From gaming and social media to online classes, children are more connected to the digital world than ever before. This gives them access to information, entertainment, and opportunities parents never even dreamt of at their age. However, access comes with the risk of objectionable content, phishing scams, bullying, and grooming, so teaching kids how to face these very real dangers is key.
By instilling good online habits at an early age, we can help little ones grow up to be healthy, secure digital citizens.
Communication is a key
The internet can be confusing for younger users, so an open and clear line of communication between you and the child in your life is one of the most important tools in your box.
In general, young children can be very trusting and tend to believe most of what people tell them. Unfortunately, distinguishing between what’s real and what’s fake can be hard when you’re online—even for grown-ups.
“The digital world makes it easy for people to dress up and play pretend,” says Ashley Rose, CEO of cybersecurity company Living Security.
As adults, we can help kids understand that people online aren’t always who they say they are, and websites aren’t always what they seem. Talk to your children about what viruses, malware, scammers, and catfishers are, and how to identify red flags.
[Related: How to combat the threat of Android malware]
Kayne McGladrey, a cybersecurity consultant and senior member of IEEE, a professional organization dedicated to the advancement of technology, agrees but cautions parents not to just give one or two long lectures. Instead, he suggests regular, short chats.
“This is a journey, not a one-and-done conversation,” he says.
Make a habit of checking in with kids about what they saw on the internet that day, what they thought about it, and if they thought it was safe or not, and why. Normalize these conversations as soon as they start engaging with digital devices so they feel more comfortable coming to you with problematic online experiences when they’re older.
Focus on values and personal standards, not technology
Fundamentally, there isn’t much difference between being a good citizen in the real world and being a good citizen online.
Instead of coming up with specific rules for each individual app or site, Laura Tierney, founder and CEO of The Social Institute, an online learning platform to help students navigate their social world, suggests parents develop general standards or lessons for families to follow. These should not only serve as a guide on how to behave online but they should apply to every aspect of your lives.
The Social Institute recommends seven standards for a healthier online life that you can take as a baseline. Adopt the ones that work for you and your kids, and build your own standards based on your own values.
Leading by example is one of the most effective ways to model behavior in your children. Tierney says it’s a good idea to start abiding by your own no-tech time rules, being supportive, and not oversharing about your kids on social media. Asking permission before posting that funny picture or story about them is a perfect lesson in consent, and helps them take control over their own online presence.
Find and curate online communities
Deciding which internet community is appropriate for you and your family requires experience and practice. Starting at an early age, help your children develop those curation skills.
Gahmya Drummond-Bey, conscious education expert and founder of KidYouniversity, recommends talking through the choices that you’re making when deciding what content your kids can watch.
Sit with your child and take a look at the platforms’ age requirements, how often they’re posting suitable or relevant content for your kids’ age, and what is the tone of that content. Beyond those basics, Drummond-Bey suggests looking at what the people on that platform are posting. Young children should spend time in welcoming, kind, supportive communities. When your kids ask for access to new platforms, have them walk through these elements with you.
Also, help children think about their own behavior in those communities. If they are bringing toxicity and negativity to their interactions, then they will attract toxicity and negativity back. By being a positive member of every community that they are in, whether that is with real-world friends or in the YouTube comments, they can help create the kind of spaces where they, and others, feel safe.
And if they don’t like what’s happening in some of those communities, Drummond-Bey says, empower your kids to leave them.
Oversight, limitations, and monitoring are a solid safety net
As your young ones develop their internet legs, there are numerous controls and programs you can use to limit their access and track their online activity. Activating settings like Ask to Buy in the Apple Store, and limiting who can see, share, and comment on their social media posts, are basic but important steps. Additionally, Rose recommends investing in parental control and monitoring software like Bark, NetNanny, or Canopy.
Don’t hide these monitoring programs and control settings from your kids. Tierney says you should explain to them what they are, what they control, what they allow you to see, and most importantly, why they are in place. Openness builds trust and maintains lines of communication. Kids may also be less likely to violate your trust if they know upfront that you’re monitoring them.
You can’t outsource your parenting to a computer, so McGladrey cautions parents not to solely rely on controls and monitoring programs.
Kids can often figure out a way around most restrictions, and those programs can’t catch everything. Instead, place computers and gaming systems in a family space and keep an eye and ear on what your children are viewing. Don’t allow headphones, so you can always hear what’s going on, and as often as possible, engage in their online media consumption with them. Stream shows and play games together, and friend and engage them on all of their social media platforms. The more present you are in their online lives, the more insight you’ll have if and when issues arrive.
Don’t neglect the security basics
Communication and oversight are critical to a child’s internet safety, but you should also help your little ones develop good security habits early. Highest among these, is learning the importance of quality passwords.
Have your kids password-protect all of their devices, and never share their credentials with anyone other than you. McGladrey further recommends normalizing the use of a password manager to create and keep track of unguessable passwords, as well as using multi-factor authentication.
McGladrey says another habit you should adopt is installing and maintaining anti-virus software. Every link the children in your life click and every file they download should be automatically scanned and verified by your antivirus in case they present a risk of infecting your computer with malware.
It is also a good idea to install ad-blocking software on every device kids have access to. Online advertising can be a major distributor of malicious agents. You may be good at identifying real ads among a sea of risky clickbait—kids are not. Plus, these programs will help you cut down the annoying clutter of ads and the inevitable unnecessary purchases that come with them.
Finally, take every opportunity to teach kids the importance of privacy. Children should know they should never share their address, phone number, passwords, or other identifying information with anyone online.
Beyond that, younglings need to understand that anything posted online might be there forever. Rose says that we should just assume that any information that hits the internet is never really gone. Even posts they later regret and delete may still live on as screenshots waiting to be found by future employers, colleges, or significant others. A good rule of thumb, she says, is not to post anything online you wouldn’t want Grandma to see.
It’s natural that you’d feel apprehensive toward your kid coming into contact with the internet, but keeping them from it is as logical as banning them from ever crossing a street. Just like we teach them to hold our hands and look both ways before they cross, we need to teach children how to safely engage with the online world.
“Every child is a digital citizen anyway,” says Drummond-Bey. “By helping them to be healthy and safe, we will help them to be healthier people.”