to help protect against them.
Secure your home
No parent wants to think about what could happen if their child gets into trouble online. The good news is that the same steps that keep your home secure from all sorts of threats can also protect you against strangers online.
Install security cameras. Security cameras are a great way to monitor outside parties entering your home and keep an eye on your family as they come and go. Smart security cameras can even be connected to your phone via an app so you can monitor them while you’re away from home.
Review your home insurance policy. Vandalism and theft are typically covered in your standard policy, but it’s a good idea to understand the scope of the coverage. More importantly, review your policy or ask your agent about coverage for identity theft. While children are unlikely to have their own identities stolen online, they can cause your identity to be susceptible. According to The Zebra, your credit card company will typically be first in line to cover the costs associated with purchases on a stolen card. Identity theft coverage through your home insurance policy covers the other side of the issue, typically including legal fees, lost wages, and identity repair services.
Keep critical belongings locked away. While we believe in the best of our kids and trust them to make good choices, that doesn’t mean they’re invincible to manipulation. Keeping financial information and credit cards in a room with a lock is a great way to keep these items safe. Use a fireproof safe to store rarely used sensitive information like passports and social security cards.
Secure your internet. Cybercriminals can attack remotely through your home wifi connection. Be sure to set up your router properly by changing its out-of-the-box name, the password and creating a guest network.
Establish family online safety rules
- Don’t assume everyone is who they say they are online. People with bad intentions can easily (and convincingly) say they are your same age, are a peer from a different school, or are someone you know in real life. This can create a false sense of security that leads to sharing private things.
- Keep private stuff private, including your phone number and details about where you live. This information can be used to find you in real life or hack accounts. Kids should also avoid sharing names and information about their friends and family. Sometimes what seems like a simple question like “what was the name of your first pet?” can be used to hack passwords and security questions on important accounts.
- Don’t share photos that contain personally identifiable information or can be used to hurt you now or in the future. This can include embarrassing or compromising stories, photos, and videos. When age-appropriate, explain the importance of not taking or sending photos of a sexual nature. It can be helpful to contextualize these types of warnings both for their current circumstances (ex: an embarrassing story you tell a friend today can be shared with the entire school tomorrow) and their future circumstance (ex: a suggestive photo you send a friend today could be found later during a job interview in adulthood). This also includes photos that have your house number, street name, school, credit card, and other sensitive information that can be used to locate you or hack accounts in real life.
- Don’t share your location permanently on your phone or in apps like Snapchat. While these features may be fun and functional at times, it’s hard to anticipate
- Talk to an adult before you meet online friends in real life. Not all online friends are out to hurt you and some of them can be great companions. However, meeting up in real life always has risks. It’s good to keep an open dialogue with kids so they know they can come to you if they want to meet up. Even if you are never open to them meeting an online friend in person, keeping the conversation open can help avoid a situation where your child sneaks around to meet a friend by default.
- Establish a safe adult who is not a parent. Older children live rich social lives, whether parents know about it or not. The reality is that they will not always be comfortable sharing what’s going on in their lives, no matter how good their parents are. Help your child identify a trusted adult with whom they can share other parts of their life. Trusted adults can help ensure your child is safe while respecting their wishes for privacy from their parents.
Technology has some great uses for children. It is a wonderful source of education, puzzles, art, and entertainment. You can make technology work well for you and your child with great educational videos and skill-building apps. If your child does have their own phone, location tracking software can provide peace of mind so you know where they are. Be certain to teach your child how to stay safe and be vigilant. Technology is a double-edged sword, but for all its flaws, it can be pretty awesome too.