Steps You Need to Take to Keep Your Children Safe Online
By Dr. Jessica Sapp, Associate Professor, School of Health Sciences, and Whitney Rice, Bachelor of Public Health Alumna, American Military University
Concerns over child Internet safety is a common occurrence among parents. Cyberbullying, dangerous Internet “challenges,” adult content spliced into children’s videos, grooming, sexting and self-harm are all serious concerns in a tech-reliant society.
Though the Internet is more integrated than ever into our children’s lives, safety precautions seem to be at an all-time low. Many parents have reacted to safety precautions by taking away their children’s devices or deleting apps altogether. Yet, these actions rarely last long. The best option lies in taking simple precautions to make the Internet safer for kids.
Talking with Your Kids
Having a conversation with your children is the most important first step in ensuring their safety on the Internet. Talking to your kids does not have to be difficult. Here are some tips on what to cover:
- Be honest, blunt and age-appropriate: Let kids know there are people on the Internet who have bad intentions. Being honest about the benefits and risks of online activity will encourage open communication.
- Inform parents or guardians: Instruct your children to inform a parent or guardian immediately if they encounter anything a parent wouldn’t like, or that makes them feel bad.
- Don’t talk to online strangers: Children should never talk to strangers online. It is easy to believe you are safely interacting with strangers online because you aren’t physically with that person, but this is a false sense of security.
- Don’t download from the Internet: Tell your children never to download anything without a parent or guardian’s permission. There are too many computer viruses and hackers out here that have destructive motives.
- Internet etiquette or Netiquette: Talk to your kids about cyber-bullying and respect. Communicating from “behind the computer screen,” that is, not face to face, can make kids less mindful of their words or actions. The written word doesn’t include your tone or non-verbal communication, so it important to practice proper Internet etiquette.
In addition to these topics, inform your children that the Internet is a privilege requiring responsibility. Set clear rules and boundaries that have appropriate consequences when they are not followed.
Creating a Safer Online Environment
It is possible to allow your children some freedom on their devices. Many of the popular Internet apps and enabled devices have comprehensive parental controls available.
- YouTube and YouTube Kids: Parents can restrict accounts to only pre-approved content, enable age filters, and limit YouTube Kids to human-reviewed channels and recommendations.
- Google Family Link: Google Family Link allows parents to track their child’s location, activity and screen time, and is one of the best options for younger Android users. It also allows parents to create search filters, browser filters and lock a child’s device remotely.
- Apple iOS: Apple devices are trickier to monitor in versions before iOS 12. However, you can still restrict content by using a passcode on devices with prior iOS versions. Devices utilizing iOS 12 have Screen Time to set limits and restrict content.
Gaming devices offer unique challenges to child safety. Video game consoles now offer much more than just a means to play games. They are Internet-enabled, have communication features and expose your children to strangers.
Each major video game device contains parental control options. PlayStation allows parents to enable web filters, restrict communication while on the PlayStation Network, restrict play time, and restrict playable games by ESRB rating.
Xbox also has parental controls to limit screen time, filter content and set age limits. Nintendo is a prized family gaming option, with consistently rigid parental control options across all systems. The newest addition to the Nintendo family, the Nintendo Switch, allows parents to restrict and monitor their children’s gaming devices from their smartphones in addition to managing them on the console. Parents can set age restriction levels, filter content, manage play time, and lock children out of devices.
The parental control options integrated into video game systems are great ways to keep your kids safe. However, it is still important that you consider your children’s maturity level and, if necessary, supervise them while they are playing.
Social Media and Mobile Apps
Parents with older children have the biggest challenges regarding Internet safety. Social media can be a great tool for teenagers, but it can also be dangerous. While some social media sites such as Facebook do have options to secure your teen’s personal information, report abuse and check up on them, many apps do not have such options.
Apps without such safety options allow teens to post and live-stream videos, engage in chats where messages are deleted automatically, rate each other on physical appearance, ask anonymous questions, hide content on their devices, and more. They also sorely lack age restrictions in most cases.
The importance of communication cannot be emphasized enough when trying to keep your teens safe on social media and the Internet. Make sure you check in with your teens often and let them know you are still available to talk with them about anything that bothers them. Ensure that you are staying up to date on the latest apps and Internet trends. Do not feel guilty for monitoring your children’s activities, checking their history, or banning apps for their safety.
Regardless of your preventive measures, there is still a chance they can be exposed to inappropriate or unsafe content. Regularly talking about identifying risks and unsafe content will teach your kids better avoidance tactics. Supervision remains the best option, at least until you are confident that your child has enough emotional and social maturity to be in another room alone.
Although keeping your child safe on the Internet can seem daunting, parental engagement goes a long way.
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About the Authors
Dr. Jessica Sapp is an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at APUS. She has over 13 years of experience in public health, working in various environments including government, hospitals, health insurance, community, international, corporate and academia. Jessica earned her D.P.H. in health policy and management at Georgia Southern University and a M.P.H. in health promotion, education and behavior at the University of South Carolina. She also has a B.S. in health science education from the University of Florida.
Whitney Rice is a Bachelor of Public Health Alumna at AMU and is currently enrolled in the Master of Public Health Program. She is the 2019 recipient of the APUS Undergraduate Academic Scholar Award for the School of Health Sciences. She is currently self-employed as a private STEM tutor for K-12 students. She is a volunteer at AMU, helping to compile and distribute public health information through social media. Whitney is a mother to a school-age child and strives to educate other parents about how to keep their children safe online.