Protecting our children from harm is paramount for all parents and educators. While this is a priority, the reality is that most children are still at risk of giving out identifying information online. Even elementary age students encounter predators.
Some children avoid sharing their online activities with parents or authority figures. The stories about online safety went awry can be terrifying. The most significant difference that parents can make is to be consistent with implementing online safety controls and not assume that horror stories won’t happen to their family.
Internet Safety for Kids
Your child doesn’t have to do much to expose their identity and location. They may have downloaded a chat app like Kik or What’s App, or even be using Facebook or Instagram. By doing so, a potential predator may have their (first + last) name, which can be further searched through Google or social media platforms.
From there, a stranger could discover your child’s home address, town, school, or hangouts. This could happen as innocently as your child tagging their school in a photograph or sharing that they and their friends hang out at the same donut shop every Wednesday, after school.
What can you do?
Turn on parental controls and security passwords on your child’s phone or computer. That way, you can review any apps they want to download and give consent. You should regularly check search and web history and consider doing a comprehensive algorithm-based search for your child on Social Catfish.
This will show you the web trail your child may not realize they’re leaving, as the high-powered search engine scours all social media platforms and personal information (phone number, address, etc.).
Discuss “Stranger Danger”
It’s common for families to discuss how their child should interact with or avoid strangers at the park or a local store. Don’t forget to also talk about ‘digital strangers,’ or those person(s) they might encounter on the web, or through a game or app. Your child might think of the people they communicate with as “friends” and not mention them to you.
As adults, we know that predators often pose as trusted children online. Ask your children who they have spoken with online, what information they’ve given out, and look through their accounts.
Discuss what information should be shared with online friends (if any!), such as their favorite game character or type of candy (though beware, predators use easy to chat to ‘groom’ children into trusting them). Explain to your child why their name, school, address, city, and other protected information is always private.
Your son or daughter using a home computer in the same room that you’re in doesn’t protect them completely. They could be playing an online game and communicating through in-game messaging without you realizing it. When you ask your child what they’re doing, they might answer “playing a game,” when more is happening.
Some school-age children have cell phones and might communicate with strangers or predators through their phones and apps. Children have met predators or being kidnapped after using a computer their parent thought was safe. A computer in the same room isn’t more reliable unless you’re looking at what your child is accessing, using search software, or checking computer history.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking your child is the exception to the above. Children are social and lack the critical thinking and experience that adults have. They might enjoy their online friendships and conceal them (to protect their contacts, because they fear to get in trouble, or because a predator told them to!). In today’s day and age, it’s even appropriate to ask if any of their teachers message them outside of class.
Consider creating a fun project to enhance their concept of being safe – creating a poster or PowerPoint presentation to show you (or your neighborhood) everything they’ve learned!