The internet is a wide-open resource where a savvy child can access anything from the latest cake-decorating video to porn, which makes parental oversight difficult to say the least. At the same time, the web is also a wonderful resource where your children can explore interesting subjects, learn new skills and make new friends.
As a parent, you want to both empower your kid and protect them from the worst of the internet, which requires a flexible approach that evolves over time. With a toddler, for example, you’re thrilled she can navigate and use her tablet and that Elmo is teaching her to count, but you don’t want her surfing YouTube and scaring herself with spider videos.
An older child, meanwhile, is smart enough to focus on the content that is interesting to them and reach out to others with similar interests, but may not realize when they’re browsing sites that contain malware or are being targeted by cybercriminals or cyberbullies looking for a target. What parents aim to protect their children from really depends on the child, their maturity level and the parent’s personal beliefs.
Parenting is an empirical process with a sample size of one. That’s a fancy way of saying that what works for your kid might very well be different from what works for the next, so keep that in mind as you read our recommendations below and choose what would work best for your child and your family.
Tips for Protecting Toddlers Online
From educational apps to games, toddlers are interested in getting online and playing with tablets, phones and desktop computers. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children between the ages of two and five have no more than one hour of screen time per day, many parents find that this becomes more of an average amount.
When you have a small child you can, to some extent, choose when they have access to a device and what content they’re browsing. You can easily look over their shoulder and just take the device away when you’re ready for them to stop. Kids’ tablets can be stored out of reach and often your toddler will forget it’s even there.
Use a Kids’ Edition Tablet
Many tablets, especially those targeted at kids, have software that allows parents to set very specifically what apps, videos and websites a child can access and block their ability to use anything else by separating that with a password. For small children, this is a great way to control what they’re seeing with a little less direct oversight.
Tips for Protecting Children Online
While many of the same techniques apply as your kids get older, it gets a little harder. Many schools now give out laptops or tablets for them to work on. Because they need access for school work, research and communication with friends, it’s harder to limit them to just a handful of apps and videos.
Be Interested in What They’re Doing
You may not be a huge fan of Minecraft or the other online games your children love, but you should be interested and involved in what they’re doing nonetheless. Getting your children talking about their interests is a great way to both build your relationship and keep your ears open for any off-hand comments that indicate there could be a problem with cyberbullying or the type of content they’re browsing.
Cyberbullying in particular has gotten much attention recently because of the problems it’s causing for children and the difficulty of detecting it. While you may have their interactions carefully restricted to just people they know, cyberbullies are often other children from their school or peer group who now have access to your child and their mind around the clock.
Consistently showing interest in your child, without judging their Minecraft obsession, will make it more likely they voice their frustrations and concerns to you sooner rather than later. Once you’re aware of a problem, you can take steps to help your child ignore the bully or cut off their access. Schools often have policies on cyberbullying and can help control the problem.
Set Clear Boundaries
Think through what boundaries make sense for your children. This could be limits on time spent online or particular types of sites they are allowed to visit. Take the time to sit down with your children and explain these boundaries and why they are important. For some children, it may help to write the rules down so they are clear on what is expected.
While setting boundaries hardly guarantees your child will follow the rules, it gives them an understanding of what is and is not okay. Like any rule you set, your child will push the limits to see how far they give. Decide beforehand on consequences and try to implement fair, but consistent, consequences when they break a rule. As your child grows older, you’ll want to revisit these rules.
Set Restrictions on Search Engines
Google and most other major search engines offer parents the ability to restrict what search results are displayed. Simply go to Google’s search preferences and enable SafeSearch. This helps block the majority of explicit content that may come up during searches. While this won’t prevent them from going directly to an undesired site, it does prevent them coming onto something accidentally.
Protect Your Passwords
Children do not need access to your password nor the ability to purchase things online. Don’t let your child’s device save your passwords by making sure to uncheck any box that says “save password” or “remember me.” While you may not be able to unlink your accounts, you want to make sure a password is required before any purchase.
If your child uses your computer where passwords are saved, supervise their use of the device or use a password manager such as LastPass to keep them from being able to log into anything without a master password. The last thing you need is your child ordering stuff off the internet using your Amazon account.
Limit Access to WiFi
In some cases, the easiest way to limit device usage is to limit access to WiFi. This can be accomplished by simply disabling the WiFi on devices, changing the access code, or using software that forgets the WiFi password at a certain time each day and requires the parent to re-enter it. Also, try to avoid using public WiFi in almost any scenario.
Limiting access to the internet is also an important factor in protecting your children from cyberbullies. One characteristic of cyberbullying is the fact that it’s persistent and children who are constantly on their devices are never able to get away from their bullies. Even if they complain about the loss of their device and connection, giving them a break is important.
Use Kid-Safe Social Media
Kids want to connect with each other just like they see their parents doing, so encourage your child’s friends and their parents to use a kid-friendly social media platform such as Franktown Rocks or Sweety High. Social sites for small children seem to come and go, having trouble gaining the popularity of the larger social networks.
You can also set up private a private account on Instagram or other social media where you have the ability to approve who they are connecting with and access their account periodically to review their activity. This will allow your child to connect with their peers in a safe environment and allow you to monitor their interactions to ensure they’re not subject to cyberbullying.
Before your child has learned to disable or work around ite, parental filtering software such as Netnanny allows you fine-tune control over what your child can do online across many different devices. You can use this software to not only constrain browsing but also monitor it.
Tips for Protecting Teenagers Online
While taking away access to electronics can provide a behavior incentive at this age, it can also provide a complication with completing school work. Instead, now is a good time to continue staying interested in talking to your teen about what they’re doing online and showing interest in their activities.
By this age, many children have mastered hacking parental controls, so your job now is to help them understand the repercussions of their actions and how to make safe browsing decisions. After all, in just a few years, they’ll be on their own to do whatever they want on the internet.
Help Them Understand Privacy
You might use a VPN to protect your browsing information from your ISP, so take the time to explain the importance of keeping your personal information personal. This could include showing them examples of what happens when seemingly innocuous private information is posted on social media or taking them on a tour of your local law enforcement’s online predator department.
Another great idea is to show your kids the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archives. Help them understand that anything they put online is there forever. People can save their snaps, pictures, and writing and so they never want to put anything on the internet they don’t want to share with anyone, at any time.
Information on the internet is permanent, so if your child is the cyberbully, they should expect colleges and future employers to take note. Ask them to think before sending any messages online not only how it will hurt others, but how there may be repercussions to their words and actions (this is a hard concept for some teenagers to grasp, we know).
Follow Your Child on Social Media
If your teen wants to get social, you should be, too. Make sure you, or another adult friend you trust, follows your child on any social media platform they participate in.
However, if they post something you don’t like, instead of commenting online, take a moment to sit down with them and explain your concerns with what they’re posting. Don’t embarrass them in front of their friends or they’ll just find another platform and try to lock you out.
Monitor Online Gaming
Many video games now include an online, interactive portion where users can play against each other and also chat or talk about the game. Pay attention if you purchase your teen a game that allows online access and discuss with them beforehand safe and appropriate conduct.
Monitor Their Browsing
If you want to be able to passively watch what your teen is doing, monitoring software such as TeenSafe or Qustodio record user behavior on many different devices and alert you to certain browsing patterns. For busy teens on the go, they also feature device location services so you know exactly where you child is located.
ISP Parental Controls
Many internet service providers offer parental controls that allow you to control or limit your child’s browsing. These don’t work if you’re using a VPN to access the internet or your child is using one. While any of our best VPN picks are great for protecting your private browsing habits, they also help protect your teen’s browsing as well.
All of the above methods help protect your child to a limited extent while allowing them to get online and use technology. There are so many useful resources available for children on the internet, from research for school, learning opportunities, entertaining cat videos to connecting with family and friends.
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While some parents aim to limit time on devices, most find that they’re a pervasive part of modern life and it’s easier to monitor and develop their kids’ online skills than fight the tide.
What works best for you and your child may be different from another parent’s methods and will depend on your child’s maturity and your own comfort online. Do you have any other tactics that are useful or is there some software you’ve found that your child can’t hack? Let us know in the comments below.