The internet can be a dangerous neighborhood for everyone, but children and teens are especially vulnerable. From cyber predators to social media posts that can come back to haunt them later in life, online hazards can have severe, costly, even tragic, consequences. Children may unwittingly expose their families to internet threats, for example, by accidentally downloading malware that could give cyber criminals access to their parents' bank account or other sensitive information. Protecting children on the internet is a matter of awareness—knowing what dangers lurk and how to safeguard against them. Although cyber security software can help protect against some threats, the most important safety measure is open communication with your children.
The vast majority, 90%, of teens agree that cyber bullying a problem, and 63% believe this is a serious problem. What’s more, a 2018 survey of children’s online behavior found that approximately 60% of children who use social media have witnessed some form of bullying, and that, for various reasons, most children ignored the behavior altogether. And according to enough.org, as of February 2018, nearly half (47%) of all young people had been the victims of cyber bullying. Social media and online games are today's virtual playground, and that is where much cyber bullying takes place, and it’s operating 24/7. Children can be ridiculed in social media exchanges. Or, in online gaming, their player personas can be subjected to incessant attack, turning the game from an imaginative adventure into a humiliating ordeal that escalate into cyber bullying across multiple platforms and in real-life.
The best foundation for protecting against cyber bullying is to be comfortable talking to your children about what is going on in their lives online and in in real-life (IRL) and how to stand up to bullies. Cyber security software and specialized apps for monitoring your child’s online and mobile activity can help, but nothing will replace an open dialog.
These days sexual and other predators often stalk children on the internet, taking advantage of their innocence, lack of adult supervision and abusing their trust. This can culminate in children being lured into dangerous personal encounters IRL. These predators lurk on social media and gaming platforms that appeal to children—the same virtual venues where anonymity facilitates cyber bullying. There, they can exploit not only children's innocence, but also their gift of imagination. "Let's play pretend" is a common and healthy part of online gaming and interaction, but predators can use it as a hook to pull children in.
The FBI offers guidance in safeguarding against predators and other online risks to child safety. However, again, the best protection is regularly talking to your children about what is going on in their day-to-day lives.
Children do not yet understand social boundaries. They may post personally identifiable information (PII) online, for example in their social media profiles, that should not be out in public. This might be anything from images of awkward personal moments to their home addresses or family vacation plans.
Much, but not all, of what your children post is in public view. This means that you can also see it—and there's no harm in reminding them that if Mom and Dad can see it, so can everyone else. Avoid snooping, but speak frankly to your kids about public boundaries and what they mean for your children and your family as a whole.
Phishing is what cyber security professionals call the use of emails that try to trick people into clicking on malicious links or attachments. These can be especially difficult for kids to detect because often, the email will appear to be from someone legitimate, like a friend or family member, saying simply, "Hey—thought you might like this!" This can also be done with using messaging apps or text messages—then it's called "smishing".
Phishing emails and smishing texts can pop up at any time, but the cyber criminals who devise them keep watch on sites that are popular with children, and gather information such as email addresses and friends' names and other information to tailor their attacks, just as they do when spear phishing adults to access corporate networks. Teach your children to avoid clicking on emails or texts from strangers and to be wary of messages that appear to be from their friends but seem "off" or have no genuine personal message attached.
Children are probably not going to fall for Nigerian princes offering them a million dollars, but they might fall for scams that offer things they value, such as free access to online games or special features. Young people are easy marks for scams because they have not yet learned to be wary. As with phishing, cyber criminals can use sites popular with children to identify potential victims, and then promise prizes in return for what they want—like parents' credit card information.
Young or old, the best protection against scams is knowing that if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true. Teach your children to be leery of online offers that promise too much.
Malware is computer software that is installed without the knowledge of permission of the victim and performs harmful actions on the computer. This includes stealing personal information from your computer or hijacking it for use in a "botnet," which causes sluggish performance. Cyber criminals 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 beguiling to children.
As with scams, educating your children is the best protection, but comprehensive, cross-device cyber security software and related securityprotections can help safeguard your child's computer against any malware that sneaks into it. In addition, many internet security products also include specific parental controls and applications that can help you build a secure framework for your children's online activities.
The internet does not have a "Delete" key. It is the opposite of Las Vegas. Things that happen online, stay online. Forever. Anything your child puts online is nearly impossible to remove later. The dangers of social media are especially daunting. It is hard for teenagers in particular to consider how a party picture or Snapchat message could cause problems ten years down the road when they interview for a new job, or how a prospective mate might respond to personal content that they post to their social media profiles or other websites.
Explain to your teens that their style and opinions are guaranteed to change as they grow older. With no "Take-Back" or "Delete" buttons, their 15-year-old self can dramatically alter their adult life in a single click. How they wish to present themselves online and IRL will likely change as they age—but internet posts are forever.
The internet can pose serious dangers to children. It can also open doors of wonder for them that previous generations could not even have dreamed of. Help ensure that your children’s online safety so they experience the joys and opportunities of the online world, and avoid its hazards. Be aware. Be vigilant. But first and foremost be actively involved in your children’s digital and day-to-day lives and communicate openly.
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