How to Create a Safe Online Environment for Children
The freedom and variety offered by the internet make it a notoriously attractive space for children of all ages. There’s always something to watch, someone to talk to. Adults sometimes find the sheer volume of information overwhelming. Children, on the other hand, feel like they’re skipping around in an endless kaleidoscope of images, sounds and texts. It’s no wonder, then, that the biggest concern among parents globally is ensuring their children have a safe internet experience.
Cybersecurity isn’t simply a matter of restricting internet usage. It’s about helping children understand the risks involved in using the internet and teaching them how to protect themselves online. Historically, approaches to national security which empower citizens to be more alert have been more effective than attempts to police. A similar approach is beneficial when it comes to protecting children from the dangers of the internet.
1. Teach children to self-regulate
Create simple, regular home practices of self-regulation. Encourage children to use a timer while browsing the internet. If they are using it for schoolwork, the timer can be set to ring half-way through the stipulated time to help the child redirect their web explorations. This will help them stay focused and productive. Parents should also know how to motivate teenagers to study in this digital era. This timer can also be used when browsing for fun. Come to a consensus on a reasonable amount of time online. Have the timer give a warning, say five or ten minutes before time is up, so that the child has time to wrap up. (This also justifies not allowing snooze-time - always a danger! - after the timer goes off.)
2. Help build a safe online presence
Social media is deeply pervasive: both adults and children are massive consumers and creators of online content. Every social media platform is constructed like a casino, designed to encourage users to scroll infinitely from one game to the other. Help children to understand that they need to be watchful of their online presence, what kind of information they reveal about themselves and others. Ask your child to imagine the internet as a massive shopping mall. Sponsored posts are like attractive displays of clothes, bags, shoes, etc. and user profiles are like people walking around in their best clothes. Just as you are watching other people walk by, others are watching you too. And just like any other space inhabited by humans, not everyone is there with good intentions. It’s important to teach children the advantages of being constantly mindful: a simple experiment to see how liking certain posts can influence the kinds of advertisements that show up on their feeds can be illuminating.
3. Keep communication channels open
This is perhaps the best preventive measure to ensure your children are safe online. Explain to them that the internet can be an unpredictable creature; sometimes results even for simple searches can be unsavory or alarming. Make sure they know that any time they feel unsafe or have made a mistake, they can come to you immediately to seek help. Parents often feel that openly talking about their mistakes can give children the wrong idea. This is not true, especially in the case of adolescents. Teenagers yearn to be taken seriously, and trusting them with your mistakes encourages them to respond with empathy and responsibility. Talk to your teen about moments when you have regretted something you did online and why. Not only does it build a better understanding of internet-related risks, it also encourages them to come to you without fear of judgment whenever they are in doubt (or trouble). A majority of cybersecurity situations escalate because children feel too afraid to approach their parents for help. Cyber-predators routinely use this fear to manipulate and threaten children and young adults. The best way to counter this is to keep communication channels wide open, no matter the situation.
4. Interact with your children online
Create opportunities to explore the web together. Perhaps it could be working on a family project like building a family tree, or creating short video-stories to share with family members around the world. Help children to use the internet to create something of their own, whether it’s virtual or real. This helps them to balance time spent online consuming media with actively using their own imagination. This also helps you observe the way your child interacts with the digital world, providing you with good opportunities to help them identify unsafe websites, safely interact on public forums, recognise fake profiles and so on.
5. Set internet safety guidelines with your children
Sit with your children and watch basic Internet Safety videos on YouTube. They can be a good way to start the conversation on cybersecurity while outlining practical ways to stay safe. Create a set of rules that work for you, print (or write!) them out and stick the sheet somewhere that’s easily visible. Make sure you review it with your children regularly, and that you all adhere to it when it comes to time spent on the internet across all devices. Let your children know that sexting is illegal and it can have grave repercussions. You can also set parental controls on YouTube and other apps to ensure a safe digital experience for your child.
6. Stay updated with parental controls
Digital technology is constantly evolving, which means that you need to stay updated on the latest cybersecurity measures. Be aware of the apps and platforms your child is on. Make use of parental controls on smartphones, TVs and other ‘smart’ devices. Check with your internet service provider on what parental controls are being offered. You can set parental controls on Chromebook as well, in case you’re worried about your child’s digital security. Many parents are unaware of these software options on offer and therefore don’t use them. Thanks to the internet; your kids can get to know how to hack parental controls and we should be prepared beforehand.
Remember, children observe you as keenly as they do their friends and peers. The best way to help them stay safe is to actively apply these measures in your own time online. Encourage them to discuss these practices with their friends and urge them also to follow these rules, in order to help create a safer, kinder internet for all children.
Writing credit: Authored by Suren, the co-founder and CEO of Mobicip, and a passionate advocate for mobile learning and Internet safety. Suren speaks or hosts panels at conferences and seminars on these topics for parents and educators. He also serves as a consultant for educational technology projects in K-12 schools and school districts.