Children of all ages are now savvier with smart devices, video chat, and other apps. Protecting kids from child predators and human traffickers has become more challenging.
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Most school-age children are already using the internet at school and for homework. They also go online to watch videos, play games, and connect with friends and family. Because school-age children are becoming independent online and may go online unsupervised, there are more internet safety risks for them than there are for younger children.
Here are four main internet risks for school-age children:
- Content. Coming across things that they find upsetting, disgusting, or uncomfortable, such as sexual content, pornography, images of cruelty to animals, and real or simulated violence.
- Contact. Encountering people they don’t know or adults posing as children online.
- Conduct. Acting in ways that might hurt others or being the victim of cyberbullying.
- Contracts. Accidentally signing up for contracts with terms or conditions they aren’t aware of or don’t understand. For example, a child might click a button that allows a business to send them inappropriate marketing messages or collect their personal or family data. Or they might use a game, app, or device with weak internet security, which leaves them open to identity theft or fraud.
Here are some practical safety precautions you can take to protect your child from inappropriate content:
Create a family internet policy
Talk to your child about internet safety and ask for suggestions. For example, you could:
- Set aside certain hours for screen-free time each day.
- Create safety rules, such as never giving out last names, addresses, or other personal information online.
- List the programs and apps that are OK for them to use.
- Put the computer in a central spot where you can observe online behavior.
- Require them to use only child-friendly search engines like Kiddle or Kidtopia, content providers like ABC Kids, CBeebies, YouTube Kids, and KIDOZ, or messaging apps like Messenger Kids.
- Enlist the help of older siblings in using the internet safely and responsibly — for example, by watching only age-appropriate programs.
- Talk openly about internet use and safety. Let your child know it’s OK to tell you when they’ve come across inappropriate content or contacts that worry them.
- Avoid using surveillance apps that let you secretly track your child’s online activity. Using these apps sends the message that you don’t trust your child.
- If you do want to check your child’s internet use while they’re online or by reviewing their browser history, it’s a good idea to talk about it with your child.
Do your own homework
Check out the games, websites, and apps your child is using to be sure they are age appropriate. You can do this by:
- Reading reviews on Common Sense Media.
- Checking privacy settings and location services.
- Using parental controls and safe search settings on browsers, apps, search engines, and YouTube.
- Setting up profiles on TV streaming services for different household members so your child is less likely to come across inappropriate programs.
- Blocking in-app purchases and disabling one-click payment options on your devices.
Preteens and Teens
At this age, kids are using the internet regularly and most have their own smart phones or access to one. Here are some tips for keeping older kids safe online:
If you think your child isn’t old enough to have a mobile phone or tablet, stay firm and explain the reasons why. If you do allow a device, set times or conditions when it can and cannot be used, such as no devices at the dinner table or after 9 p.m. Encourage tweens and teens to use their devices in common areas, like the living room or kitchen. And choose a spot in the house other than the child’s bedroom to recharge their device at night so it doesn’t interfere with sleep.
Use parental controls
Activate parental controls on your home broadband and devices, including mobile phones and gaming consoles. Activate safety settings on Google and other search engines, YouTube, and entertainment sites like iTunes and Spotify. Check the age ratings of games, apps, films, and social networks to make sure they’re suitable for your child. For example, the minimum age is 13 for most social networking sites, including TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram.
Stay safe on the move
Be aware that safety features may not be active if your child is accessing the internet using public Wi-Fi. Some providers are part of family-friendly Wi-Fi networks with filters to block inappropriate content. Look for friendly Wi-Fi symbols like RDI Friendly WiFi when you’re out and about.
Keep track of social media
Continue the discussions about internet safety. Talk about the benefits and risks of social networking before they join any sites. If your child does have a social networking profile, have them set strict privacy settings and make sure they know how to block or ignore people. Ask them to allow you or someone you both trust to “friend” or “follow” them to ensure conversations and posts are appropriate. Encourage them to treat others with respect online — as they would in real life.
Remind your tweens and teens not to share passwords with anyone — even friends. Promote safety while respecting your kids’ privacy by asking them to seal their passwords in an envelope and promising to open it only in an emergency.
Pause before posting
Remind teens that posting personal information or inappropriate messages can put them at risk with both strangers and friends. Let them know that anything they upload, email, or message could become public, and anything they post could be online forever. Anything they wouldn’t want a stranger — or their future college admissions officer or boss— to see should be kept offline.
Keep it clean
Sexting — texting about sex or sharing explicit images online — can lead to embarrassing situations at best and online stalking or a predator’s “grooming” at worst.
While it’s not illegal for consenting adults to exchange explicit language or photos, it is illegal to send that kind of content to or receive it from a person under the age of 18. In some states, this content is considered child pornography or sexual exploitation and possessing it may carry criminal charges.
Human trafficking — currently a big problem in the U.S.— also often starts with sexting. This modern-day slavery forces women, men, and children into commercial sex acts using violence, threats, lies, and other forms of coercion. Teens who are seeking attention or having family or emotional problems may be particularly vulnerable to the lies and lures of traffickers.
If your child receives sexual messages or images, the first thing they should do is tell you or another trusted adult. Together you can contact the police and/or report it to CyberTipline.com.
Discourage social media influencing
Social media influencers are people who have built reputations for their knowledge or expertise on certain topics by making regular posts about it. Brands love social media influencers because they generate large followings of enthusiastic, engaged people who pay close attention to their views and can create trends by encouraging followers to buy products they promote.
Teens who think they could be “discovered” on YouTube or TikTok as the next social media influencer need to understand that it’s never that simple. Most reputable agencies are not searching the internet for talent.
Never meet online friends offline — EVER
The fact is, there’s no way to be sure that anyone your child meets online really is who they say they are. And if they meet in person, your child could be in real-world danger.
While the internet is a rich educational and interactive resource for kids, it also can put your child’s privacy at risk. By setting some simple internet safety standards that can grow with your child, you can keep them safe on the internet at any age.
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.