Parents need to be vigilant about protecting their children online. Children as young as three spend an average of six and a half hours on the internet a week. By age eleven, that weekly internet use jumps to seventeen hours. With online sexual predators, cyberbullying, and identity theft, the internet is full of cybersecurity risks for adolescents. These risks haven’t gone unnoticed: a 2015 poll showed that parents rank internet safety as fourth in their biggest health concerns for children, just below drug abuse.
To teach your children online safety, here are three online security risks and their solutions.
1. Online Sexual Predators
Risk: Pedophiles use chat rooms and social networking sites to start sexual relationships with children, according to the FBI. This communication can start as a simple friend request to a child’s social media profile or a conversation in a chat room about video games. These predators “are hiding behind the anonymity of the internet to target kids ... to try to persuade them to meet them in the physical world,” says Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Stats show one in twenty-five teens has received online sexual solicitations from a predator wanting to meet them offline.
- Teach about Stranger Danger. The first tip for teaching children about internet safety is to start early, security experts say. Stranger danger is a threat in the physical world, but cyber strangers can be just as scary. Make your kids aware of the dangers of talking to a stranger online. Warn your children that a predator could try to start a friendship with them and even offer to send them gifts. If a stranger tries to talk to your children online, tell them to make you aware of the conversation immediately.
- Set Boundaries. Set online parental controls to block any sexually explicit material on all devices your children use. Tell your kids they are only allowed to accept messages and friend requests from people they know. Tech experts advise that parents need to be on their children’s social media friend list to monitor activity—they even recommend checking your children’s mobile devices from time to time to see what apps they’ve installed.
Risk: Today’s biggest bullies aren’t on the schoolyard but behind their devices, teasing, threatening, or intimidating someone over the internet. It’s become such a rampant problem that in 2016, 33% of young people said they’d been cyberbullied.
- Advocate for Smart Online Behavior. Approximately 11% of teens admit to cyberbullying others. Though it’s tempting for a teen to anonymously post cruel things on the internet, caution them about posting unkind things on the web. Posting mean or hurtful comments is the most common type of cyberbullying reported. Teach your kids to treat others online with kindness and respect, the same way they would in person.
- Report and Block. Stop bullies immediately by advising your kids to report any bad behavior to a site’s customer service directly. Most websites with chat or comment functions—especially ones popular for kids and teens—have links prominently displayed on their pages to report bullying directly. Block offending users, too. Tell your kids to let you know about any hurtful messages, and copy anything especially hateful in case you need to involve law enforcement.
3. Leaked Private Information
Risk: Just because your child isn’t an adult with a credit card doesn’t mean they’re not at risk for identity theft. Kids are targets for thieves because a child’s credit report is clean and a minor usually doesn’t check their credit report—the perfect combination for a thief wanting up to 18 years of undisturbed time using a child’s Social Security number to open credit accounts. An intrepid thief can easily glean information from children online—even naming a friend, local sports team, or community event could give away a child's identity, police warn.
- Monitor Their Credit Report. Yes, even if your kids are one and three, you should check their credit report to make sure their private information isn’t at risk.
- Warn Your Child about Posting Personal Information. Teach your child to never post identifying information on the web. It would seem obvious to not post their home address, but many kids include the name of their school in their public profiles, tag their home’s GPS location in pictures, and share statuses of where they’ll be at certain times of the day. And, when your child sets up a new social media account, make a family rule that it must remain private.
Children today seem to be born knowing how to navigate a smart device and the internet faster than their parents. Caution your children about the risks they face online, and set boundaries and rules. The Family Online Safety Institute has a great contract for children to sign that helps them remember responsible technology practices.