Since its rather humble beginnings in the 1970’s, the internet has grown to become one of the world’s greatest repositories of information and a vital facilitator of global communication. 3.5 billion people have access to the internet worldwide, which means that 45% of the world’s population browse the web, on a regular basis, every year.
Mobile internet access has massively increased the number of people who have regular access to the internet, helping internet penetration to reach 89% in North America during 2017.
While the internet is a fantastic tool with a lot of uses, from education to entertainment, it does also have a dark side, especially for children and young adults.
Over 45 million children, between the ages of ten and seventeen, use the internet on a regular basis and one in five of those children has been sexually solicited. Around 60% of teens have received some form of communication from a stranger, and half of those children contacted replied to those messages. Cybercrime is one of the quickest growing areas of criminal activity and cybercriminals are becoming younger and younger.
The dangers of the internet aren’t just limited to child molesters and criminals. While the internet does let us communicate with others the world over, it can just as easily be used to target someone through messaging and social media. Around 15% of children under 15 have been exposed to some form of cyberbullying.
Thankfully, there is a range of options for parents to keep their children safe while still allowing them to make full use of the internet.
In this article, we will be looking at what the most common internet-based threats to children are and how to combat them, simple rules you can use to increase your child’s safety online, how to adapt those rules to specific age groups, and what tools are available that will allow you to supervise your child’s online activities.
What Are The Dangers?
The best way to safeguard your child against the most common dangers of the internet is to know what to look out for. As the old saying goes “forewarned is forearmed,” so in this section, we will be looking at some of the more common dangers your child might face online.
The internet is a place filled with all kinds of content, which is what makes it such an excellent resource for children looking to learn. However, the sheer amount of content on the internet is precisely what makes it so hard to prevent children from accessing things they shouldn’t have access to.
One in four children who use the internet on a regular basis have been exposed to unwanted pornography. Even the most harmless Google search can lead to websites promoting racism, religious radicalization, or even encouraging people to commit violence or suicide.
It is a sad fact that one in five children who have access to the internet have been sexually solicited. As a society, we are more connected than we have ever been before. While internet-based social media is a great way to connect lots of people, it can also bring children into contact with predators.
Most social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are screened for inappropriate content or communications aimed at children. But the simple fact is that not all bad things can be intercepted.
Unrestricted chat rooms and messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, are far harder to regulate. As we mentioned earlier, 60% of the teens have received some form of communication from a stranger. Just over half of those contacted replied to those messages.
A 2017 survey indicated that around 15% of children under the age of 15 have been exposed to some form of cyberbullying. To put that in context, physical bullying affects around 20% of school-age children in the U.S., meaning cyberbullying has grown to become as much of a problem as physical bullying.
One of the reasons behind the rise of cyberbullying is the anonymity provided by the internet. That anonymity allows other children to say and do things they would never consider doing face-to-face. Cyberbullying can also be hard to spot, as children and young adults are often private about their social media profiles and the content of their messaging apps.
Cybercrime is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the U.S. and, unfortunately, children are the fastest-growing victim group. Simply put, children and young adults are far more vulnerable to being manipulated into downloading malicious software or giving up personal details during phishing attacks.
A Blanket Ban Is A Bad Idea
Given the dangers that a child with unrestricted access to the internet could potentially face, it might seem like a good idea to simply prevent your child from accessing the internet at all. This isn’t the best option for a number of reasons:
- The Internet is Everywhere – Fully cutting your child off from the internet can be very difficult if not impossible. 95% of schools in North America and Europe have access to the internet, and mobile internet penetration is universally around 80-90% in most developed countries. A huge range of devices, from gaming consoles to smartwatches need internet connectivity to function properly.
Cutting your child off from the internet when it is such a big part of modern society could prove more difficult than you think, and even if you do, it might not be as effective as you hoped.
Multiple studies have shown that education is the best method for protecting children online, while an all-out ban leaves them ignorant, and therefore vulnerable, to potential online dangers.
- The Internet has Significant Benefits – While restricting your children from using the internet at all does seem convenient, it does prevent children from benefiting from the many benefits offered by internet access. If nothing else, the internet is an excellent educational tool, allowing children to learn all there is to know.
The Basic Rules of Internet Safety
If you are looking for a way to allow your child to use the internet while still keeping them safe from its common dangers, then there are steps you can take.
While not all solutions will be applicable to everyone’s situation, there are some basic rules you can put in place that will improve your children’s online safety without significantly restricting their access to appropriate content.
The best way to determine if your child is taking part in, or being exposed to, inappropriate communications or content is to know how computers work and how the internet is commonly used.
Don’t worry if that sounds a bit daunting, technology is continually evolving, and thankfully there are a considerable number of resources out there that can help you get the information you need.
Educate Your Child
One of the factors that is often overlooked when considering internet safety for children is how important it is to involve children in that conversation. We live in a world where even younger children are getting better and better at the use of internet-connected devices. Educating your children about the potential risks of using those devices and why you have put specific restrictions in place is an important part of keeping them safe.
It’s hard for anyone, let alone a child, to avoid dangers they are not aware of.
Obviously, this is somewhat dependent on the age of your child, but there is no harm in explaining the basics of cybercrime to children. The more they understand, the less likely they are to being tricked into giving out personal information or downloading dangerous software onto the family computer.
Keep Your Computers in a Common Room
Placing your computer in a shared room and making sure the screen is visible is an easy way of monitoring your children’s online activities and making sure they are only accessing appropriate content.
The mere presence of an adult in the same room usually is enough to keep children from attempting to access anything they shouldn’t be exposed to, and it also allows you to monitor their online communications.
Set a Secure Password
This might sound simple, but the fact is that most of us don’t even bother to pay attention to the simple rules of internet security ourselves. Setting a secure password on all of your internet-connected devices isn’t a major inconvenience for most of us, but it will keep younger children from accessing devices when you are not around.
If the significant number of stories about toddlers spending vast sums of money on games or in the Google Play Store has taught us anything, it is that children of all ages are surprisingly skilled at using technology, which is something we as parents need to take into account.
Give Them a Time Limit
While the internet is an excellent source of education and entertainment, spending every hour of every day on it is hardly healthy. Setting a time limit on internet access for your children will prompt them to go outside and play. Plus it allows you to prevent them from accessing the internet at times when you are unable to supervise them.
Don’t Let Them Upload and Download Photos of Themselves
Online predators will often request photos of their victims. They start by asking ‘ harmless’ pictures, but when they start to gain the child’s trust they will start pressuring them to send more and more inappropriate images.
Asking your child to seek your permission before sending any images is another safety measure that can help to protect them against inappropriate communication.
Reinforce the “Don’t Talk to Strangers” Rule
The old saying “don’t talk to strangers” is as appropriate for online communication as it is in the real world. While social media is an excellent way for young adults to communicate and connect with people, younger children should be discouraged from talking to people online from outside of their established friendship group.
Evolve Your Rules as Your Children Grow
Children change as they grow up, becoming more mature and responsible. Restrictions that made sense when they were young children can become unnecessary when they grow into young adults.
The best way to keep children safe without hindering them too much as they grow is to evolve your rules over time. Below are some suggested guidelines that will keep children of different age groups safe as they enjoy the internet.
5 and Under
- Set your boundaries on internet usage early. Now is the best time to get your child used to the idea of restrictions and time limits on their use of the internet.
- Communicate your rules for internet usage with other people and groups who will be looking after your child. If the grandparents, school, after-school clubs, and your babysitter are all working from the same playbook it makes keeping your child safe while they use the internet that much easier.
- Purchase a device specifically designed for use by children who are 5 years old or younger. These devices can be connected to the internet, but contain strict controls on internet usage, programmable parental controls, and are often far more robust than your average iPad.
- Check with your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to see if they have built-in parental controls that you can enable. Most major ISPs now offer a range of parental controls, although they can be somewhat basic in function.
- Another option is to install 3rd party parental control software. These programs are generally more sophisticated and offer a greater range of control over what children can access online and when they can access it.
- If you are using built-in parental controls from your ISP, be aware that these will not work if your child is using a device connected to the free Wifi often offered in places like major coffee chains.
- Only download games, apps, and media that have been given an appropriate age rating, and make sure to test or view that media before allowing your child to use it.
6 to 9 Years Old
- At this age, you may need to set parental controls on a broader range of devices that your child will be old enough to use. Gaming consoles, smart TVs, and even some watches are able to access the internet and have built-in messaging capabilities.
- If you cannot enable parental controls on a device you are worried about your child using, make sure that the device is set up in a public room, rather than in the child’s bedroom.
- Discuss basic internet safety with your children and agree on a list of websites it is ok for them to visit. Outline what information they should not be giving out online, such as their name, address, or the address of their school.
- Work with other parents to set reasonable guidelines for internet usage that can be applied to your child and their friendship group. Consistent rules on internet access are more likely to be accepted by children, and you won’t have to worry about them staying over with their friends.
- Look at the device specifications of any device you are buying for your child. The best way to make sure your child is only accessing the internet in the manner, and at the time, you want them to is to be aware of exactly what devices they can access the internet through.
10 to 12 Years Old
- Talk to your child about the risks of using social media. Explain what information should not be given out and that under no circumstance are they ever to send pictures of themselves anyone who requests them without getting your permission first.
- Let your child know that they should report any suspicious behavior or inappropriate contact to you immediately. If your child does report inappropriate communication to you, do not hesitate to contact the police.
- Make sure your child knows to keep items such as mobile phones, tablets, and smartwatches in a secure place when they are not at home. This will minimize the risk of loss or theft.
- Social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have a minimum age limit of 13. This is in place for a reason, and you should make sure your children are observing it.
- At this age, it is reasonable for you to have access to all your children’s login details and be able to check their online activities and what messages they are sending and receiving.
13 Years and Older
- Once your child starts transitioning into being a young adult, it is reasonable that they should have a degree of autonomy. At this age, you should be working with your child to endure their online safety. Include them in the conversation and give them the information they need to stay safe.
- Keep up with the specifics of the most recent internet-enabled devices, social media platforms, and mobile apps. The more you know, the better position you are in to ensure your child’s safety.
- Once your child reaches puberty, let them know that it is ok for them to research subjects such as health, wellbeing, body image and sexuality. Examine your parental controls to make sure they reflect your child’s growing maturity and the information they need to access. Remember to discuss these subjects with your child to make sure they are not getting false or misleading information online.
- Discuss the inherent dangers of sexting and of sending nude images of yourself to others.
- As your child now has legal access to social media websites such as Facebook and YouTube, discuss the concept of cyberbullying with them. Also highlight that communicating over the internet is no real guarantee of security or anonymity.
- Discuss the basics of cybercrime with your child. Give them the information they need to identify and avoid phishing scams, giving out personal details over social media, and downloading suspect software.
- Be aware of the legal and personal ramifications of copyright theft and plagiarism and make sure your child is also aware of them.
How to Use Parental Control Software
One of the things we have mentioned in this article is the use of parental control software, either built into operating systems, through ISPs or via third-party programs.
Using parental control software can make life a lot easier when it comes to keeping your children safe online and restricting their access to the darker parts of the internet. The right programs can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, filtering what your child can access, restricting the times they can use the internet, and allowing you to monitor their communications and social media profiles.
Selecting which parental control software to use can be more challenging. To make things as simple as possible, we’ll show to how to enable the parental controls provided by your ISP, or packaged with your operating system. We also break down the advantages and features of using parental control software.
Built-in ISP Controls
The majority of major ISPs now offer a parental control option. These options tend to be rather basic, using keyword filtering to stop users from accessing blacklisted websites with inappropriate content, such as violence or pornography.
The best way to enable your ISP’s content filtering is to contact them directly to discuss the details of the service they offer and your needs.
It should be noted that keyword filtering and DNS filtering can often be circumvented by the use of proxy websites or even the use of a different browser. While this might sound complicated, you should always assume your children are tech-savvy enough to do it.
In addition, ISP content filters won’t filter content accessed from mobile devices unless your ISP also provides your mobile broadband service.
Built-in Operating System Controls
Individual operating systems, such as Android, Microsoft Windows, and iOS/macOS, have built-in parental controls that are generally more complex and effective than those offered by your ISP. They also have the benefit of being free! If you haven’t turned on your parental controls yet, here is a brief guide to activating them on the three most popular operating systems.
- In order to enable parental controls on an Android device, access your Android device’s “Settings” app and then scroll down to the “Users” option.
- From there you will need to add a new User and tap the “Restricted” option when prompted. From there you will also be promoted to set a pin, password or pattern to access the device.
- Once the Restricted User has been created, you can either grant or turn off access to all the apps and location services your Android device offers. Your child will be able to access the device without a password, but only on their restricted account.
- To access Windows 10’s parental control settings, just type “Family Options” into the search bar below the start menu.
- From the family options page, you will be able to set time limits on both internet and computer usage. You can also block inappropriate content, blacklist websites, and even add money to their Microsoft account so they can purchase age-appropriate games and media without needing your payment details.
- Content filtering and SafeSearch options only work if your child is using the Microsoft Edge browser.
- You will need to set up a Microsoft account for your child to take full advantage of the Windows family options. This does come with the benefits of being able to monitor your child’s internet activities and even get regular updates on those activities from Microsoft.
- One of the significant benefits of using Windows’ Family Options is that it extends to other Microsoft devices, such as Windows phones and the Xbox range of gaming consoles.
- To turn on Parental Controls on a Mac, first access the “System Preferences” tab by clicking on the Apple logo located in the upper left-hand corner of the desktop.
- You’ll see an option marked “Parental Controls,” once you’ve clicked that option you will be presented with a notification that reads “There are no user accounts to manage.”
- Follow the prompts to add a new managed user.
- Once the new user for your child has been added, you’ll be able to control their access to certain apps, which Apple stores they can use, set time limits for their use of your Mac, and even turn off access to functions like the microphone or built-in webcam.
- You can also set up controls to filter which websites your child has access to, although this content filter will only work if the internet is being accessed through the Safari browser.
- In order to set up parental controls on an iOS device, such as an iPhone, go to your “Settings” tab and then tap “Screen Time.”
- Tap “Continue” and then choose the option marked “This is My Child’s iPhone.”
- You will then be prompted to enter a “Parent Passcode” if this is your child’s phone or a “Screen Time Passcode” if this is your device and you are allowing your child to use it.
- Once “Screen Time” is set up, you’ll be able to prevent iTunes and App Store purchases, restrict access to built-in apps and features, filter explicit content through the use of content ratings, filter website content, restrict the Siri web search, and restrict access to the Game Center.
Third-Party Parental Control Software
While the built-in parental controls offered by ISPs and specific operating systems have the benefits of being free and reasonably easy to set up, they do come with certain downsides.
The content filtering tends to be relatively basic and is not universal. Most built-in parental control software has restrictions that only work on the browsers that come packed with the operating system, such as Edge or Safari.
While some parental control options extend over a range of devices most modern households have a variety of devices operating on different operating systems. This means you have to use a range of different parental control options, which can get confusing and potentially leave gaps in your restrictions.
One solution to these problems is the use of third-party software. There is a considerable range of parental control programs to choose from.
To help you in your choice and to give you some idea of what you should be looking for, here are some of the more important features you’ll want from parental control software.
Supports a Range of Devices
One of the significant benefits of using a third-party solution is that many of them offer apps that can be installed on a massive range of devices. This means you can use a single set of restrictions across all your family’s devices without using a range of different parental control systems.
Because they are not linked to a specific operating system, third-party parental control programs have the ability to filter internet searches, web pages, and content across a range of browsers. Many of them also include secure HTTPS filtering, which makes browsing safer and more secure.
Parental control software can also be used to prevent the downloading of suspicious programs or specific apps. This is ideal for avoiding malware and preventing a child from accessing messaging and social media apps.
Most parental control apps will allow you to set a daily or weekly time limit for both internet and computer usage. Some software will also block access to certain apps at certain times, which is great for making sure that your child is doing their homework or sleeping rather than playing Candy Crush.
Messaging and Social Media Monitoring
Although this option becomes less useful as your child grows older and deserves a little privacy, a messaging and social media monitoring option is great for checking in on younger children who are just starting out with social media and for preventing cyberbullying and inappropriate contact.
Remote Notification and Access Management
You’re not always going to be on hand if your child needs an extension on their time limit to get an important assignment done or if they need access to a messaging service while they are away from home.
Remote notification and access management options allow you to control the restriction the parental control program imposes on your phone. This allows you to respond to requests for extended access or give access to features like location tracking in case of an emergency.
Circle With Disney
If the idea of installing an app on every device your family owns doesn’t appeal to you, but you still want more protection than the built-in parental controls offered by your ISP or OS can provide, then don’t worry. There is a third option.
Circle with Disney is a device that sits between your home’s wifi router and all of the devices connected to it. Interestingly, Circle with Disney uses ARP spoofing in a very similar manner to what you would expect from a “man-in-the-middle” hacker attack but uses that technique to improve your family’s security.
By sitting between all your family’s devices and your router, the Circle with Disney is able to selectively filter traffic in order to stop access to content, websites, and individual apps.
Parents can use the Circle app to group devices under specific family members. This allows you to set time limits across a range of devices. If your child only gets to access the internet for four hours per day, that four hours is tracked across their phone, tablet, laptop or gaming console.
In addition to allowing you to enforce time limits, the app will enable you to deny specific devices access to the internet selectively. You can also control how much time particular apps are connected to the internet. This is ideal for limiting your child’s access to social media or games or even shut off the connection to the internet for all devices.
While the Circle with Disney doesn’t offer much that other parental control programs don’t, it does have the advantage of packaging it all into one. If the idea of using a range of settings across a multitude of apps on different devices is your idea of techno-hell, then the Circle with Disney is for you. It’s a user-friendly and straightforward option that even the most tech-hesitant parent can use to ensure their child’s online safety.
The internet is a fantastic resource and has become so ingrained in our society that it is almost impossible not to use it. However, it does have its risks. In addition to its colossal repository of nearly all of human knowledge and funny cat videos, the internet is also the stalking ground of predators, criminals, cyberbullies, and content that no-one in their right mind would want to expose a child to.
Although it might seem like the right thing to do, blocking your child from accessing the internet completely is mostly counter-productive. The best solution to keeping your child safe online is a combination of communication, education, and reasonable restrictions.
There’s nothing wrong with preventing your child from accessing content they are not mature enough to be able to deal with. However, as your child grows and matures, your rules about internet use need to develop with them. What works for a 5-year-old is only going to cause friction with a teenager.
Thankfully, you are not alone. There is a considerable number of resources out there to help you educate yourself on the dangers that could be encountered on the internet and how to combat them. Education, for both yourself and your child, is one of the most critical factors in keeping yourself and them safe while they are online. You can’t avoid dangers you aren’t aware of.
There is also a range of tech solutions to aid in keeping your family digitally secure, from those built into your iPhone to clever little gadgets provided by Disney. Using the considerable range of parental controls available to you, you can set time and usage limits, filter what your child can access on the web, monitor their communications, and even cut them off from the internet altogether.
As helpful as these parental control options are, the best way to keep your child safe during their online activities is to make them aware of the danger and to keep an open line of communication with them.
Involving them in the conversation about internet security means you’ll both be working towards the same goal. They’ll know that they can come to you with questions and will be able to talk to you about anything they have encountered that has upset them. This allows you to play a more active hand in their security.