6 ways to keep your kids safe online

Technology can provide children with new opportunities to learn and connect that can help them improve their quality of life and allow them to better contribute to society.

But technology, especially social media and other online tools, has the potential to harm students by putting them at risk for predators, cyberbullying and inappropriate content that many parents today never worried about when they were children a generation ago.

Danny Carrillo, project assistant for OCDE’s bullying prevention program, often conducts workshops with districts and parent groups to share the emerging trends in social media — and how to teach children to be safe and responsible while using electronic devices.

photo of Danny Carrillo

Danny Carrillo, project assistant for OCDE’s bullying prevention program

For parents who haven’t attended such a workshop, Carrillo, has offered six tips to the OCDE Newsroom aimed at helping them navigate through some of the perils students face today.

1. Educate yourself

Parents may often feel overwhelmed with the volume of new apps, web sites and other online material constantly being churned out.

Carrillo said parents should take a few minutes every so often and search through Google, other search engines, and news and tech sites to see what the most popular apps are at that time, and how they work. Parents should also understand that devices such as video game consoles can be used to access apps and websites available on phones and laptops.

Parents should also ask their children what apps they have on their phones, and what apps they use the most. Opening up such conversations with children lets them know a parent has some knowledge of the latest technology, and might make children feel more comfortable sharing with parents their online habits.

2. Ask your children a lot of questions

Once parents start conversations with their children, they should keep the dialogue going, Carrillo said. It’s important for parents to ask questions that can include: “What kind of exchanges are you having online? Have you met people online? Have you run into any trouble online? How do you deal with those obstacles or troubles when you encounter them?”

“It’s really about getting a sense about how they are navigating through their activities online,” he said. “Again, it helps them understand that you’re involved in knowing about what they do online.”

3. Resist the urge to take away the phone

Social media apps on a cell phoneResearch shows that many parents will use a remedy of taking away a child’s technology when the child gets in trouble, Carrillo said. The same research also shows that most children say that they will not tell their parents they have trouble online because of fear their parents will take their devices away, he said.

“It’s almost like they’re willing to put up with some degree of suffering before they go to a parent and let them know, at which point it’s a real problem,” Carrillo said.

A better option would be to tell the child that they trust her to come forward with any problems, with the understanding that it won’t result in the phone or device being taken away, he said. “It’s about keeping the conversation lines open,” he said.

4. Monitor online activity

Along with communicating with a child, parents should take it upon themselves to do some level of monitoring online activity. This can range from examining search histories and checking their child’s phone to see what apps they have, to using monitoring software. There is no specific set of guidelines for all parents, but they should have some ability to check for themselves what their children are doing online or on their devices, Carrillo said.

Parents can review phone bills to see what numbers they are texting and how often, or whom they are calling. Most phones also allow the account holder to check to see what apps are used the most in terms of screen time and data usage.

Relatively inexpensive software, such as Net Nanny and Web Watcher, can also be installed on devices and computers to track usage or block content, Carrillo said.

5. Set up rules for usage

Having clear rules for when, where and how long a child can have access to their phone or other devices can also prove beneficial, Carrillo said.

Establish rules such as where in the house your child can take his device, whether the child can take the phone or laptop into his room by himself, whether the child can keep the phone when he goes to bed, or what the guidelines are for usage time during dinner and other family activities.

“Having these agreements in place before problems can arise is obviously more helpful,” he said. “These are also not just safety issues, they are issues of engagement within the household.”

Father and son using cell phoneCarrillo said that consequences for violating these rules should also be laid out at the same time. Carrillo added that as children become older, parents should adjust some of these rules accordingly.

“Obviously what might be more appropriate for an older teen in terms of usage time and content won’t be as appropriate for a younger child,” he said.

6. Understand how easily children can access bad content

It can only take a few clicks for a 5-year-old on YouTube to jump from a child-safe video to something completely inappropriate, Carrillo said.

“Much of the time, children themselves aren’t looking to navigate to sites that can contain sensitive material,” Carrillo said. “But they can type in a vague search word, or click on some ambiguous links, and they can end up somewhere that’s not only inappropriate, but could potentially cause them harm.”

Once a child is connected, that child is essentially exposed to the world, Carrillo said. “That’s the biggest piece I always try to emphasize with parents, and why it’s so important for them to stay on top of their children’s use of technology and devices.”

Carrillo offered some resources online to help parents find more useful information. HealthyChildren.org has a media usage plan for children based on age ranges. CommonSense.org has resources to help parents deal with cyberbullying, sexting, video games involving violent content, appropriate screen time and other issues.

Note: The original version of this article ran in April 2019.