The internet is a double-edged sword. It is a wonderful, powerful tool that is a central part of modern life. Those who don’t know how to leverage some of the virtual resources at their disposal face an increasing level of disadvantage in all facets of development compared to their peers. It is important for children to be able to access the tools they need to grow into tech competent adults (not to mention the educational edge such technology can bestow).
But at the same time, the internet has a seedy underbelly of scammers, bullies, hackers, and more sinister folk, which are in the news at least weekly. Children are not the only targets, but they are the most vulnerable. A parent’s knee-jerk reaction may be to supervise all time online, or drastically limit it, and then feverishly Google how to set up firewalls and parental spy software. But is that really the best way to keep your kids safe?
Kids—especially older ones in school—depend on the internet for a lot. So do we all. And most parents would likely say that their kids know more about software and devices than they themselves do. So round-the-clock supervision isn’t really feasible, nor is it likely to foster trust between you and your child, especially as they get older. You could engage in a tech arms race with your child. But most cyber security experts interviewed in this article on safety.com recommend teaching your older kids how to protect themselves online rather than trying to watch them all the time.
- Ask them to teach you how stuff works. Feel in over your head? Is your child far better with technology than you? Use that. Get involved and informed on the sites and apps they are using by setting up your own account and then asking them for tips on using it. Everyone enjoys sharing what they know, and you can learn how to adjust security settings together.
- Encourage open communication about technology. You want them to feel like they can come to you for help if something weird happens online, or they clicked a link they shouldn’t have. If they DO come to you because they made a mistake, don’t freak out. Getting angry or upset may cause them to keep it to themselves next time.
Another way to not only get talking but build trust is showing that you are interested. Parents who play games with their kids are creating the kind of communication channels that are friendly and nurturing. And they are having fun because games are awesome!
- Teach them what to look out for so they can become self-sufficient now? “Don’t click this, because…” is much more likely to be remembered and followed than just “don’t click this.”
- Make guidelines to limit sharing on social media—and that goes for everyone! Personal info (like addresses, phone numbers, social security number/credit card numbers, etc.) should never be publicly searchable. You should limit who sees your posts to people you actually know, have met in person, and trust with that information—and people you’ve only met online could be anyone. Spend some time together figuring out how to change privacy settings on your social media, and beware of apps that want to share your location.
- Teach them that they are interacting with real people. When you interact with people online, and most of what you see is pictures, text, and memes, it’s a little too easy to forget that a complex human being is at the other end of the conversation. Because of that, it is easier for your kids (or you) to be victimized, or even to victimize others. This one goes both ways.
If you can’t see them, they could be anyone. The majority of people online are just regular people, and they aren’t trying to harm you. But those few bad apples make it hard to trust anyone. You shouldn’t live in fear, but healthy cynicism is good practice, and erring on the side of safety is too. Teach your kids about catfishing.
People have feelings, so be kind. Every cyber bully is someone’s kid who just needs a lesson in empathy. Teach your kids that they are talking to real people and that their words have real world consequences.
- Teach them that what they do and say will be online permanently. Even after it has been deleted, your pictures, posts, and other internet activities exist on a server somewhere, and screen shots and copies are easy to make and share. That is a sobering thought that is guaranteed to make anyone think twice about what they plan to share. This is a unique problem to today’s young generations, and the opportunities for public humiliation abound. If all of my adolescent angst had been shared with the world and was still searchable, I don’t know if I would ever get over it, even now.
Don’t know how to get started? Gamify it!
This doesn’t have to be hard; in fact, research shows that it’s better when it’s fun. A 2016 review of 10 studies published in the International Journal for Information Security Research (IJISR) on the effectiveness of using games to teach kids about internet safety showed that games can be extremely effective teaching tools.
Which is why it’s awesome that Google just announced a game to do just that. In a recent blog post, Google announced their new training program called Be Internet Awesome. It teaches kids how to be:
- Smart about who they share with.
- Alert about fake offers and scams.
- Strong in their passwords and privacy.
- Kind in how they treat others.
- Brave enough to communicate with parents.
It is free to play and aims to teach kids how to be safe on the internet in a way that isn’t boring. And it isn’t: some of the puzzles are legitimately challenging, and I learned some new things about staying safe on the internet in my play-through.