The coronavirus outbreak has led to school closures and social containment measures around the world. As a result, children are spending more time online, as families rely on digital technology to learn, socialize, and stay connected with the outside world.
While the internet has proven to be a valuable lifeline during this crisis, allowing different aspects of life to continue, the issue of online safety for kids has increased in importance. With schools closed and many parents working from home, children are more likely to be using the internet unsupervised.
In this article, we explore some of the key internet safety issues for kids and how you can keep your children safe online.
As children have been spending more time online during the pandemic, their exposure to potential risks has increased. Children face a broad range of threats and dangers online, including:
It’s easy to feel anonymous on the internet, and kids may not be aware of the consequences of the digital footprint they are creating. For example, they may post personally identifiable information in their social media profiles, that should not be displayed in public. This might be anything from images of awkward personal moments to their home addresses or family vacation plans. They may also post content which they later regret.
Cyberbullying might range from sending intimidating or taunting messages via email, text, social media, or instant messenger, to breaking into your email account or stealing your online identity to hurt and humiliate you.
Children may not be aware of who they are really speaking to. Cyber exploitation can include sending sexually suggestive messages or material to lure a child online to meet in real life. Predators may try to convince a child to engage in an inappropriate activity or take photos or videos for the offender, which they then use to threaten or blackmail that child.
That is emails that try to trick people into click on malicious links or attachments. This can be especially difficult for kids as the email can sometimes appear to be from someone they know, like friends or family members. This can also be done using messaging apps or text messages – which is called "smishing."
Children may not realize the hidden commercialism in games, apps, and websites. For example, mobile games persuade children to buy virtual goods using their parents' credit card accounts while playing. These games have been called “bait apps” in class action lawsuits.
Being exposed to views considered radical or extreme, whether political, religious, sexist, or racist.
For example, this might be an explicit ad that appears on a free game, children’s cartoon characters portrayed in an adult setting, or a forum that discusses topics not appropriate for children.
Malware is computer software that is installed without the knowledge or permission of the victim and performs harmful actions on the computer. Cybercriminals often trick people into downloading malware. Phishing is one such trick, but there are others — such as convincing victims to download malware masquerading as games — can be especially appealing to children. Ensuring you have comprehensive, cross-device cybersecurity software and related security protections can help safeguard your child's computer against such malware.
The intensive nature of the media coverage surrounding coronavirus may be unsettling or distressing for children. Many digital resources from credible organizations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) are available for you and your child to learn about the virus together.
Some of how you can support your child at this time include:
A website like Commonsense.org contains numerous activities or lesson plans designed to teach kids about internet safety. These activities are grouped by age to make it easy to find appropriate materials for your child. Some of the topics include:
The AFT also contains a useful set of internet safety resources that you can use with your child. You could also refer to Childnet, Internet Matters, and the Australian eSafety Commissioner’s classroom resources.
We also suggest making a “cyber contract” with your kids, which sets out the dos and don'ts of internet use. Both you and your kids can sign it, and then leave it somewhere visible within your home as a reminder to all parties. It is also essential to balance online recreation with offline activities, including time outside (if possible).
During the pandemic, parents and caregivers face potentially increased economic burdens and the struggle to balance homeworking with home-schooling. In this context, it can be a struggle to support and monitor your children, including their online activity. It is difficult and stressful to keep households functioning during this disorienting time, including ensuring internet safety for kids. That said, it is important to maintain an open dialogue with your children about online safety:
If you have concerns that your child may have been subject to inappropriate contact by another person, you should report it to the police. If your child is the victim of cyberbullying, you can report this to a relevant agency in your country. For example, in the US, it should be the government’s Stop Bullying initiative.
Finally, remember that connecting with others is more important than ever during the pandemic. Now is an excellent time for you to model kindness and empathy in your virtual interactions and create opportunities for your child to have safe and positive online interactions with friends, family, and you.