The internet can be an overwhelming place, especially for a parent with fast-growing, internet-able children. It’s tempting to want to lock your child in a digital-free bubble through their formative years, shielding them from all the invisible threats that lurk behind their screens.
But the internet is woven into the fabric of our daily lives. It’s inescapable for most modern-day American children. By the age of five, kids are capable of easily accessing the internet for themselves. By age 13, they’re eligible to join social media platforms.
This isn’t a bad thing. The web can offer really great tools including educational websites, chances to learn code and develop research skills, not to mention meaningful ways to connect with friends and family.
The goal then is for parents to know how your kids are using the internet, set careful controls, and educate them. That’s why it’s also so important to learn how to talk to your kids about their internet use, and have the conversation early and often.
In this guide to keeping your kids safe online, you’ll find advice from digital security experts, parental control tips, internet safety advice, answers to frequently asked questions, and tips for teaching digital stranger danger. We talked to parenting and digital privacy experts as well as flesh-and-blood parents to provide you with all the tools you need to feel confident when your kids go online. You can’t keep your kids offline, but you can help keep them out of cyber trouble.
Overwhelming as the internet can be to a parent, it also provides a lot of benefits for children with growing brains. For one thing, endless knowledge is right at their fingertips. They can learn about science, math, history, or anything else instantly. When struggling with homework, your child can watch a video tutorial. If they’re bored at home over a break, you can do an experiment together, guided by one of your favorite online science educators.
“The Internet is amazing,” says Clayton Cranford, a cyber safety expert, sergeant in a Southern California law enforcement agency, owner of Total Safety Solutions, LLC, and author of the book Parenting in the Digital World. “I tell parents just imagine, today you can walk around with a sum total of the world’s knowledge in your pocket. When you really think about it, it’s unbelievable.”
Time spent online is also time spent building real, transferable skills. Nearly every job now and in the future will require some degree of digital literacy. Being fluent in the use of the internet, computers, and social media will be expected of future workers. Your internet-native child will be well set up to succeed in such a workplace. They also might pick up coding or more advanced skills, which could even further expand their future opportunities.
Online connections can be a positive thing as well. Children can stay connected to distant relatives and friends. They can make new friends with other children or message their heroes on social media — and perhaps even get those scientists, writers, or athletes to write back. Who knows, you might even be able to connect better with their children by staying connected online, especially as they get older.
It’s tempting to want to keep your child offline forever — or at least as long as humanly possible. But by the time your child wants to be on the internet, it’s probably time to jump in. Let them, but not before they’re equipped with the tools to navigate the cyber world safely.
Cranford likens teaching a child to be safe online to teaching them to drive a car. Eventually, your child will be in the driver’s seat. When that happens, you want to feel sure that they know how to operate the vehicle, just like their online presence, safely and responsibly.
How To Have The Tech Talk (& Have It Often)
One of the most important things you can do to help your kids be safer online is to teach them how to be responsible in their digital lives. This starts with talking about it long before your child has their own social media empire. So start having this conversation early, as soon as you and your child start using the internet together.
When it comes to safety, teach them what kind of behavior or conversations they should consider weird or abnormal, and when they see it to come to you or another trusted adult right away. You can also talk to them about how to be responsible with their online presence, and what kind of behavior won’t be tolerated. Promoting charities or causes they care about? Good. Hiding behind a screen to bully others? Bad.
Decide Rules & Consequences Together
Part of the internet talk should be discussing family values and how you expect everyone in the family to behave online. This comes back to the golden rule — do unto others as you would have done unto you. It’s the same in the digital world as it is anywhere else. Make it clear what standards everyone in the family, you included, need to adhere to.
Involve your kids in deciding what rules are acceptable. What zones in the house should be screen-free? What screen time limits make sense for them? You can also involve them in the conversation about the consequences if those rules are broken. That way, everyone has agreed to the values, rules, and consequences of the home and is on the same page.
Share With Care
Before your child of any age starts using the internet on their own, tell them they are never to share any of their personal information with someone they meet online. That includes their name, telephone number, address, hometown, school name, parent’s names, siblings’ names, and more. If there is someone they want to share all that with, they need to get your permission first.
Be Internet Awesome
Google’s Be Internet Awesome has free resources to help make it easier for you to have the tech talk with your kids. Even better, they also created Interland, a web based game that makes learning about online safety fun. Learn through play and make conversations about online safety open and exciting for you and your kids.
Set Parental Controls That Work For You
Every child and every family is different. Check out the parental control options available to you, install them, and be transparent with your child about what you’re doing. These controls can help your child learn how to regulate their screen time. It can also help you keep inappropriate content off the screens of your younger children.
Parental controls should not be a substitute for parenting. Have a conversation with your kids and set some digital ground rules for the family, like making sure you have device-free dinners or flagging anything sketchy or negative online to a trusted parent (and promise to remain calm and not freak out).
Go Online Together
Finally, go online with your kids and have fun. Let them show you what games they are excited about, watch their favorite video with them, or learn something together online. Your kids will love you for it. Really, at the end of the day, they just want to connect with you, too.
The number one complaint we get from kids is they can’t get their parent’s attention. Kids will do what we do, not what we tell them to do.
Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of Family Online Safety Institute
Do parental controls really work?
Parental controls are one important piece of an internet safety plan. These controls can be used to restrict screen time and internet access, filter age-inappropriate content, and even monitor your child’s online activity.
Parental controls can be particularly effective for young children, but as they get older, they may get better at getting around your restrictions. Even if they aren’t doing anything untoward, kids value their privacy. That’s why, when it comes to parental controls, you can’t just “set it and forget it — you should be approving which apps your child downloads and somehow keeping an eye on how they’re spending their time online.
The limits of parental controls also demonstrate why it’s important to teach them safe and responsible internet behavior from the get-go. It’s also crucial to keep communication open and honest about the controls you are using to build and demonstrate trust with your child.
How do you choose parental controls?
There are many parental control options out there. Your internet provider likely provides services that filter the internet in your house, and can allow you to control the internet access on different devices so you can enforce screen time limits. Your internet router also has filtering capabilities. And most devices you buy — whether it’s a smartphone or a tablet or laptop — also have parental control options. Unless those controls are password-protected, however, it could be easy for your child to disable them.
Start by exploring all the parental control options already at your disposal on the devices and apps you already have. Turning on available safe search options on your browser can be especially important when you have younger children. Some apps will allow you to turn on parental controls that are then password protected — making it far less likely your child will be able to disable those restrictions.
There are also apps you can install on your child’s smartphone that will monitor their digital world, especially once they start using social media. Some experts and parents insist parents need to be monitoring their child’s social media for serious red flags. Of course, not all parents are comfortable with this, and kids don’t like feeling watched. Still, random spot checks of your child’s social media accounts are a good idea just to keep a finger on the pulse of their online life.
Another low-tech parental control is to enforce screen time limits. If your child isn’t on their phone or tablet for endless hours out of the day, they are far less likely to be accidentally exposed to inappropriate content.
What are some things to look for that might indicate my kid is hiding what they are doing online?
If you’re using monitoring control apps and suddenly you aren’t seeing any activity or data reported, your child has probably found a way around the app. These monitoring apps collect a lot of data, so if your kid’s data usage suddenly drops, that can indicate they’ve turned these controls off as well.
The kids who are the most vulnerable online are also the most vulnerable “in real life,” says Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media. It might not be apparent that your child is struggling from the outside. That’s why Knorr recommends regularly checking in with your child about what’s happening in all aspects of their lives and trying to identify if they are struggling, and why. If they are, the internet could be a place of both solace or risky behavior, and parents should be tuned into that.
Are web browsers inherently unsafe for kids?
In short, no, they don’t have to be. But Web browsers can be gateways to age-inappropriate content, particularly for unsuspecting kids who are excited to search for a new fact. Fortunately, most browsers have parental control and filter options. Also, you can preemptively filter out inappropriate searches if you are filtering your internet at large via your router or provider. Some browsers allow you to set parental controls and password protect those settings, this can make it harder for kids to either purposefully or accidentally get around them.
Which apps or platforms should I avoid at all costs?
Be suspicious of apps and platforms that include random video chats, large games with private chat rooms, and anything that publicly shares your child’s location. There are also lots of apps that allow the user to video chat with random strangers. These are often filled with the types of people doing the types of things you would not want your child exposed to.
In big multiplayer games and other platforms, even really mainstream and popular ones, predators can lurk in private chatrooms. If your child plays one of these games, tell them to be careful who they talk to. If anyone asks them to move their conversation from the game onto a different platform, advise your child to stop the conversation and come tell you. That’s a big red flag, as it indicates that person doesn’t want to be monitored by the humans and algorithms policing the game.
And any app that shares your child’s location is potentially problematic. Kids use dating apps to meet new friends — but if those apps use location to suggest matches, steer clear.
Does my internet use influence that of my kids?
Absolutely. You set the standard that your children see as normal. If you want them to limit their screen time and engage with the real world, be sure to do the same thing yourself. When your child is younger and spending time online, you can sit with them and navigate the internet together, learning new things and watching fun videos, to have shared experiences and start instilling those best practices at an early age.
How can I keep up with the constantly changing online world?
The digital world changes fast and you’ll never be an expert on every app, update, or software. But there are resources out there for parents trying to navigate the digital side of parenting or wanting to learn more about the new app their child is begging them for. A few websites that can help guide parents include: Common Sense Media, Cyber Safety Cop, Connect Safely, and Family Online Safety Institute’s Good Digital Parenting Guide.
Know When to Hold Them, and How to Control Them
When it comes to enforcing rules about smartphones and internet use, it can be hard for parents to know where to start. There are steps you can take both online and off to keep your child’s screen time in check, develop trust and healthy online habits, and keep tabs on your child to ensure their safety.
Make Sure Your Child Can Handle the Responsibility of a Smartphone
There is no magical age when a child is ready for a smartphone because every child is different. But having a pocket computer is a major responsibility, and you need to be sure your child is ready to treat it as such.
There are a few ways to gauge whether they are ready to take this next step. First is understanding why they really want it and why you want them to have it. If your child really wants it for socializing, that might be something you are on board with, but your child needs to be honest with you about that.
Then, consider how they treat their other possessions. Do they keep track of their books or constantly lose their backpack? Do they wreck their room when it’s a mess? Then your child might not be emotionally mature enough to handle a cell phone. Instead, maybe consider getting them a dummy phone for calling and emergencies.
Set Boundaries Around Screen Time and Internet Usage
Make sure your expectations around screen time and internet usage are clear — and enforce them. For example, you can make a rule about no phones at dinner and all screens have to be switched off after 9 or 10 pm. Most parental control tools will allow you to enforce these boundaries.
Of course, parents can’t just set these rules, they have to follow them, too. Modeling good behavior and showing that everyone has to follow these rules can be helpful to getting children to do the same. Demonstrate the value of spending time unplugged, so your children will be more likely to follow your lead and learn healthy screen time limits.
Keep Electronics in a Central Location
One low-tech way to control your child’s screen time is to insist that all electronics stay in one place at night. Try keeping them in your bedroom. If their phone is downstairs in the kitchen, kids will sneak down there to check it, he says. You could also put them in one central place, like a closet, where everyone including the parents keep their phones and other devices to charge overnight. The problem with keeping your phone in the bedroom and using it as an alarm clock is then your kids will want to do that, too.
Separating kids from their devices at night can help teach healthy boundaries on technology usage. It will also help prevent any late-night texting, gaming, or other behaviors. But you have to follow the same rules.
Limit Spending and Data Use
Keeping a handle on your child’s phone usage is also important for your wallet. If you aren’t careful, kids can rack up data or spend hundreds of dollars playing phone games.
You can prevent data charges by encouraging your child to keep their phone on Wi-Fi mode only, unless they need to call you or in emergency situations. You can also sign up for parental services with your cell phone plan provider to set data limits on family plan phones and keep track of who is using all the data every month.
Also, set up an “Ask to Buy” alerts, so that any time your kid tries to make a purchase in the app store, you have to approve it. If you use Family Link from Google, you can set up parental controls so that you have to approve all purchases.
Research Parental Controls
There are myriad options when it comes to parental control software. Common Sense Media has a guide to different parental control options, depending on how restrictive you want to be and which devices you want to control. Some apps provide parental control and text messaging monitoring all in one. You will have to decide how much control to exert and be honest with your child about what you’re doing and why.
At the very least, parents should install controls on which websites are accessible or pop up during a search so young children don’t accidentally wander into unseemly corners of the internet. Parents can also use these controls to regulate screen time, because children are not great at impulse control and can stay up all night scrolling. But if the internet shuts off every night at 11 pm, they’ll have to go to sleep. It’s also a good idea to set up approval for all app downloads, even the unpaid ones, to screen out any potentially problematic apps.
Be open with your children about the parental controls you are using and why. You want to keep them safe but you also want to build trust with them. If they find out you’re monitoring their messages when you didn’t give them a heads up, that is going to break their trust with you in a way that’s hard to repair.