The internet has changed the way we live our lives. It has opened a whole new world of opportunities for us – and with almost 3 million users, it has emerged as the single, most important means of communication. However, as with all things, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. The internet also has a side that is unpleasant and sometimes even dangerous- and it becomes increasingly important to protect our children from these and ensure internet safety.
The dangers of unsafe internet usage
If you thought it was tough to keep children off the internet before COVID-19, it’s almost impossible now. Between school assignments, playdates, online classes and meetings, our children’s social lives are increasingly being dominated by the internet. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), 66 million Internet users in the country are in the age bracket of 5 to 11 years. Even if they do not have their own device, they have access to the internet. Internet safety is a growing concern amongst young users. Here are some of the threats* that parents should be aware of when they are online:
Contact with undesirable people, including:
Predators — for example, in social media messages or gaming lobby chat rooms.
Cyberbullies — children can be targeted by online bullies, including real-life ones.
Phishing scammers — they trick your child out of sensitive info about themselves or you.
Inappropriate content, such as:
Sexually explicit content — notably pornographic images and video.
Violent or graphic content — such as gore or acts of assault.
Obscene or age-inappropriate content — like foul language or drug and alcohol use.
Downloads of pirated materials — including music or video files.
Computer security issues:
Drive-by downloads — whereby simply visiting a website can result in malicious programs being automatically installed on your child’s computer.
Malware infections — can give other people access to your child’s computer. May appear in peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs, web links, attachments and more.
Unwanted advertising, pop-ups, and adware programs — often automatically installed when freeware or shareware programs are downloaded. These can also carry spyware.
How to keep your children safe online
Your children may be internet pros who could teach you a thing or two. But it is always better to make sure that you are around them, especially if they are navigating through a website for the first time. There are some basic tips you can follow as a family:
- Make sure websites are secure: Every website address starts with the letters “HTTP.” You know a site is secure when you see “HTTPS.” That means the website itself is taking measures to keep users and their information secure while they use the site.
- Keep everything updated: this is one of the easiest ways to ensure that your browsing is safe – companies are constantly updating their software and firmware to make sure your data is protected from viruses and malware. Security patches keep you safe from the latest threats.
- For younger children, ensure that the place where they access the net is in a common access area – like the living room or study. That way, they always have you around in case something unwanted pops up.
- Set up and establish rules for the family – in consultation with the children. This could include anything from the time spent on the internet, or playing games or times and places where devices are off-limits (for example mealtimes). Each family works differently with a different set of challenges, so set up rules that work for you as a family.
- Bookmark your children’s favourite sites for easy access – it’s safer for children to access the site via the pages you’ve bookmarked as well.
- Spend time with children talking them through safe internet practices.
For young children (below 7 years of age)
5- 7 year-olds are generally very trusting and are eager to learn more. They want to be able to show their newly acquired reading and numeracy skills and will tend to love conversations. These are wonderful traits to have and while these shouldn’t be curbed, there are certain predictions we need to take.
- Always sit with your children when they are online, especially if they want to navigate the site themselves. For example, if they want to click on a link or a notification that shows up, or are drawn to advertisements that play in between the videos.
- Use a child-friendly search engine like kiddle, or content providers like ABC Kids, CBeebies, YouTube Kids or KIDOZ.
- Disable pop-ups in your browser, so they don’t see any unpleasant images by accident. You can also use ad-blocking software.
- Check that the games they play are age-appropriate. You can check the age-rating of any game or show here: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/reviews
- Check privacy settings on all devices that your child is handling. Ensure that the location services are off when they are on it.
- Your payments and payment portals need to be password-protected, so your child cannot make in-app purchases by accident.
Always talk to your child through what is safe and unsafe internet behaviour, so they will understand how to behave online, even in your absence.
For children from ages 8- 12
- Set out rules for what your children can and cannot do online. Take them through the rules- and revisit them every six months to tweak them, remove some rules or add new ones.
- Be the online role model for your children. Children at this age will only take a rule seriously if they see you modelling that behaviour.
- Teach children about the importance of keeping personal details private. This includes names, birthdays, addresses, photographs, places of work, names of schools, details about members of their family, their daily schedule (for eg: what time they go to play every day, or where) or anything that could reveal a personal detail about them.
- While playing games, make sure the chat feature is disabled, or that your child is able to block a particular chat or player. While the game itself may be age-appropriate, there is no way of knowing who’s chatting to your child from the other side of the screen. Remind your child not to share names or personal details on games.
- Ask your child to check with you before downloading a new app or game. You should check if parental controls and app permissions are okay. It is important to explain to children why certain games may be unsafe, even if “all their friends are playing it”.
- Set your searches to ‘safe searches on’. Ensure that pop-ups blockers are still enabled. If they want to disable it on any sight, they should ask you first.
- Keep lines of communication open. Talk to your child beforehand about what is appropriate and inappropriate internet behaviour and what to do if they face cyberbullying or an unsafe conversation. Don’t wait for something untoward to happen before you have this conversation.
- The basic rule at this age should always be – don’t share or say anything that you would be uncomfortable sharing with an absolute stranger in real life.
This is the trickiest age for parents to monitor internet usage. Teenagers are at an age where they think – and probably do know more than us about us. But they are still children and discussions on safety and being a responsible netizen is essential to have.
Cyberbullying, sexting, pornography and identity theft are all on the rise, and it is essential to talk your teen through safe behaviours.
- Set up ground rules – outline what you expect of them, and what is inappropriate. Make sure your teen is involved in these decisions, and give them your rationale behind the rules. Explain that once something is up online, it stays there forever, however much they may want to erase it.
- If your teenagers have their own devices, make sure they know how to keep it updated. Have an antivirus programme running and to know that they should visit only trusted sites.
- Social media – this is often the place where parents and teens have the biggest difference of opinion. But it’s important that you are aware of their social media activity. Make sure your child accepts friend requests on social media only from people they know. Ensure they know about privacy settings and that their information, photos and feed aren’t visible to the public.
- Make sure they’re not using a public wifi network when accessing their accounts. This is especially tempting for teens who seem to feel the need to be connected 24/7.
- Talk to your teen through a what-if scenario. Make sure they know what to do in case they think they’ve been hacked, or if they want to report inappropriate content, or face cyberbullying. If you’ve been talking to them from an early age, they will most likely be quite responsible when they go online as teens.
The internet is here to stay
The internet is a powerful tool if used well and its influence is only set to grow. It is unreasonable and impractical to ask children to go completely offline until they are adults. It also means missing out on information that is vital to their education in this day and age. The idea is not to instil fear but to equip children with the skill and knowledge for them to be able to navigate safely through the online world – Just like one would, in the real world!