Navigating the Complex World of Technology to Keep Kids Safe Online
School's out for the summer, and that means many young people will be spending extra time on the internet, playing games, watching videos and communicating with their friends. It also means they will be at risk of exposure to online predators and troublemakers, so parents and guardians should get involved and educate themselves about keeping children's Web experiences safe, says Erika Rackers, Statewide Co-Director of Curriculum and Assessment for Great Circle.
"There are a lot of ways kids can chat online with other people, including adults, without a parent or guardian necessarily knowing it," Rackers says. "Parents should watch what websites their kids are accessing, look at their internet search histories and find out if particular sites enable kids to chat with others. If you come across anything inappropriate, you can set the devices they are using, like phones and laptops, to filter out that content.”
Many websites, including YouTube, TikTok and Google, have parental control and content blockers that allow parents to decide what’s off limits to their children on internet connected devices such as computers, tablets and cell phones.
“You even can filter out searches for destructive topics like drugs or weapons,” she says. “Your cell phone plan also may offer ways to monitor screen time."
As kids get older, parents can consider giving them a certain budget to purchase apps for their devices, Rackers says.
"That's really a personal preference," she notes. "In any case, kids shouldn't be able to go into an app store and download whatever they want. Parents should set a password that an adult must first enter before anything can be purchased, and it should not be saved on the phone or tablet."
When you notice your kids communicating with others online, check in periodically and ask who they are talking with, Rackers advises.
"If they normally have earphones on, it can be difficult to know who they are interacting with," she says. "Make a concerted effort to ask."
Rackers advises parents to be on the lookout for any unusual behavior that may result from their online experiences.
"If your child is playing a game or talking to someone and he or she starts to become agitated, angry, upset or aggressive, or is being disrespectful to you, it's time to get off," Rackers says. "Say to your child, 'I can tell that your behavior changes when you watch these videos. It's time for a break.' "
Be alert for signs of cyberbullying, too.
"Explain that if another person becomes unfriendly, abusive or angry online, kids need to know that it's time to ignore them, block them or leave the chat space," Rackers says. "Remind kids not to share personal information like phone numbers, addresses or personal details that could open them up to further contact or identify them to a predator."
It's also vital to be aware of the amount of time kids spend on the internet.
"When they are school-age, it's best to limit screen time to a couple hours a day," Rackers says. "Set blocks of time when they can and cannot use their devices and block out important periods like meals and family time."
Then, add in other activities like a mandatory 30-minute reading period each day, or an hour of daily outside play, Rackers suggests.
“Too much screen time can be detrimental to kids' mental health, and it can take them away from healthier, more productive activities like reading, creating, exercising, socializing and playing outdoors,” she says.
Too much time online can have physical consequences.
"Parents and guardians should be aware of the possibility of eye strain from excessive screen time," Rackers explains. "Device overuse also can cause head and neck muscle strain and posture problems, and it may make it difficult for kids to sleep at night. The usual recommendation is to get them away from their screens at least an hour or two before bedtime so they can wind down."
It's easy for busy adults to leave children alone with their devices at home, especially in the summer, so it's extra important to be vigilant about controlling their use, she says.
As always, parents must keep the lines of communication clear so kids know why their online activity is being monitored, Rackers says.
"Be open and honest," she advises. "At Great Circle, we teach kids about their digital footprint and explain that what they put on the Internet today will still be there tomorrow. We talk about what they are seeing online, and explain what reasonable, responsible behavior looks like. It's important to remind kids that their safety and happiness are important to you, and that's why you are paying attention to what they do online."
If you need help figuring out what to say, try online resources like commonsense.org, which offers tips on helping kids navigate technology and the online world.