Child Internet Safety

Child with ComputerAs the internet becomes increasingly imbedded in the function of everyday life, children are exposed to the internet's usages and dangers at ever-younger ages. For kids and adults alike, the internet presents unparalleled opportunities for education and entertainment, and the earlier a child learns how to use the internet for her personal advantage, the better equipped she will be for school, social experiences, and life in general. It is cruel, backwards, and perhaps impossible to keep children from exploring the internet. But parents, reasonably, have concerns about their children's online safety: 65 percent of eight to fourteen year-olds have been involved in cyber bullying, and 70 percent of kids ages eight to eighteen have accidently encountered pornography online.

There are many schools of thought regarding child internet protection, evolving with each generation of parent that has confronted different internet dangers with different levels of technological know-how. Early internet safety literature is almost alarmist, advising parents to keep a tyrannical grip on their children's internet usage with restrictive software and a big-brother mentality. To be fair, the internet is a scary place for those without a good understanding of its risks and rewards. Parents who have grown up using the internet themselves tend to approach the online world as a mirror for the external world. The dangers that exist in real life also exist on the internet, and children can be educated in online safety just like they are educated to look both ways before they cross the street.

Children's Protection Acts

There are already several federal laws in place to protect children on the internet. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) keeps children younger than thirteen from posting personal information online without a parent's knowledge. In compliance with COPPA, many websites ask users to prove their age before participating. Facebook, for example, will not allow children under thirteen to create a profile. While COPPA protect children's online privacy in theory, in practice COPPA operates on an honors system that is easy for kids who, say, want their own Facebook account, to bypass.

Schools and libraries receiving discounts for internet access are subject to stricter regulations under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). All institutions in the E-rate discount program are required to use filtering software to block access to obscene, pornographic, or harmful images. CIPA-compliant schools and libraries must also monitor minors' online activity and educate children about appropriate internet behavior. Just like they do with COPPA, children can find loopholes that allow them to work around CIPA filters. Federal regulation certainly makes unsafe internet access more difficult for children, but it does not make it impossible. Parents should supplement COPPA/CIPA regulations with a comprehensive at-home internet safety education.

The Internet Safety Conversation

Parents can approach internet safety for their children with the same strategy as pedestrian safety, playground safety, or any other real-world safety concern. But the internet comes with an added challenge: older children and teenagers will usually be one step ahead of their parents online. For most parents, keeping up with the ever-evolving technology and social media platforms is an unrealistic expectation. Parents who approach real-world child safety with helicopter-parent methodology may find that their tactics will not translate seamlessly to online child safety as their children grow into young adults.

For younger children more prone to online accidents and less capable of distinguishing between appropriate and risky behavior, lessons about internet safety can be supplemented by content filters, using specialized software or parental controls included with most internet providers, to block inappropriate articles or images. This restrictive method can be great for toddlers, allowing them to freely learn and explore without many of the potential dangers; but imposing content filters on older children can backfire, making them mistrustful of parents' online judgement and incentivizing secrecy as they will inevitably find ways around the filters. It is important for children understand that all of the lessons they learned about face-to-face interactions also apply to their online activity before they become the internet experts. At least for this moment in history, kids have the power online. It may be unreasonable to keep up with a child's knowledge of the internet, but parents can still incentivize good online behavior and make themselves available to address any concerns that may arise, just as they would for real-world circumstances.

Beginning when their children are young, parents should incorporate lessons on internet safety into broader safety conversations. The talk about "stranger danger," for example, should also include online strangers. Children should understand the danger of providing personal information to someone online if they wouldn't talk to this same person in real life. Using metaphors about safety risks in the physical world can help children understand internet dangers in a way that doesn't involve abstract reasoning beyond their ability. Of course, this method requires parents to have a thorough understanding of internet dangers. Listed below are examples of online risks and safety measures, with suggestions for how they can be discussed with children.

  • People Online are Real People: This is a risk that can go both ways. Children who don't understand that a real person sits behind every computer can be endangered by criminals and phishers they meet online, and they can also endanger the psyche of other children by cyber bullying. In order to address both concerns, parents should stress that online is still the real world. If a child wouldn't behave a certain way in person, they shouldn't do it online either.

  • The Internet is Permanent: With the option to hide behind anonymity and obscurity in online chatrooms or blogs, the internet can feel like it has all the discretion of a diary. So it is important for children to learn, before they share something regrettable, that online posts cannot be erased. Even with an alias, and even if the post is later deleted, anything a child posts online can be traced back to him or her. Online communities can be healing and productive refuges from an ill-fitting social environment at school for many teens, and as such participating in chatrooms or making online friends should not be unilaterally forbidden. Parents, instead, should review the types of information that are safe or unsafe to share online, and make sure children know how to personalize their privacy and security settings on social media.

  • Discerning Safe Sites: In school, children are often taught that domains such as .co.uk, .edu, and .org are always safe and reputable sites. While it used to be true that, for example, .org domains used to be reserved for non-profits, nowadays the rules about registering sites to certain domain names are not as strict. Oftentimes a .org website will be safer than a .com site, but it is not always the case. Parents can restrict a young child's internet usage to a few vetted websites, but older children will not willingly comply with such restrictions. Instead, children should be taught to value reputation online. Just like a child knows not to wander somewhere unfamiliar in the real world without supervision, children should know not to click on websites for institutions they don't recognize. Children may be free to explore sites affiliated with Disney, Nickelodeon, the local public library, or any other organization they are familiar with. But a site for, say, a Barbie fanclub should not be clicked on without an adult present, no matter how reputable it appears. With years of parental guidance under their belts, older children will have internalized safe website selection tactics.

  • Hackers, Predators, and Scammers: Hackers can be explained as a type of criminal that breaks into houses through the computer rather than through the window. Likewise, predators and scammers exist online as well as in real life. Younger children may not understand how exactly an online criminal could hurt them, but they should know that online safety is just as important as real world safety because dangerous people exist online too.

  • Unsolicited Contact: One way that online criminals can "break in" is through unsolicited emails or other unwanted online contact, such as pop-up advertisements or chat windows. If a child is taught not to open a mail package they weren't expecting in real life, they should also know not to open an unsolicited email without parental permission. Sometimes a phisher will hack into a friend's email account or pose as an authoritative institution. Children should, therefore, be taught to look out for suspicious online behavior from friends and strangers alike. Parents should also understand that hackers can be crafty, fooling adults and children alike, and kids shouldn't be automatically blamed for innocent mistakes.

  • Password Protection: Just like kids learn to lock up the house before going out, they should be taught about the importance of protecting all of their gadgets and accounts with secure passwords. A different password should be used for every account, and passwords should be selected carefully. The ideal password is easy to remember but difficult to guess, like a full sentence rather than a birthday or a pet's name.

  • Cleaning Up: websites can redirect to other websites, friends can get hacked, running network scans

  • Resources for Kids: It's tough to strike a balance between informing children on internet dangers without discouraging them from using the internet to its full potential, while ensuring that none of the essential information is beyond their understanding. There are many educational resources, most notably the Cynja app and comic series, designed especially to teach kids how to safely navigate the internet. They may not understand the specifics of malware and botnets, but they will learn about the seriousness of internet dangers.

It is important to have these conversations with children early-on, before they venture out on the internet independently. Take the opportunity, while your children are still using the computer with you, to talk about how the internet parallels the physical world, both in danger and opportunity. Particularly when children are young, no amount of rules and conversations can replace the value of a positive role model spending time with them on the internet, teaching online safety by example. But a set of house rules may be helpful for contextualizing internet safety conversations, and reminding older children to practice the safety skills they already have.

House Rules

In order to maintain a trusting parent-child relationship online, it is essential to establish a healthy balance between teaching skills and enforcing rules. Two standard guidelines in older internet safety articles are 1) a parent should always know more about the internet than their child, and 2) children should never be trusted to educate parents about the internet. True, children will oftentimes grow into young adult internet wizards who could bypass any safety feature if they so desire, but that's all the more reason to establish a foundation of parent-child trust. For most parents, keeping up with their child's knowledge of the internet is not a reasonable expectation. A child's growing brain is able to soak up more information and adapt to the changing internet landscape far faster than an adult's. So, instead of enforcing inflexible restrictions that might inspire rebellion in older children, it's a better idea to introduce internet rules as extensions of the internet safety skills a child already has. Listed below are discussions of common house rules and how they can be incorporated into a family's online safety strategy.

  • Location: Some families choose to keep their desktops in a public space, like the kitchen or living room, in order to more closely monitor their children's internet usage. This strategy can be effective for younger children without alternative internet gadgets such as smartphones or iPads, or for older children who are asked to do their schoolwork on a desktop. As children gain access to portable internet devices, laptops, iPods, etc., the rules about at-home internet access may have to evolve. Some parents set all household devices to "forget" the Wi-Fi network and password after each use, so children have to ask for the password every time they want to access the internet. Other parents may let their children have free reign over the Wi-Fi, but will not give their children portable devices until they have proven themselves to be responsible internet users.

  • Reporting: The most foolproof safety tactic is a close parent-child relationship. Children should feel safe telling their parents about any online experience that made them feel uncomfortable, and parents should facilitate open lines of communication by making sure their children don't feel guilty or judged for anything they inadvertently saw. Parents can also lead by example, sharing their own internet experiences and concerns with their children. Just like family conversations about what happened at school or at work the family's online lives should be open for discussion.

  • Friendship: Children should be encouraged, or required, to "friend" or accept "follow" requests from their family members. Not only will parents be better able to keep up with their children's online activity and social lives, kids will think twice before posting something they wouldn't want their parents to see. In a world where a high number of friends and followers is a status symbol, parents should consider monitoring who their children befriend online. It can be healthy and fun to maintain online friendships outside of more limited in-person social circles, but kids should always feel comfortable "introducing" online friends to their parents.

  • Privacy: Different parents will have different opinions about how private their children's social media accounts should be, but regardless of the specifics, parents should layout expectations for social media privacy settings. An entire account can be kept private - on Facebook this means that any account content is only searchable or viewable for friends, and on Instagram this means all followers must be approved by the account administrator. Any account, public or private, can choose to keep personal information, such as birthdays and email addresses, private.

Reporting Protocol

Social media websites have their own systems for reporting explicit content, blocking dubious users, and keeping personal information private. With the click of a button, individual posts can be reported and removed. Users can control who has access to their personal information by blocking particular people or by enforcing broader privacy restrictions across their account. More detailed privacy and reporting information can be found on each social media website: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Make sure to note the differences between the company's privacy policy (what information the company can access and control) and your personal account's privacy settings (a control panel that allows you to determine who, including other internal users and external websites or search engines, can see the information you post). More specialized social websites, such as fandom chatrooms or online games, will often have their own privacy settings and reporting protocol as well. Before setting up an account with any site, users should be aware of its default safety features.

Contact a local law enforcement agency or the FBI if your child has received child pornography over the internet, or call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (800-843-5678) if you encounter child pornography online.

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