Kids are roaming the internet at younger and younger ages, and parents are finding it harder to rein them in. Plus, as children progress into the tween and teen years, they want to venture on their own into cyberspace without parental oversight.
While you can’t keep your kids off the web forever, you do need to protect them from online predators and inappropriate content. Fortunately, there are ways to find a balance, keeping children safe while giving them the skills to navigate the cyberworld. Here are five of them.
1. Start With a Simplified Smartphone
While more and more youngsters are carrying and using cell phones, not everyone needs the latest 5G smartphone. To stay in touch yet keep kids safe from inappropriate content, a smartphone geared to the younger set is a good idea. Choose a phone for kids that lets your child text or call you, play music, and take photos. Few other apps will be necessary now, and this will keep those photos from going out into cyberspace.
As your young one gets older, you have the option of upgrading to a fuller-featured phone as needed. With a first smartphone, having no games encourages your child to use the phone as a simple tool. They’ll probably start lobbying for a standard smartphone soon enough, but you can still decide which apps they can add.
2. Teach Responsible Use of School-Issued Tablets
You can limit your child’s online access by getting them a kids phone, but what happens when school rolls around? Many school districts will issue an internet-enabled tablet at the beginning of the academic year. The student and their parents then sign a form stating that the student will adhere to the school district’s rules for it. These prohibitions are helpful, and content filters are typically installed on such devices. Yet neither is a complete guarantee that your child won’t find sites they shouldn’t be viewing.
Monitor the classes and projects your student is working on. Talk to your child, especially if they’re in elementary school, about using their device safely. Let them know that if they accidentally come across a site that bothers them, they can talk to you. As your child gets older, and the schoolwork and online research become more complex, continue to talk about safety. This includes — most importantly — not sharing personal information like home address, school name, or phone number online.
3. Use Parental Controls to Reinforce Safety Guidelines
Particularly in the tween and teen years, when social media interaction begins, it’s important to build on earlier rules about safe computer use. At this point, your child may have their own laptop. Between schoolwork and PC gaming, they could spend a considerable amount of time in front of its screen. That means it’s time to establish some firm usage guidelines.
Install one of the many parental controls solutions available to limit and monitor your child’s online activity. Insist that anything that gets downloaded — social media platforms, games, apps — be approved by you. To previous warnings about not disclosing personal information, add cautions against friending anyone on social media your child hasn’t actually met. Periodically check their friends list and browsing history for anything concerning. If you encounter overtures of a sexual or otherwise inappropriate nature, report that to the proper authorities.
4. Keep Home Computers in a Central Location
Perhaps your family keeps a laptop in the kitchen or a corner of the family room. To encourage safe general computer use by your child, make that the place where they hang out. Under your watchful eye, they can play approved online games and surf the web. They can find good things online, such as new library books or ideas for a school project. You can be available if they come across anything inappropriate.
A centrally located computer enables you, the parent, to model good computer safety protocols. Say you’re on Instagram, and you see that someone has requested to follow you. You check the request, and there are no posts by that person, but the photo is that of a friend who follows you already. You conclude your friend’s account was hacked and point this out to your child. This is a teachable moment in computer safety and will show your kid the kinds of scams to watch out for.
5. Promote Offline Living
We live in a world where everything, from the self-checkout to the smartphone to the latest refrigerator, has a computer chip. The key is to not let your child be ruled by electronic devices. One of the best ways to keep your child safe online is to balance their online time with other things. Sports, hobbies, the arts, music, and time spent in nature are all healthy and engaging alternatives to screen use.
Limit time on computers, tablets, and smartphones and get your kid outdoors! Let them research things to do in your area, then plan that adventure. Later on, they can take the lead in family vacation planning online. Then you can all unplug and enjoy some screen-free time together.
As the years pass, and the online world gets more and more crowded, safety has to be a priority. The first thing to do is sit down and talk with your child at a level they can understand. Later, make sure they’re not so absorbed by social media and the internet at large that they lose sight of everything else. As you ensure their online safety now, they’ll become well-informed and well-educated online users.