In a time where tweens – children aged 8 to 12 – are spending some 5.5 hours per day in front of screens, and teens even more than that, greater exposure can mean they fall victim to easy-to-spot scams, cybersecurity hacks that leak credit card numbers, or even darker conduct.

Children are now motivated to spend even more time online, as one in three preteens reportedly aspires to be an influencer, which can heighten the online risks they face. In fact, in a recent investigation, The New York Times acknowledged that young influencer content now coursing the web can “quickly descend into a dark underworld.”

There’s much to consider. As a parent to young children, I’ve long thought about their online privacy and safety, and the hurdles we face as they become increasingly screen-dependent – which spurs more carelessness that can impact siblings, parents, extended family and friends. I recognize that there are many challenging conversations ahead. But my perspective is uniquely shaped by my experience as a cybersecurity executive, where I’ve seen all types of malicious conduct. Needless to say, safety and privacy are forever top-of-mind for my family.

Ultimately, my advice is simple and not overly contingent on technical literacy: Parents must open a dialogue with their children, and work with them to understand online threats and limit their exposure. Here, I’ll walk through that advice step by step.

Window to the World

Gathered in a large group, I’d bet that parents wouldn’t start a conversation by divulging details about their personal lives. And they certainly wouldn’t let their child sit in front of a stranger and reveal secrets. But between the internet and addictive, invasive, social media platforms, there’s a wide-open window where children can succumb to poor decisions that lead to the oversharing of personal details at best, and material damage or danger at worst.

Today, kindergarteners use internet-facing iPads for accelerated learning, a far-too-early window into our often daunting world. When this window is wide open, it’s accessible to billions of online personalities. Citing the law of averages, some of them will be unsavory. This means for our current Gen-Alpha youngsters, “stranger danger” takes on an entirely new meaning – but we must communicate that risk.

Communicating in a Way That Resonates

I’m not wearing my technologist cap when I say there are simple ways to communicate with children about reducing their online exposure.

First, it boils down to basic fundamentals: Children are malleable and can be taught young. Remind them that what they’re putting out there stays out there, for better or worse. While that content will change as the child gets older, I advise always reminding them about the permanence of the web.

Second, don’t just say “no” outright. It’s important to work with the child versus being combative, which may drive them away from the desired behavior. The goal is coming to a reasonable arrangement, whether it’s guiding them how to use privacy filters or just limiting device access.

Create a Plan and Establish Ground Rules

I’ve mentioned the downside of putting a smartphone or tablet in front of a kindergartener, before they’re truly able to discern what’s “good” or “bad” online. To that, I’d say parents must create a plan and establish some firm ground rules.

  • First, don’t just blindly give a child an iPad if you’re aware of the risks they can face as they consume all types of media, or even accidentally click malicious links.
  • Help them set up their accounts and let them know their safety will be reviewed from time to time, and invite them to review as well.
  • Additionally, tie their new accounts to existing parental ones or create a family account to further protect them as they venture onto the internet.
  • Where possible, don’t use a child’s real information (e.g., names, birthdays) unless it’s truly required (say, for a medical site).
  • As they continue to create accounts and build their online presence, encourage them to avoid endlessly putting information into sites or creating numerous emails or social profiles. These become new touchpoints that help fraudsters more easily understand who they are, and ultimately take advantage of them (and the family).

Align on Guidelines With Close Friends and Family

Much of the parental journey comes down to communication – and not always with the children. Equally important is communication with those in the child’s life. I’m a believer that children’s online safety depends just as much on the parents’ web presence, and beyond that, even their extended family and friends.

Take for example, Facebook. Parents may agree that an overabundance of posts or user data can be harmful, and so work to button up their profiles. Yet, if their close friend doesn’t share that sentiment and uploads a photo of their 9-year-old at a party – with their Facebook settings wide open – this content can unknowingly reach a much larger, perhaps shady audience.

Parents should work to share the same online hygiene best practices with family and friends – and even preschools that may publicly share innocent images of young children.

Also, try to keep communications among nuclear/extended family to encrypted, subscription-based threads.

And for those young children (or even parents) eager to “share” content, consider building albums visible on family smartphones, instead of pushing children and their content toward public profiles and sites.

Starting the Journey

In this parental journey, there will be ups and downs. In fact, we’re bound to lose a few battles. One that comes to mind as a technologist is “location-tracking” on phones. Teens see this as a form of intimacy and want their friends to know their every move and location, so it may not be going anywhere. However, there are still best practices parents can implement (in this case, encouraging teens not to be reckless with their data), and it starts with the “dialogue” I’ve stressed throughout.
Overall, I see success coming from truly parenting where technology isn’t necessarily the solution. Just like many other conversations we’ll have with our kids, the ones about the digital and online world they’re entering are critical. It’s helpful to establish a plan for them early in life, help them understand the importance of staying safe online, and to bring them along for the journey so that everyone can stay protected.

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Written by Michael Sherwood

Michael is a VP at Malwarebytes, a cybersecurity company protecting consumers online. He is an accomplished leader with 25 years of experience in cybersecurity and privacy – including software development and system implementation. Prior to joining Malwarebytes in late-2014, Michael was a Director and Lead Architect for tech support giant, Geek Squad, leading enterprise-wide software development as well as a rapid expansion of the organization. He is also a U.S. Air Force veteran and is passionate about helping parents and kids co-navigate the online world.

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