Parents Guide to Internet Safety: How to Keep Your Child Safe Online & Prevent Child Identity Theft

Katie
Katie Jul 22

Online safety is important at all ages

Teenagers in the United States spend vast amounts of time each day using screens as a form of leisure and entertainment, according to a 2019 report from Common Sense Media. Teens spend an average of seven hours and 22 minutes on their phones a day, and tweens - ages 8 to 12 - are not far behind, at four hours and 44 minutes daily. The time does not include time spent watching TV, reading, listening to music, or doing schoolwork. Those activities add as much as two hours to a child's online time, with a total of nine hours and 49 minutes per day; the total for tweens is five hours and 54 minutes daily.

Protecting children online proves more challenging than ever. Common Sense Media’s report shows that 53% of 11 year-olds have a smartphone; by age 12, 69% use their own devices, an astonishing increase from 41% as reported in 2015.

Overview:

Why Is Internet Safety Important?

High exposure to the internet makes it necessary to teach kids how to protect themselves online. Whether it be from predators, identity thieves, cyberbullies, or inappropriate material, parents need to show their children how to protect themselves and avoid dangerous situations.

It’s no easy task - children today are born in the digital age, and there is a myriad of social networking and game sites that can be difficult for adults to wrap their heads around. Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, Fortnite, Tiktok, the list goes on and on. New apps and social networking sites are being launched every day.

Due to the ever-changing landscape online and the risks it poses, it's crucial to maintain an open dialogue with children about their internet use and how to stay safe by protecting personal details and not trusting strangers.

What Is Cyberbullying?

One of the biggest threats children and teens face when they go online is cyberbullying. Parents often don't realize the gravity of cyberbullying. According to a 2020 report, 73% of teens have reported being bullied, 44% in the past thirty days. The report also shows 87% of teens have seen cyberbullying.

These attacks may come in many different forms, but all have one common thread in that they are digital. Typical forms of cyberbullying are:

  • Sharing media (photos or videos) that is meant to embarrass a person and is cruel in intention, violent, or sexually explicit.
  • Repeated harassment and physical threats made via social media, text messages, or message apps.
  • The creation of fake social media profiles to solicit personal information or hacking social media profiles to send false and hurtful messages.

Cyberbullying, unlike traditional bullying, can be unrelenting and inescapable. Once a video or photo posts online, it can be downloaded and shared thousands of times, making it impossible to remove it completely from existence.

How Do I Know if My Child Is at Risk, or a Victim of Cyberbullying?

Every child is at risk of being bullied online. The best thing to do is keep an eye out for changes in behavior and listen to your child. If you suddenly find that your teen is not spending time with their friends, seems depressed or angry, doesn't want to go to school, is doing poorly in school, or is avoiding their computer or cellphone, start a discussion about cyberbullying and ask if they are okay.

It's important for victims of cyberbullying to feel loved and supported at home, and for them to know that it isn't their fault that they are being targeted. Victims of cyberbullying are much more likely to use drugs and alcohol, hurt themselves, and may even contemplate or commit suicide.

How Can I Protect My Child's Online Reputation?

Many teens don't realize the importance of an online reputation. We were all adolescents at one point and know that at this stage in a person’s life, they don't often make the best choices. The last part of the brain to fully mature is the part that we use to control our emotions and impulses, pay attention, and think logically. That doesn't happen until we reach 26!

Teens aren't in full control of their emotions and aren't thinking logically 100% of the time, so they need guidance from their parents. Make sure your teen understands the consequences of oversharing personal information on social media, via text messages, or message apps.

According to a study done by Kaplan Test Prep, 25% of college admission officers check applicants' Facebook and other social media profiles, like Twitter, when deciding whether or not to accept them as future students. Not only could posting inappropriate content on social media affect their social lives, but it can also negatively affect their future education and career path.

As a first step, parents should run a quick search of their child's name in search engines, like Google. For the best and most accurate results, make sure that you are searching for any nicknames or usernames your child might have and include the town or city where you live.

If you find worrisome content, approach your child in a calm and non-judgmental manner. Make sure the child understands why some things shouldn’t be shared, and work with them to delete any inappropriate content and improve their privacy settings. Encourage them to think before they post, share, or like something.

Even sending private messages can lead to negative consequences. Anything that you do online can leave a digital footprint that can be captured in a screenshot and shared, plus you don't always know who is on the other side of the screen. Discourage your child from sending things that they wouldn't want others to know about or see via private messages.

There are several other ways that you can help your child protect their online reputation:

  • Create an account on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, and ask to be friends with your child. Children may have multiple accounts, but this will still allow you to see some of the content they post and or have posted about themselves. It will also give you a better understanding of the specific social media platform and how it works. 
  • Download the same apps as your child and become familiar with what they are and how they work. Settings on apps are often different than those online.
  • Go over all of the privacy settings on their social media accounts with them. Encourage them only to be friends with people who they know and trust and to only share posts with their friends and not publicly.
  • On some social media sites, you can take control of where the child is being tagged. On Facebook, for example, if you go to Settings & Privacy > Settings > Timeline and Tagging, you can choose who can tag you. Sometimes it might not be your child that is posting inappropriate things; it could be one of their friends who is tagging them. By changing these settings, they will be able to take control of their profile and what information is visible.
  • Lead by example, i.e., as a parent, don't use profanity on social media or post pictures that you wouldn't want your child posting. Avoid arguing on social media and never harass someone online.
  • Don’t assume the app or game has your child’s best interests at heart. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million for violations against the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The case stated that TikTok failed to get parental consent for accounts registered to anyone under the age of 13. The company also failed to notify parents how it collected and used the children's data.

By following these tips, you'll be able to help your child keep a good online reputation that will help them in the future.

How Can I Protect My Child From Identity Theft?

Children, like adults, are susceptible to identity theft. However, in cases where children are the victims of identity theft, it could take years to realize that damage has occurred. They may not find out that their credit score is terrible until they apply for a credit card or school loan, identity theft could prevent your child from both of these things and mean many more problems for their future.

Maintaining online privacy isn't just important for your child's personal wellbeing, but also for their financial wellbeing. Make sure that they're not sharing any overly personal information like their home address, cell phone number, and other sensitive pieces of information online. You can use a reverse phone lookup service, like CallerSmart, to make sure that your child's cell phone number isn't listed publicly. Many times a child might post their phone number on social media sites making it public.

Parents also need to be very careful with their children's personal information, be sure to never share your child's social security number in an insecure manner or with someone you don't know who has contacted you in an unsolicited way. Be aware of email and voice phishing scams that could try to solicit sensitive information from you.

If you feel that your son or daughter may be the victim of identity theft, file a report immediately with the three major credit reporting companies. In the U.S., the three main credit reporting companies are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. For more information, the Federal Trade Commission offers step-by-step instructions.

Are Online Games Dangerous?

Many adolescents now play online and mobile games as a means of entertainment and a way to socialize with others. While 70% of people playing online games are adults, children still represent a large number of those glued to their screens.

Not all games present cyberbullying dangers, but those that connect with others outside the home or the child’s circle run a greater risk of danger. Also, consider that a gamer rarely, if ever, meets the person he’s been playing with online. In that case, parents should take extra precautions.

How Can I Protect My Child if They Play Online Games?

There are a number of ways in which you can help your child stay safe while playing online and mobile games:

  • Research the games that your child wants to play and check their ESRB rating to make sure that they are appropriate.
  • Make sure all devices use up-to-date antivirus and anti-malware software. Keep the computer in a central location, like the family or living room.
  • Tell your child to let you know before downloading anything and look into installing parental control software.
  • Help your child choose a screen name that doesn't reveal their identity. Usernames should be non-identifying, like "Frisbee10," and not include things such as first and last name, nickname, birthday, address, or school name.
  • Passwords should be strong and complex, using upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. You can make up a sentence with your child that they can use as a password for their gaming accounts.
  • Make sure that your child knows about the importance of privacy and not to share information with people they meet online. Just as they wouldn't tell a stranger on the street personal details, people that they are playing games with online shouldn't be privy to personal information either.
  • Discuss cyberbullying with your children and make sure that they know how to handle cyberbullying situations. Encourage them to ignore cyberbullies, and teach them how to document and report cyberbully abuse.

Online and mobile games, such as augmented reality and role playing games (RPG), continue to change and create new risks. The most that parents can do is to stay informed about the different games their children are playing and have an open dialogue about the safety precautions that should be taken.

With augmented reality games, like Minecraft Earth, parents should encourage their children to keep in mind the same tips as listed above. Unlike most types of online and mobile games, to play this game users need to be outside, walking around and exploring different locations. Warn your children to always be aware of their surroundings and never go walking to places where they haven't been or are unfamiliar with. They should always let you know where they are going and should stay in that area only. 

Another issue with location-based games is that they will ask for more permissions than other games. Check the privacy settings on your child's phone to make sure that they aren't sharing unnecessary information with the company that makes the game. This is a good habit to build as many apps will ask for extra permissions that are not necessary to play the game or use the services that are offered by the app.

For more helpful gaming tips StaySafeOnline.org has many resources to help you safeguard your children when they play online and mobile games.

How Can I Reduce My Child's Screen Time?

It's important to put limits on the amount of screen time your child spends every day. A good way of doing this is by setting a positive example yourself and following some of the same rules that you've set for your children.

Some easy ways to reduce screen time are:

  • Create a no phones/TV/tablets rule during family mealtime.
  • Have a family game night or practice a shared hobby together at least once a week.
  • Encourage your children to participate in after school sports or some form of exercise that's outdoors.
  • Have a tech curfew and don't use cell phones, TVs, computers or tablets after it. To better enforce this rule you can set up a charging station that is outside of the bedrooms. Smartphones and tablets can get left to charge overnight in this area.
  • Use an analog alarm clock instead of your phone.
  • Don't have TVs or computers in bedrooms.

There are many different ways that you can help your children reduce their screen time, you can even incorporate them into the conversation and get creative. Find out what their interests are and how you can help them pursue them.

Where Can I Learn More?

There are many helpful resources online ConnectSafely.org and StaySafeOnline.org have an abundance of resources on how to protect pre-teens and teens online and keeping kids safe by talking about online safety.

For more information on parental control software and internet safety, DigitalTrends offers an excellent guide to parental control software for PCs, Macs, and Android phones.