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How to Keep Your Kids Safe Online

Good Digital Citizenship

Social media posts, comments, videos and photos once posted online are virtually impossible to remove. All it takes is one person to copy, forward, take a screenshot of or record and forward something via instant messaging or on social media and all control is lost over what happens to that information moving forward. Besides a few red faces after making inappropriate posts online, there has been and will be many other cases where a picture posted online, a passionate post on Facebook or a silly video of a friend passed on via WhatsApp will cause someone much regret.

Being a good online citizen means not being responsible for sharing anything online that in any way could hurt someone, no matter how small. When something incriminating, embarrassing, socially unacceptable or potentially hurtful is posted online or shared with you, being a good online citizen means you will not spread it further, and you will report content that is hurting someone you know, whether you care about them or not. Many online users are not in the least good online citizens, and we need to teach our children not to be brought down to that level and only not to accept that type of behaviour.

So how do you teach your kids to be good digital or online citizens? The easiest way is probably to compare being a good online citizen to being a good real world citizen. And just as you expect of them to be a good citizen in real life - how they treat other people, how they act at school, being honest and caring - so do you expect of them to be a good citizen online.

It should also be explained that not being a good digital citizen and posting harmful content online will not only result in a bad reputation but that family members, parents, brothers, sisters and their closest friends could also be affected negatively by such actions. The old golden rule holds true. Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

Teaching Safe Online Use

Just as there are certain risks in daily living, there are certain risks we take when allowing our children to use the internet. As you teach your kids to look left and right when they cross the road, so you should teach them certain rules for using the internet.

On the other hand just because there are threats online doesn’t mean you should completely shelter your kids from exploring and enjoying what the internet has to offer, the same as you wouldn't lock them up so that they never get run over by a car.

The more you educate and guide your kids when it comes to using the internet, sharing on social media and all the other experiences the internet has to offer, the more responsible, careful and ultimately secure they will be.

When teaching your kids online safety, the offline word narrative always works well. We teach our children how to act and behave in the real world on a daily basis, so when we draw comparisons to lessons already learned in the real world, it is much easier for them to develop an understanding of what can, or should not be done online. An example of this is the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ rule every child gets taught. Just as they shouldn’t talk to strangers without the knowledge or in the presence of their parents or teachers, so they shouldn’t do it online.

While we can teach and guide our children to act responsibly and smart when using the internet, clear consequences are however very necessary when they don’t. A clear set of rules that cannot be broken should be written down and discussed with them. If they break these rules and act inappropriately online, there should be direct consequences. Whether that be a good long discussion, a firm warning or temporarily taking away access to the internet, is up to you.

Lastly, you need to decide how much privacy you offer your children when it comes to their digital lives. Up to a certain age, it may be a good idea to explain to your kids that their phones and computers are not private to them. That you as their parents have the right to at any point in time open up their phones to have a look at the pictures they’ve taken, the messages they have sent and the messages that have been sent to them

10 Golden Rules for Children when using the Internet

Setting rules for internet use is critical, especially with younger users.

The rules below are meant as a guide only and depending on the age of your child you may choose to set even stricter rules, or to allow a bit more freedom.

  1. Don’t do anything, say anything, post anything or share anything online or via instant messaging that you won’t mind everyone to see, even when you think your message or post is private.

  2. Don’t post, share or comment on anything online that can hurt or offend someone else. Your negative comments or posts will not only hurt others but will at some point in your life be used against you.

  3. Report it when you or someone you know is being bullied or made fun of online.

  4. Don’t share personal information such as your address or your whereabouts online.

  5. Don’t talk to strangers and never agree to meet anyone you’ve met online. You never know who you’re actually dealing with.

  6. Be nice to other people online.

  7. When you don’t have something positive to add to a conversation, keep your thoughts to yourself.

  8. Don’t share pictures or videos of your friends or family with anyone without their consent, even if you think it’s harmless.

  9. Don’t post pictures of yourself online unless there is a really good reason to do so, and never without permission.

  10. Never give out your passwords or passcodes.

Critical Thinking Skills

One crucial lesson you need to give your kids is that just as in real life, things aren’t always as they appear online and that brings us to critical thinking. Teaching critical thinking to your children will not only aid them in making better decisions online but in life too. While this topic warrants a book on its own, I’ll cover the basics.

Critical thinking is the process of evaluating scenarios/ideas/arguments logically while considering real evidence. It’s a way of thinking that brings one to logical conclusions devout of personal or inspired beliefs and prejudice. What critical thinking allows one to do is to come to better conclusions in general and it helps us make better decisions when faced with new ideas and challenges.

It is a way of thinking where one doesn’t only accept what is put on the table but rather to test that idea while considering what the evidence has to say. So why is this important in the context of the internet? Because so much of the information available online is just false!

Believing what simply isn’t so is outright dangerous and can result in real bad decisions with real bad outcomes. Whether that be falling prey to strange cults, believing in magical medicine, being convinced of theories that go against scientific knowledge, or just believing something that is said about someone online that isn’t true.

Besides being more exposed when one does not think critically, critical thinking will help your kids make much better decisions in life. They should understand that they simply cannot believe something because it's written somewhere online, heard it from a movie star, an authority figure or a good friend, but that they should question, evaluate and logically think about the information presented using real evidence.

Thinking critically will help your children make better decisions online and in life.

Getting Behind the Technology

Before I share my advice about the technology and how to provide a safe online environment, I need to emphasise that without the foundations of being a good digital citizen and communicating with your children about how they use and interact online, no amount of software protection or restrictions will help. There will always be a way for a determined user, whether that be your son, your daughter or one of their friends to contravene those rules, restrictions and safeguards you put in place.

Computers

The first steps in securing your family’s digital life are to secure the devices that have access to the internet. While people now mostly use their cellphones as the primary device to access the internet, many of us still use a combination of computers and cell phones.

Since we store and share so much of our personal information on and through these devices, it’s important to safeguard them against intrusion and malicious software. The four main ingredients to achieve this are anti-virus/malware protection, regular software updates a secure login and a little bit of care.

Antivirus and Malware Protection

When using a Microsoft based PC this is essential. Most viruses are written for Microsoft operating systems than any other simply because of their numbers. That does not mean that a Mac cannot be infected, the chances are just much smaller.

While the newest versions of Windows now come with anti-virus and malware protection built in, older versions still need additional anti-virus software installed. The one I use is the one I’ll recommend. It is called Microsoft Security Essentials which is a free, regularly updated anti-virus package. There are many others to choose from (Google: “best free windows antivirus”) but whichever one you choose remember that an anti-virus application is only as good as the last update. Do not skip or turn off your virus definition update. This is crucial for the functioning of the software. An anti-virus application cannot detect viruses it’s not aware of.

Software Updates

Software updates are critical to securing your computer. These updates contain security bug fixes that close security holes on your computer. Install them, without question. Do not turn them off and do not ignore them. Besides offering enhanced security, they also contain software updates that improve the performance of your system.

Parental Controls

While educating your children about safe online use is the first step, it is still a good idea to have some form of parental control system. Curiosity is a powerful thing, and even if you trust your children 100%, you cannot trust that their friends who also have access to their computers will not search for or visit websites which are not appropriate for children.

There is a multitude of these parental control applications available and a quick Google search on “best free parental control software” will offer some suggestions. These applications allow you to control which websites can be accessed from the computer, it allows for blocking of adult content and some also provide tracking and reporting. It should be understood that this is just one more layer that can assist in providing a safe online environment for your children but that it is by no means a complete solution to online safety.

Local Account Security

One important factor in securing your computer and the data that is stored on there is to set up local security and permissions. Most families share their computers at home and most do so all on the same user account. Besides not having direct control over who will have access to what, the main user of a computer has full administrative control over that system so anyone that can log on to that account has the ability to delete data, install malicious software whether deliberate or unknowingly, bypass security measures such as parental control software or access your personal and private information. If a computer is shared, parents should set up a separate account for their children which does not have administrative privileges on that system and the password for the main administrator account should not be shared with anyone.

Smartphones

Deciding at what age you will allow your children to own and use a smartphone is a personal matter, but it is imperative to understand the risks involved with these always-on always-connected devices. These devices come with a lot of responsibility, way too much to just rely on trust. It goes without saying that the older and better educated your children are about the safe and responsible use of their phones, the more you can relax the rules of their use. It is however simply not a good idea to allow young children to use smartphones without a very clear set of rules, and a lot of physical restrictions. While we don’t want to police our children, their physical and emotional well-being should be your number one consideration when deciding how, when and where they use their phones.

Camera

Smartphone cameras are great. Most of us now have a high-resolution camera we carry around with us all the time, and snapping pics have never been more easy. Besides having a camera on us at all times, pictures are no more something we just download and keep on our computers (or develop and put in an album). They can now be instantly shared with family and friends all across the world via email, instant messaging or social media.

This amazing ability to instantly share images and videos is also what makes the camera such a risky feature for children to have access to. As we’ve touched on before, sharing information online is, for the most part, permanent and by online I’m not only referring to social media websites like Facebook but through instant messaging or email too. There’s no difference if you consider the fact that there is now a copy of that picture video to be shared by the receiver across all mediums. One misguided act of sharing an image can have serious repercussions. Whether it be of oneself, a friend or even a stranger.

For this reason, it should be made very clear to a young internet user that even when they think the information they share online is private, it’s not. Sending a picture to a friend via WhatsApp or sharing it on your Facebook page is by no means private.

The permanence of sharing information online is something you will need to drill your children about. The friends they send pictures or videos to may not be their friends in future and may then decide to share those videos or pictures with someone that was never intended to see it, or to any open platform on the internet. Whenever they want to share a picture or video, send a message or make a post online, they should ask themselves how they would feel if it’s get’s shared for everyone to see.

Photography as a hobby is still something that can and should be encouraged but setting clear rules about what type of pictures are allowed, when and where camera use is allowed and where those pictures are allowed to be posted is very important. You may choose to disable the camera in your child's smartphone and only allow access when you deem it appropriate. Whatever the terms you decide on, managing the use of your kids’s camera is a major step in safeguarding their privacy and should not be taken lightly.

Besides teaching your children to use their cameras responsibly, it is as important to teach them not allow their pictures to be taken by their friends when not appropriate. Their friends may not be so lucky to have parents like you that take their privacy and safety as serious as you do.

Restrictions

It is possible and advisable to set up restrictions on phones that are used by children, the same way you should set up parental controls on a computer. These restrictions can include internet access, installation of apps, camera use and much more. While setting clear rules for what is allowed and not allowed is important, it is also important to not completely rely on your child’s better judgment.

While different phones have varying degrees of restrictions, the general idea behind them is the same, control over functions the phone provides using a control panel protected by a password. To find out more about setting restrictions for your particular phone, do a search on Google for “how to set cell phone restrictions.”

Apps

While there’s not much of a distinction between websites and apps these days, apps are most often used on cellphones to access social networks, to communicate and to consume content. Whether that be Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram or WhatsApp. It’s a good idea to keep track of the apps your children use and to restrict access to those you don’t feel comfortable with.

Restricting access to some apps is however not a reliable solution as there may be alternative apps that provide the same functionality. For younger children, the best option is to restrict the ability to install new apps and only allow apps to be installed with your consent. It may also be necessary to monitor the use of these apps to decide whether or not they are being used responsibly.

Phone Passcodes

Another responsibility your child will have is to choose who they allow using their phone. They should understand that outside of the home, their phones are private and they should carefully consider who they allow to access them. It should also be made clear that they should under no circumstances share their passcode with even their closest friends. Considering that the apps on your phone are logged into all your accounts by default, an unlocked phone in the hands of someone with evil intentions can be devastating.

Wi-Fi Cameras / Baby Monitors

One thing that often gets overlooked when considering privacy is wireless IP cameras. Whether they are used for home security, or as baby monitors, wireless cameras offer a window into your home. When not set up correctly they can result in a serious invasion of privacy. It is not that wireless cameras are inherently insecure, it is that they don’t get configured properly. The biggest mistake people make when setting up their wireless cameras is not to change the default login credentials. It is vital that you set up a new username and password when you install these cameras. Besides securing them, it’s probably not a good idea to leave them connected 24 hours a day. After all, you probably do not need then enabled when you’re at home.

Modems and Routers

Another device that often gets plugged in and ignored are WiFi routers. As with wireless cameras, it is important to change their default login credentials. Besides the login credentials, it is also important to add a layer of security to your WiFi.

Unsecured WiFi networks are easy targets for intruders. Besides possibly using your network to access the internet, they will also be able to communicate with the devices connected to that WiFi network and possibly gain unauthorised access. Since every router or modem will work differently, I won’t go into the exact details of how to do this but a quick Google search for “how to secure your home wifi” will point you in the right direction.

I’ve touched on all parts of online privacy, from the user to the device we use. In this chapter I will look a bit more closely at the apps and software, we regularly use in our online adventures.

Internet Browsers

Your internet browser is your primary gateway to the web. Whether you use Chrome, FireFox or Safari, you probably spend a lot of your time using your browser to access websites which store your private information like Google, Gmail, Facebook, DropBox and other online services like banking. To make sure your connection to these websites is secure, it is important to use an up to date browser, whatever flavour of browser you prefer. Besides using up to date and secure internet browsers, there are a couple of other considerations when accessing information via the browser. These are important to understand so that not only you browse safer, but also so that you can make sure the rest of your family does too.

Secure Connections

Whenever you use a website that stores information, whether that be Google when you do a search online, an email service, a social network or an online shop, you need to make sure that you are connecting securely. The easiest way to determine this is by the lock icon your browser displays - most of the time, this is located next to the website URL in the address bar of your browser.

Tracking and Online History

Some browsers like Chrome allows you to sign into them with your Google account. While this adds some functionality, it should be understood that your searches and your online activity are being recorded against your Google account.

Google are by no means the only company that tracks your online habits and most of the time it's not something to be concerned about. It is simply something you need to be aware of so that when you use a shared computer, you realise that if someone else is logged into their browser, your search, and browsing history will be stored on their account and vice versa.

In the case of Google, you can view and manage your online history by searching for “Google history” on Google. It is important to share this information with your family so that next time when they use a shared computer, they do not leave any personal information behind. Make sure you sign out of your accounts when done and never choose the option to save passwords.

Online Accounts and Security

Cloud storage services are becoming ever more popular, nd we now store much more personal information online than ever before. Some deliberately, and some that we’re not even aware of. Services like DropBox, Google Drive or iCloud all allow us to store our documents and photos online and are hugely popular.

With so much of our personal information stored online, it is vital that solid security is put in place to safeguard your information. If you’re like most people, you use a single password for most of the websites and services that require you to log in. The problem with this is that once someone knows what that password is, they can access all of these accounts without any trouble.

There are two solutions to this. One. Use better passwords. Two. Enable 2-step verification. With two-step verification, you need to enter a temporary pin that is sent to your phone before getting access. So even should an attacker have your password, they would also need to have physical access to your phone before that can log into your accounts. Most online service now offers 2-step verification and it is highly recommended that you enable this feature for all your online services.

A quick Google search with the service + 2-step verification will point you in the right direction. For example: “Facebook 2-step verification” Once again, help your family and children to set up the same for their online accounts.

Social Networks and Privacy Settings

Social networks are becoming more open by default and while one should never share anything online that they don’t care to be read and seen by all, now or in future, it is still important to understand that each social network has privacy controls which can be configured to offer a more private experience.

Generally it is a good idea to set these privacy controls so that only the connections you have made directly are able to see the posts you have made, especially in the case of children who still need a little more experience in determining what is appropriate and what is not. Once again, a Google search for “privacy settings” + “name of social network” will aid you in configuring your social network’s privacy settings best.

Final Words

The biggest takeaway from this guide should be that the best way to protect your kids online is through education and hands-on parenting. While you may be able to limit and control access at home and on your children’s devices, the internet is available everywhere.

Your kids will have access to the internet not only through their own phones but their friends too. They will have internet access through cellular and other WiFi networks, at their friend's homes, in public Wi-Fi areas and at school thus making it impossible for you to have complete control.

However, with a clear set of rules for internet and smartphone use, guidance on good digital citizenship, critical thinking skills and firm consequences for inappropriate online behavior, you’re children will make smarter decisions when using their phones, computers, and the internet.

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