7 Ways to Keep Your Kids Safe Online
Experts say talking about cyber safety is the key to keeping kids safe in the digital world
Adults aren’t the only ones barraged by ads, popups and requests for personal info when they go online. Kids are, too, whenever they open an app, log on to a social media site or play an online game. The difference: Kids are, well, kids. They aren’t as savvy as adults when it comes to knowing what to ignore, and not all ads are suitable for their eyes.
“Here’s the problem with pop-up ads,” says my neighbor, Noah, who is 8. “They aren’t fair to little children. Like, if I was a baby, and I was playing a game and an inappropriate ad came on, I might be scared.”
There is a long pause as Noah concentrates on the game at hand, Dream League Soccer. Score! “Actually,” he says, looking away from the screen to make the briefest of eye contact, “some of those ads are even scary to me and I’m 8. I just tell my mom.”
Noah is what long-time children’s media watcher and pediatrician Michael Rich, MD, calls a “digitally literate” child: aware, conscious and willing to seek help. Getting there should be every parent’s goal, according to Rich, who is director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. He writes a popular blog called Ask the Mediatrician.
Many of the pop-ups Noah doesn’t like try to get the user to download music. “All you have to do is click on the x and it goes away,” he explains. “Except for the annoying ones. Then you have to wait to click.” The ad he recently told his mom about was for a video game with guns.
Some of the pop-ups are aimed at kids — ads for candy, sugar cereal and soda — but many are not. “A lot of them are for erectile dysfunction products and alcohol,” says Rich.
Pop-ups and ads targeting children aren’t problems just because the content might be scary. “Kids are not able to discern persuasive content,” says Rich. “When an ad is on a game they play, they think the product is just more great stuff, just for them. If you don’t have the product, you are unworthy. Lacking in some way.”
Paying for games can minimize pop-ups but not necessarily ads. The ads are more likely to be embedded in the game, like on billboards in the background.
As kids move into middle-school and high school, social media becomes more important than games. Instagram, Snapchat and Yikyak are current favorites, according to Larry Magrid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org and founder of SafeKids.com, a non-profit.
In these years, parents’ worries tend to center on predators meeting a child online and finding her off-line. “The fear is unfounded,” says Magrid. “The data pretty much overwhelmingly says the likelihood of this is low.” The message he most wants to convey to parents of this age group: “Don’t be so controlling that your teen can’t exert some independence on line. Too many rules and a teen will go underground, hiding activities from you altogether.”
His rules for his son, who is 14, are common-sense: “When you’re online, be nice, be kind; what goes around, comes around. Be aware of the environments you are in, who you are talking to and what their motives might be.”
Magrid and Rich agree that frequent conversations about the digital world are the single best way to keep kids of any age safe online. Here are their guidelines:
1. Be present in the digital space with your child, no matter what the device, the activity or the age. With 6- to 9-year-olds, that means playing the games with them, not just reading reviews or trusting ratings. “You need to see what actually happens during play,” says Rich. “How does your child react to what goes on?”
2. Congratulate and praise your child for bringing content of any kind to your attention; that validates his judgment. If what he shows you is worrisome, don’t just shut it down or censor the game. Instead, tell him, “Let’s look at this together.”
3. Ask questions that help her think for herself: “What is it about this that makes you uncomfortable?” “Why is someone asking you that? Why do they care?”
4. Brainstorm options rather than impose consequences: “OK, what options are there?” The more a child of any age comes up with the solution — to “x out,” as Noah does, to disconnect or disengage from a site — the more he will own the decision.
5. Distinguish “safe” personal questions (“What’s your favorite video game?”) from unsafe personal questions (“What is your home address?" or “When is your birthday?”).
6. Run through “what if” scenarios and what to do if your child encounters one: “What if you see a pop-up that’s scary?” “What if you get asked for a password?”