The internet is a fantastic tool, but dangers lurk within!
Keeping your children and teens safe online becomes more challenging by the day, and unfortunately, it's not as simple as using a VPN service.
Don't worry though!
In this guide, I show you what dangers to look out for, and share some quick and easy tips to help protect your loved ones.
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Internet Safety Recommendations
I'm proud to say that the following companies and organizations, amongst many others, have deemed by guide extremely helpful for parents and educators alike.
"BestVPN's Internet Safety guide contains valuable information and tips that Enough Is Enough has been sharing with parents for more than two decades. The messages are on target with the information parents need to know to keep their kids safe online, and we applaud him for making this resource available" Enough.org
"There is a lot of useful and practical advice regarding child-friendly search engines and parental controls, which parents and carers are always looking for. Overall, a fantastic, clean, clear and readable article on child safety" NationalCrimeAgency.gov.uk
"The internet safety guide you developed is very comprehensive and covers many of the topics that I cover in my presentations so I think parents will find it to be a great resource." InternetSafetyConcepts.com
Why is Internet Safety Important?
The internet raises a host of dilemmas for modern parents. While we are keen to see our children harness the opportunities the web offers them, we also have to balance this with the obvious need to protect young people from its inherent dangers.
The internet is now far too ubiquitous for parents to simply plead a lack of technical understanding. The dangers of the connected world are just as real as the benefits.
"Parents have a duty to understand the issues their children will face online."
I have spent over a decade providing IT support to businesses and individuals. Often, I find myself in the homes of company owners, helping with the “family computer” or the children’s laptops. On countless occasions, this has been due to a specific concern about what kids and teens have been doing online. On plenty of others, after looking at a computer, it’s been down to me to draw parents attention to something worrying that they needed to be aware of.
I firmly believe that parental knowledge is key to minimizing the risks young people face online.
"There is no one magic piece of software a parent can install to provide their children with 100% online safety."
There are software solutions that can help (and I discuss them later in this guide), but time, knowledge and attention are equally (if not more) important. The aim of this guide is to share some of the internet safety knowledge I’ve built up over my years in this industry.
What Online Dangers Exist?
As I’ve already said, the internet provides young people with limitless opportunities and ways to enhance their lives. The intention of this guide isn’t to frighten parents into preventing their child using the web.
However, before we move onto the practical advice, let’s distill some of the key online dangers facing young children and teens online.
Norton defines cyberstalking as “the use of technology, particularly the Internet, to harass someone.”
Even the “superficial” use of social media to watch people doesn’t seem so superficial when it becomes a regular or obsessional activity. Stalking (online OR offline) can have a terrifying impact on the victim.
Thankfully, with the right knowledge and software, it’s possible to make it harder for stalkers to indulge in these behaviors.
There is some confusing cross-over between cyberbullying and cyberstalking. According to Kids Health, cyberstalking usually refers to prosecutable cases where an adult is involved, whereas cyberbullying (discussed below) usually takes place within a child’s peer group.
Cyberbullying is at epidemic levels. Recent NSPCC statistics show that one in three children have been a direct victim of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying can go far deeper than casual teasing, and the outcomes can prove tragic. Wikipedia’s list of suicides attributed to bullying continually grows longer, with recent cases frequently involving an online element.
Cyberbullying is one of the online threats where software can never replace the watchful eye and attention of parents. Children may prove reluctant to discuss these issues, so it’s down to parents to address them head-on.
Statistics can help here. A study in The Mirror reports even more extreme figures that suggest that over 50% of young people report having been bullied online in some form. It’s therefore extremely unlikely that children won’t have experienced online abuse, or at least know somebody who has. Frequent, open discussions on these topics will hopefully make children feel more comfortable chatting about them.
It’s also worth mentioning that figures from The Megan Meier Foundation reveal that 15% of teenagers admit to being cyberbullies themselves. Parents, therefore, need to be mindful of the (admittedly smaller) possibility that their kids could be perpetrators rather than (or as well as) victims.
Child Sex Offenders
We’ve all read the press reports that say “she was last known to have gone to meet someone she met online.”
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare!
Unfortunately, encounters with child sex offenders are far more common than anyone might expect. The US Department of Justice has published a range of sexual abuse statistics, and the technology-related section is enough to keep anyone with a child awake at night.
Per the figures, one in seven “youth internet users” have received “unwanted sexual solicitations online.” That means three or four young people out of every average classroom. Furthermore, 11% of teenagers say they have “shared naked pictures of themselves online or via text message.”
No parent should kid themselves for a single second that their offspring are immune to these online realities, just because they live in a safe area or send children to a high-end school.
The image of a pedophile posing as a child in a chatroom remains a valid one (with 76% of related sex crimes beginning in such an online environment). However, parents should also be aware that only 5% of predators lie about their ages (according to a US study). Many openly state their intentions (and reveal their ages) to impressionable teenagers.
Obscene and Offensive Content
For many of us who are parents today, our first experiences of pornography involved a soft-core magazine or VHS video that was furtively passed around a group of friends. Now, far more explicit porn is just a click or a tap away on a computer, phone or tablet.
In fact, according to GuardChild, people aged 12-17 are the biggest consumers of Internet porn. 90% of kids aged eight or more have seen it, and 70% of them have sometimes encountered it accidentally, for example when researching for homework.
Parents could do far more to protect children from seeing such material (only around a third of families use filters or parental control software). However, software alone isn’t going to prevent children encountering pornography – not when every games console, smartphone, tablet, Smart TV and computer is a potential point of access.
The kind of “birds and bees” discussions required here predate computers, let alone the internet.
"A healthy understanding of sexuality should come from parents and teachers, not from Pornhub."
This is the only way to help young people understand what they’re encountering.
Sadly, we have to factor in the fact that offensive images of children are part of this discussion, with 20,000 illegal images of such being added to the internet every week. Youngsters need to understand the line between age-restricted content, and content that is unlawful and wrong – and this will only happen with education.
Sexual content isn’t all parents need to worry about. The NSPCC state that around 25% of children have been exposed to “racist or hate messages” online too. Unfortunately, such material seems to be becoming far more widespread at the time of writing.
Sextortion involves using sexual material (often privately shared nude pictures or videos) to extort money or sexual favors in return for not sharing the material more widely.
One may think such cases are rare, but we’ve already seen (above) that over 10% of teenagers share naked pictures. That’s a lot of pictures and, sadly, a LOT of sextortion cases.
Cyberbullying.org has carried out a detailed study on sextortion, involving over 1600 cases, of which more than 50% involved minors. The statistics are shocking in all kinds of ways, but most disturbing are that the cases often involve people known to the victims, and that threats are often carried out in real life.
The simplest way to minimize the chance of your child being a victim is to drive home the point that anything shared with anyone online can be passed on. Unfortunately, in a world where “likes” and “follows” are so richly revered, this can go against everything young people believe in.
Technical Threats and Scams
While the issues above have focussed on threats that primarily affect children and teenagers, the youngsters in our lives are still subject to the same online concerns that affect adults too, such as malware, phishing attempts, and internet scams.
Children are also in some ways more susceptible to these threats than adults. Firstly, this is because their critical thinking skills aren’t usually as developed. Secondly, it’s because a lack of disposable income can make offers, freebies and illegal alternatives to buying games, movies and music more enticing.
As someone who’s cleaned up dozens of children’s computers during my work, I can personally attest to the fact that kids download all sorts of things. It’s actually pretty rare to encounter a teenager’s computer that’s not riddled with malware picked up during the acquisition of torrented movies, cracked games or worse.
Check out our Best VPN for torrent sites guide
Parents face an uphill battle in convincing their children not to fall victim to scams and malware, as there will always be peer encouragement. However, once again this is all about education and awareness.
Parents need to understand about internet scams, and phishing attempts aimed at separating people from their personal details. Just because children are less likely to have full bank accounts and credit cards ripe for the picking, it doesn’t mean that cybercriminals don’t still have plenty to gain from targeting them.
Youngsters need to understand that people don’t tend to give away copies of the latest games for altruistic reasons – there’s usually another motive. It also doesn’t do any harm for children to know how much it costs to have a laptop cleaned up after it grinds to a halt!
Another technical “threat” worthy of a mention is gaming “microtransactions.” These allow people to advance further in games or obtain extra features or characters - in exchange for money. While these are not a scam, they’re still something that regularly hit the news when youngsters rack up huge bills. One of the most recent involved a 17 year old spending nearly $8000 on an Xbox FIFA game.
It’s fair to say that while some of these incidents are accidental, plenty must involve young people thinking they can get away with such transactions without their parents noticing. This is another reason parents need to be “on the ball” about what their kids are doing online!
As well as the safety threats discussed above, internet-connected devices can breach the privacy of children and their families.
Two of the most well-known examples of this involve one of the ultimate symbols of childhood – the teddy bear. Most recently, the company behind CloudPets, a producer of connected cuddly toys, suffered a security breach that exposed the login details of nearly a million customers, as reported by Vice. The breach also made millions of recordings created by the toys easily accessible to hackers.
This wasn’t the first time teddies had been involved in such scandals. Last year, the app platform used to control a talking bear from Fisher Price was hacked, exposing the names and birthdays of children using the toys. It’s even been shown that hackers could exploit connected Barbie dolls and turn them into creepy surveillance devices.
Parents cannot expect children to mitigate against falling victim to such privacy breaches. I would personally recommend that anyone choosing to buy such “Internet of Things” toys pay serious attention to the setup steps and use very strong passwords. It’s also down to parents to keep their ears to the ground as to any security issues in case items in their households are ever affected.
With connected toys (and connected products of all kinds) becoming more common by the day, we can only expect such breaches to continue and perhaps become even more concerning in their scope and magnitude.
The Modern Internet: The Good and the Bad
Considering the vast selection of very real threats described above, parents would be forgiven, at this point, for considering canceling their broadband and listing all the family’s electronic devices on eBay!
However, there are just as many positive reasons for children and teens to use the world-wide web to enhance their lives and prospects as there are reasons to protect them from it.
The internet is the gateway to the entirety of human knowledge and wisdom – much of it available entirely free of charge. People of my age, for whom the microfiche was the most techie gadget in the local library, would never have dreamed of having the internet as a readily-available homework tool – let alone having it on a smartphone.
Youngsters today can learn about anything they wish, and it’s all just a web search away. This is something that still blows the mind of anyone a generation or two older than me.
But with great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes. This responsibility lies with the parents – in understanding which of the internet’s many shiny things will attract their offspring, and how these sites and services can be safely used.
As we’ll discuss later in the guide, many of these attractions come in the form of an ever-growing list of social networks. Staying up to speed with all of these is one of the most crucial (and constant) tasks.
How to Protect Your Family
Before I move onto specifics, I’ll begin with the one thing I think is key to raising children to use the internet safely and responsibly:
"Use the Internet with your children and for your children. Don’t use it to distract them or to take them off your hands so you can get on with something else." image="
Although many of the online threats I’ve described above become more relevant as young people begin to reach their teenage years, it doesn’t mean education can’t start much earlier.
As an example, I sometimes sit on my laptop with my two-year-old. I’m sure he doesn’t understand Google Images yet, but he does know I can make the internet bring up pictures of dinosaurs, monkeys or kittens. He also knows it can show him catalogs of toys, and (on particularly good days) be used to make some of those toys show up on the doorstep a day or two later!
I also make a point of showing him how people can use computers to type letters, make artwork and produce music – the things my generation sometimes used to do before we had the internet.
My intention here is to show him what technology can do that’s educational and productive. He already understands that he doesn’t touch my laptop himself because it’s “what daddy uses to earn money.” I’m also making it very clear that I remain the one who knows more about the technology than he does (for now!)
Even when your child is toddler-aged, there are still threats to be aware of. My little boy has managed to stumble upon rather dark YouTube “fan fiction” videos involving Peppa Pig. A recent report in The Mirror suggests that these videos, also involving other popular kid’s films and franchises too, are being deliberately keyworded so that children find them by mistake. There are undoubtedly some strange people out there.
Yes, there are technical workarounds here, such as only using YouTube Kids, but this example does serve to prove that there’s no substitute for a constant eye on what children are doing online – whatever their age.
Computer House Rules
A well-considered set of technical “house rules” is a good starting point for families who want to work against the dangers presented by everyday technology.
Different families will, no doubt, have different approaches, but here are ten possible house rules as a starting point.
1. Keep computers in living areas
The best place for the family computer(s) is the living room or kitchen, where children know that a parent may look over their shoulder at any time. Children already have online chat acronyms for warning their friends when people are watching, such as “POS” (parent over shoulder).
Making clear you understand these will help too, and this resource will help with that. As an example of one to look out for, “ASL?” means “Age / Sex / Location?” and is often used at the start of conversations with online strangers.
2. Implement an “Internet embargo.”
You may wish to consider time-limiting Internet access to certain times of the day. Many routers even let you set the Wi-Fi network to disable itself after a certain time, say 9 pm.
This may send shudders through many parents (myself included), but having such a policy is actually rather healthy for the adults in the household too!
3. Agree that parents will “friend” children on their social networks
When the time comes for children to want their own social media presence (much more on that below), a good initial compromise is to insist that one or both parents is a fully-fledged “friend” on that platform, who’s able to see all the child’s activity.
4. Give parents password access to all children’s devices
Children should not have devices that allow them to lock their activity away from their guardians’ reach. A parent should reserve the right to log in and see what’s been going on.
5. Parents approve or veto use of new social networks
If a child wants to get involved in a new social network (and in youngsters’ circles, there’s always a new big thing), they should get parental approval first.
The NSPCC offers a fabulous resource that helps parents learn about new social networks, what they do, and what ages they are suitable for.
6. Children must tell parents before providing any personal information online
The idea here is to make handing over personal information online the exception, rather than the rule. Children should understand why it’s generally a bad idea to hand out addresses and phone numbers. In fairness, this is a reasonable stance for adults to take also.
7. Children must only use online chat to people they talk to in real life
This should be a no-brainer, but GuardChild state that nearly 70% of teenagers are contacted by strangers online on a regular basis and don’t notify their parents. Constant reminders on this are therefore paramount.
8. Web browsing histories should not be deleted
Youngsters (and adults!) who continually delete their web histories are generally looking at things they don’t want others to know about. You may, therefore, wish to make deleting browser histories a forbidden action for your children. The same applies to using “incognito” or private browsing modes, which don’t maintain any history.
In my work as an IT consultant, I once encountered a computer riddled with viruses and spyware, complete with a client who seemed inclined to blame me for its poor performance.
I very quickly became aware of the non-existent browser history which made me instantly suspicious. At the time, Windows machines maintained a file (called INDEX.DAT) which allowed me to see all the visited websites despite the deleted history.
To this day, I don’t know if it was the husband or the teenage sons that had some explaining to do, but when I left there were clearly some discussions on the cards about some particularly “niche” websites I uncovered in the process.
If a child has spent hours browsing online and there’s no history to show for it, this should set off some alarm bells!
9. Children must report any bullying or anything distressing they see online
This one may prove hard to police, especially when children become secretive teenagers. However, an ongoing open discussion about topics like cyberbullying should go some way to making children feel comfortable in sharing these issues.
10. Breaches mean a loss of privileges!
It’s almost inevitable that children will bend the rules at some point. As and when they do, it’s important for parents to follow up on their threatened sanctions – or nobody will take the rules seriously in the future.
Installing Antivirus Software
Installing antivirus software on the family computer(s) isn’t only about keeping your children safe online - it really is an essential step for all computers.
Good antivirus software protects against a whole host of threats, from traditional viruses, trojans, and worms, to some of the scams and phishing attempts that we discussed earlier in the article.
Here are a few pointers to be aware of when it comes to antivirus software:
1. Not all antivirus software is equal
It’s well worth checking reviews before choosing your antivirus software as these products are far from equal.
Tempting though it is to go for a free option, these are often trimmed down products or are marketed by companies who make their money from selling your personal information.
2. No antivirus software is 100% effective
It’s impossible for any antivirus product to be 100% effective, and you won’t find one that claims to be. This is because it’s a constant cat and mouse game, with hackers creating new exploits and antivirus vendors scrambling around to protect against them. As such, education and vigilance is still paramount - as is keeping your chosen antivirus product permanently up to date.
3. Macs need antivirus too
Whether or not Apple Macs need antivirus software is a matter of much debate among the techie community.
It IS fair to say that Macs are not targeted by viruses as much as their Windows equivalent. This is because Microsoft has a far larger market share, making it more of a target. However, there are frequent reports of new Mac-specific viruses, and warnings that Macs are “not as secure” as people think.
So, if you want to play it safe, you should install an antivirus product on Macs as well as Windows PCs.
Consider a Child-Friendly Search Engine
You may not be aware that there are alternatives to Google and Yahoo that offer children protection from some of the things they may inadvertently find while searching the web.
KidRex.org sits on top of Google’s search technology with the intention of only bringing back results that are child-friendly.
KidsClick! is another great example, only bringing up curated results from content that has been screened by librarians in the US.
KidTopia is similar, aimed at preschoolers and only bringing up “educator-approved” sites.
"There’s no “magic bullet” to prevent your child finding inappropriate material online."
It’s possible to easily navigate away from these search engines and even KidRex themselves say that “inappropriate sites will sometimes slip through the cracks.”
However, using one of these search engines, perhaps setting it as the homepage on the family PC, is a practical step towards online safety.
Use Parental Controls
Implementing parental controls takes you one step closer to true online safety for the young people in your life. However, despite fear of sounding like a broken record, I should emphasize that putting such controls in place should never be seen as a substitute for parental attention and awareness of what happens online.
This is of particular importance because other parents will not all implement the same controls (or, indeed, house rules) as you will. This can mean that all of your “censorship” efforts can come to nothing as soon as your child visits a friend’s house, or even plays with someone else’s smartphone.
Despite this, parental controls do offer a good defense. They’re generally available at three different levels:
1. Connection-level parental controls
Some Internet connections allow you to set parental controls (which essentially block all pornography and other potentially offensive content) at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) level.
In some countries (such as the UK), these controls are activated by default, meaning you have to “opt out” of the filtering to access content for adults.
Useful though this may sound for parents, controls at this level have disadvantages. One is that all a child need do is connect to another unprotected network to access such content, another is that adults using the connection may wish to access an uncensored internet.
2. Operating system parental controls
In recent years, the parental control options built into operating systems have improved significantly.
On Macs, for example, parents can set up children’s user accounts so that they only work at certain times, and block access to certain websites and apps. It’s even possible to prevent a child user’s webcam access.
Options for Microsoft Windows are similar, with app, game and website restrictions all possible. Details are here. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s insistence in tying all of these options to online Microsoft accounts make all of this unnecessarily laborious to set up.
3. Dedicated parent control software
Software like Net Nanny takes Internet safety far further, with features for blocking content, controlling access to social media and even monitoring family Internet use.
Net Nanny also works on mobile Android and iOS devices, so can be used to lock down the devices children use at school and elsewhere.
Dedicated parental control systems take us as close to that magic bullet as it’s possible to get. However, the major downside is that the complexity of such software is often mind-boggling for non-technical parents.
It is, of course, possible to pay an IT consultant to install and configure such systems (a job I, myself have previously been paid to do). However, only parents who take the time to learn, tweak and modify this kind of software will benefit the most from it. Unfortunately, it’s simply not a “set and forget” kind of task.
That said, children and teens using devices with parental controls in place are definitely safer (in relative terms) that those using unrestricted equipment.
Teens on the Internet
Once children reach their teenage years and begin pushing boundaries and finding independence, keeping them safe online becomes more challenging than ever.
With the online world being so central to modern teenagers lives, its inevitable that “internet related issues” will crop up as part of parenting teens.
As with so many elements of parenting teens, there’s a delicate balance to strike between granting them freedom and keeping them safe and under control. This balance is unique to individual family dynamics, and there’s no right or wrong way to handle things.
That said, we’ve already discussed cyberbullying, stalking, predators, and all manner of other threats, and these threats are real. Teenagers are also a demographic who often “feel” grown up when they still have plenty of wisdom to gain.
As such, a gradual relaxation of the kind of “house rules” previously discussed probably makes far more sense than a sudden withdrawal of such restrictions at a certain age or point in time. Hopefully, if you’ve started the education process early, you will have ensured two things:
- Your children are already “savvy” as to the risks facing them online.
- They’re in no doubt that you are switched on to online realities and not naive enough to be fooled.
With this in mind, once again we arrive back at the importance of parents educating themselves about online dangers, and not leaving all the knowledge in the hands of their offspring.
The official US court definition of “sexting” is the “act of sending sexually explicit materials through mobile phones.” As well as text, these “materials” can often include static images and video clips.
As we’ve already discussed, a worrying proportion of teens share naked photos of themselves online. The number of teenagers who get involved in sexting is even higher.
According to DoSomething.org, 24% of 14 to 17 year olds have “been involved in a form of nude sexting.” This means that however much we lament the loss of our children’s innocence as they grow older, this is a reality about which no parent should bury their head in the sand.
Sexting is, inevitably, an uncomfortable subject to raise with teenagers - especially as they’re at the age where it’s natural to crave privacy.
One possible approach is to share some more of DoSomething.org’s statistics with them. A good one is the fact that nearly one in five people share these “private” communications with people they weren’t intended for.
This effect can quickly snowball. Teenagers need to realize that nothing is truly private once it’s out there. If they wouldn’t want to pin it on the college notice board, they shouldn’t send it in the first place. After all, friendships and allegiances can change very quickly in teenage circles.
Online Relationships & Meeting Strangers in Real Life
If you’re inclined to think that tales of teenagers forming relationships online and going on to meet those people in real life are isolated incidents, you need to think again.
Back in 2014, BBC Newsbeat surveyed over 1000 UK teenagers and discovered that among 15 to 18 year olds, there was one-third who had met online friends in the real world.
Obviously, the dynamics of these online acquaintanceships can vary - from genuine, innocent friendships to headline horror stories. But with these figures extrapolating out into tens of millions of teens meeting people in person who they’ve met online, it’s crucial that parents understand just how widespread the practice is.
This is an excellent example of how adherence with house internet rules, parental consistency, and constant vigilance can all join together to protect young people.
If, as parents, we can cultivate honest communication with our children (and respect the way the modern world works) we have a greater chance of “staying in the loop” if a child seems likely to meet an online friend physically.
In theory, if everything is going to plan, these “friends” should be people we’re already aware of anyway.
Once again, this is a sensitive area, and somewhere where parents have to walk the tightrope of relinquishing control over their offspring delicately. Perhaps the best way of looking at it is that it’s surely preferable to strive for an openness where teenagers feel comfortable enough to tell their parents what they intend to do? This creates opportunities for discreet supervision, and oversight on checking these online friends are who they claim to be.
A battle of wills that results in secrecy is the alternative, and clearly the greater of two potential evils.
Online Behaviour and Trolling
We’ve already discussed the prevalence of cyberbullying, and figures suggest it’s extremely unlikely that the teenagers in your life haven’t already had at least some exposure to trolling and hateful behavior online. Again, as we’ve already established, the statistics suggest that a considerable number of teens are either victims or perpetrators with regards this behavior.
A UK Safer Internet study, reported on by The Guardian, found that 80% of “adolescents had seen or heard online hate during the previous 12 months.”
Once again, open dialog between youngsters and parents is essential here. Knowledge of the statistics is helpful in starting and maintaining discussions on the topic. Any teen pleading ignorance as to the fact that trolling goes on online is unlikely to be telling the whole truth.
Mobile Device Safety
Mobile devices - those smartphones and tablets that typical teenagers are stuck to like glue - make keeping minors safe online exponentially more difficult. If the only connected device parents had to worry about was a shared computer in the living room, life would be so much easier. Unfortunately, the hand of cards modern parents have been dealt is a far more challenging one to play.
Above, we discussed the use of parental controls, and some of these can be deployed on mobile devices. It’s possible to block access to adult content at the network level, so that these websites are blocked when children are browsing the internet via a 3G&4G mobile network connection. On some cellular networks, having this filtering in place is the default setting.
However, this all goes out of the window if your child connects to a WiFi network with no such filtering in place.
Using something like Net Nanny is as close as you’ll get to “locking down” a child’s device to your preferences. But as we keep reiterating, education and monitoring remain important. You cannot hand your children’s online protection to software - however much you’re willing to pay for it.
Mobile devices themselves bring some additional dangers (and one opportunity) - we’ll discuss how to tackle those next.
The fact that modern mobile devices can all easily connect to WiFi networks is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing for the youngsters because they can get online almost anywhere, and a (smaller blessing) for the parents as they don’t need to fund huge mobile data bills.
The curse is that free WiFi has dangers of its own. In addition to the fact that many hotspots have no form of adult content filtering in place, there’s the fact that they’re also a popular lurking ground for hackers, who can very easily infiltrate public WiFi networks to steal personal details.
A now famous experiment, reported on here by The Daily Mail, showed a seven year old child hacking a WiFi network in just 11 minutes. The child wasn’t a technical genius - she merely needed to watch an easily accessible online tutorial to learn how to do it.
Children and adults alike need to be aware of the dangers of public WiFi. You’ll find a lot more information here, along with advice on how to mitigate the risks by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). However, a VPN could potentially allow young people to bypass other blocks and filtering measures you have put in place - so it’s down to you to evaluate the risks.
The key thing is to ensure your offspring understand that a public WiFi hotspot may be free, but it’s not as safe as using the one at home.
Geolocation features on mobile devices are sometimes discussed concerning their stalker connotations, but when it comes to keeping an eye on children, they are one thing that can actually prove quite useful.
As an example, Apple iOS devices have a “Find Friends” app, which allows selected friends and family members to see exactly where people (or at least their iPhones or iPads) are.
If you and your children have iPhones, setting this up for all of you is a no-brainer. At any time, you can open up the app and see where each phone is.
Obviously, the flipside of this is that the same software that you can use to keep a watchful eye on your children could be used to stalk them. As such, it’s wise to make sure they’re not granting access to their location to all and sundry. Thankfully, this is easy to check.
Security measures for mobile devices
Smartphones and tablets are increasingly susceptible to the kind of “traditional” viruses we discussed earlier - the ones that can afflict desktop PCs and laptops.
Android devices are the most at risk, so if you (or your children) use them, it’s worth installing an antivirus product. AVL is a well-renowned option and can help root out malicious apps and phishing websites as well as old-school viruses and trojans.
Apple remains adamant that such antivirus systems are not required on its iOS devices due to the way the operating system is designed.
Beyond installing antivirus, there are other basic measures your children (and you) can take to keep mobile devices secure. The most fundamental being:
- Passwords should always be used.
- Devices themselves should be kept physically safe (not shown off as bait for thieves).
- Calls from unknown or blocked numbers should be ignored.
Where possible, it’s also well worth making use of the geolocation features we mentioned above to attempt to track stolen or missing devices. Such features include Apple’s “Find my iPhone” and the Android Device Manager app.
We’ve touched on social networks throughout this guide. They’re the places where most young people will spend a significant proportion of their online time.
One analogy regarding social media and children is that you should only leave children alone with it if you’d be happy to leave them with a knife. It’s an extreme analogy, but in many ways a valid one.
Keeping on top of the latest big thing in social media is a mammoth task for parents, but it’s unavoidable. Ultimately the only way to really understand each network is to join it yourself, and become a “follower” or “friend” of your children on the network if they wish to use it.
The NSPCC’s NetAware Resource is an extremely useful first port of call for learning about the latest social networks that are piquing people’s interest. However, while its age recommendations are a useful guide, there’s no substitute for trying out the services yourself. If a child is spending a lot of time on any particular network and you don’t feel you understand it fully, it’s definitely time to download it and use it. Here are some examples of what the NSPCC has to say about some of the most popular social networks:
Facebook is ubiquitous enough that most parents probably know what to expect, but interestingly, 58% of children themselves identify risks in using it. These include contact with strangers, online bullying, and privacy issues. The NSPCC suggests 13 as the earliest suitable age for Facebook.
Snapchat also has a minimum age recommendation of 13. It’s a worrying network for parents due to its use of video messages that disappear after being viewed. One key to using Snapchat safely is ensuring children only communicate with their friends, and don’t leave their account “open.” One young girl quoted on the NSPCC website says that “people ask for your Snapchat name and ask for dirty pics.”
Instagram shares the age recommendation of 13, but it’s not perceived to be as risky as Facebook by the young demographic, with only 29% of children describing it as such. Although primarily a place to share photos and look at what celebrities are up to, it’s not without its dangers. Two highlighted by youngsters include “lack of privacy” and “inappropriate content.”
Habbo Hotel is one that many adults probably haven’t heard of, but is one of the most popular current social networks in the UK, according to the NSPCC. On the face of it, this is a gamified environment, where people interact in a virtual hotel. However, it shares the 13 rating, unsurprising when children refer to “fake accounts” and “talking to strangers.”
Minecraft is essentially a construction-based game (described by some as “digital Lego”), and one that often appeals to children under 13. Dangers still exist, however, including “bullying and rude comments,” and the risk of hacked accounts. This is perhaps one where parents may feel more inclined to overrule the NSPCC’s 13 recommendation, so long as accounts are correctly set up and barred from unauthorized in-game purchases.
In all cases, the choice of what children are allowed to use has to ultimately lie with individual parents. Different parents will inevitably have different values, priorities, and attitudes to risk. There’s no pretending this is anything less than a minefield, especially once some members of a peer group start being allowed to use things that others aren’t.
This is like making parental decisions on game and movie certificates - only dramatically more complicated. Good luck with it!
Internet Safety Facts
I’ve touched on a great many Internet facts and statistics throughout this guide, but I shall end with a selection of others. These are intended to inform, not to scare!
- According to BBC Newsround, 72% of 10 to 12 year olds are active on social media. So much for the NSPCC recommendations, we discussed above…
- Last year, OFCOM revealed that online time among young people had surpassed time in front of the TV for the first time.
- A CNBC study found that the average age a US citizen gets their first cellphone is between 10 and 12 years old.
- Childline, a UK-based children’s charity, counseled over 11,000 children regarding “online issues” in 2016 alone, as revealed by Metro.
- The Internet is now used by just under 50% of the global population. This represents growth of nearly 1000% since 2000, according to Internet World Stats figures. The internet’s not going anywhere - and nor are any of these dangers.
Helpful resources around the World
The following resources can help if you have online security concerns regarding your children:
Safer Internet Centre UK: Also has a telephone helpline on: +44 344 381 4772.
Criminal Watch for Crime Prevention Information and Resources
Kids.usa.gov: This is a US-based online safety resource for children.
Government of Canada: Canada’s “Get Cyber Safe” Campaign.
eSafety Australia: The official government resource for Australia.
Sicher Online Gehen: A child’s Internet safety resource in Germany.
Computing Technology for Math Excellence (http://www.ct4me.net) is devoted to the standards movement and integrating technology into teaching and learning and into K-12 mathematics and calculus.
Cyberstalking Photographee.eu //Shutterstock
Cyberbullying Snopek Nadia //Shutterstock
Offensive Content Olena Yakobchuk //Shutterstock
Sextortion Yeexin Richelle //Shutterstock
Technical Threats Rawpixel.com //Shutterstock
Online Privacy one photo //Shutterstock
Modern Internet Africa Studio //Shutterstock
Computer House Rules Ditty_about_summer //Shutterstock
Antivirus Rawpixel.com //Shutterstock
Teens Online HBRH //Shutterstock
Sexting M-SUR //Shutterstock
Online Relationships panuwat phimpha //Shutterstock
Online Behaviour Rawpixel.com //Shutterstock
Wifi Security D Line //Shutterstock
Geolocation Abscent //Shutterstock
Mobile Security Rawpixel.com //Shutterstock
Internet Safety Facts Jirsak //Shutterstock
Internet Safety Resources Rawpixel.com //Shutterstock