Keeping Our Children Safe Online

Every parent wants to keep their children safe. Threats can lurk in unexpected places, though, and sometimes we get so caught up in the wonderful memories our children create, that we share those moments at a click of a button online with our family and friends. The numerous likes and loving comments are great, but are your shared memories secure?  The reality is that anything you put online will be there forever, and at some point, your data or your children’s will be compromised, breached, or hacked.  It is important to think about privacy and security when online.  We all need to develop boundaries and guidelines to follow when exploring the vast world of the internet.

When we look at our children’s security online, we’re concerned with three major categories of threat. First, and most serious, is the possibility that real-world predators may use material posted online to target our kids or to attempt to directly contact them. Second is the threat that our children may come across content inappropriate to their age, either by their natural explorations or because peers or predators lead them to it. The third possibility is that our kids my infect their own or family computer systems with viruses, malware, or other threatening software.

We can contain these threats most effectively if we treat our children as allies that help us to secure themselves, instead of adversaries that we have to keep under surveillance. If we work with our kids to avoid threats that we all know and understand we can effectively protect against them. If our kids see our concern as harassment or as an unnatural constraint on their freedom they are likely to take their activities underground and hide them, which can easily place them at even greater risk. Effective security for online kids rests on three pillars: educating them so they understand the threats, setting up systems to protect them and ourselves, and effective monitoring to be sure the systems are in use.

Have you ever wondered why most websites ask you to create an account?  The reason is very simple.  They wish to build a customer database which they then use to market and sell products.  Quite often, companies also onsell your personal information to other companies to generate more income.  While this is concerning, the real danger is that anybody can create and market a website these days.  Online predators target both adults and children for a range of scams and crimes.  Again, anything you put online will be there forever.  So next time you are asked to create an account, stop and ask if the website belongs to a reputable company, and if the risk of exposing more of your personal information is worth the service they are offering.  Be sure to teach your kids to never sign up for any website or mobile application without asking themselves the same question and seeking your approval first.

A good practice to ensure your children are safe online is to develop a list of things they can and cannot share.  Start with security settings on social media sites, where kids (and adults) are most likely to share information. The first step is to lock down their accounts so only friends can see their posts.  As their profile picture and background picture are automatically public, ask them not to use photos of themselves or your family.  Go to the “About” section and mark things like date of birth so only they can see it.  As a good starting list teach your kids to avoid posting personal identifiable information (PII), including their date of birth, address, identification cards, email address, birthplace and any phone numbers.  Remind your kids only to add friends who they know and trust outside of social media.  It is hard to ask your kids not to post “selfies,” but following and understanding these guiding principles is a good starting point.  If they do need to post pictures of themselves and their friends, then ask them to be aware of their surroundings when they take the photograph.  The background of a photo can reveal as much as the main subject.

The most common security issue you and your children will face online is malware, a malicious software designed to perform undesired actions on a computer or device without the explicit knowledge or permission of the user.  Malware may be used to gather or destroy information.  The most common type of Malware is the virus.  Never open a suspicious attachment on an email or in a message, especially if it comes from somebody you don’t know.  It is also common for kids to send and receive links via the various messaging applications they use.  Always teach them to look at the sender and establish if they know them first.  Then examine the URL of the link to look for clues as to what website it will take you.  For example, is very safe and a well-known URL.  However, looks very suspicious.  As a good guideline, tell your kids if they have any doubt, don’t click on the attachment or link.

Kids love playing computer games, including the increasingly popular interactive online games.  These online games often allow you to play against other players from around the world.  As with all things online, you can never be sure exactly who is interacting with your kids.  It may be kids their age halfway around the world, but it may be an adult in your area.  Playing age appropriate online games is ok, but remember that most come with a chat facility, which anonymous predators can use to gain personal information from your children.  There have even been reported cases of predators arranging to meet children they talk to online.  If your kids play an online game, you should disable the chat function or be sure they are not using it.  At least when they are using Facebook messenger, for example, only messages from their friends come through assuming you have the highest level of permissions in place.

It’s important to educate our kids about the dangers of sharing information online, but we also need to monitor their activity.  Checking your children’s social media activities, and then refining your agreed safety guidelines with them, should be a weekly occurrence.  You don’t need to invade their privacy by reading all their messages from their friends, but you should at least check that their messages are all from people you have agreed they can interact with online, such as family and schoolmates.  Perhaps you can spend time together playing an online game, which will give you something fun to do together and provide a better understanding of both the content and potential chat messages that your children are seeing.  Make a simple checklist and set yourself a reminder once a week to follow it.  For example:  Check Facebook posts, scan messages to check senders, check Twitter posts, check Instagram posts, check web browser history for recent pages visited, check email for subscriptions and suspicious links.  Keeping that level of security may seem a little over the top, but once in place, you can scale this back as needed.

We have spoken about the dangers of creating accounts online, posting certain content in public places, exposing personal information online, and awareness of malware such as viruses and the hidden dangers of playing online games.  Education, following basic guidelines, and checking on a regular basis can help you protect your children from cyber predators.  As parents, we want to enjoy the great memories our children create while keeping one eye on protecting your family’s data and staying safe in this digital world.  Be sure to share what you learnt with other parents as well.  As a community, we should be working together to educate each other and our next generation.  Next time you go to share a memory online, pause for a minute and consider if you are comfortable with this remaining in cyberspace forever.

About IronSocket

Our staff has been involved with computers since the early days of dial up modems. We have combined experiences spanning decades working on a multitude of internet based projects. One of our goals is to make a conscience effort to inform others about staying safe on the internet. If you ever need to reach us, leave a comment, put in a ticket, or contact us using our website's contact us form.