Cybersecurity: A guide for parents to keep kids safe online

Cybersecurity, cyberbullying, and mobile devices can be a minefield -- so here is a guide to take the stress out of cyberspace for parents.

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Being a parent can be a rewarding but stressful endeavor, and in today's networked world, it is not just physical risks to children that have to be considered in modern parenting strategies. 

Giving a kid a tablet or smartphone to keep them occupied for entertainment or educational purposes -- or perhaps in order to snatch a minute or two of peace and quiet in the car for the benefit of your sanity -- is often a safe and harmless activity but, in turn, unrestricted and unsupervised use can also pave the way to problems. 

Children may access inappropriate or adult content; social network use can lead to cyberbullying (either as a victim or as an instigator), unrealistic expectations may form of how they should look or how their lives should be; the oversharing of private information may occur, there could be the promotion of risk behaviors such as meeting strangers encountered online, and sexual grooming are all concerns for today's parents. 

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Simple steps can make the difference between losing your online accounts or maintaining what is now a precious commodity: Your privacy.

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See also: Cheap kids smartwatch exposes the location of 5,000+ children | YouTube rolls out changes for COPPA compliance, expects 'significant impact' for creators | The latest dark web cyber-criminal trend: Selling children's personal data | What do Millennial parents think of using futuristic healthcare tech on their kids?

There is, also, the simple concept of moderation. 

We lock the medicine cabinet, put up the baby gate, and keep alcohol out of arm's reach -- but mobile devices and social media, which studies suggest releases dopamine -- an addictive feel-good chemical also associated with smoking and drinking -- often have no such restrictions.

Children are now exposed to technology at an early age, with under 16's spending an average of 3.5 hours on their mobile devices -- in contrast to many parents who believe this figure is 1.18 hours -- and research conducted by RS Components suggests that 61 percent of parents have never accessed their child's devices or social media accounts.

The Internet is an open repository full of information and communication platforms, and while regulators in some countries have attempted to establish controls to transform the web into a PG playground -- the failed UK porn block a case in point -- parents have to take the initiative to keep their kids safe while also respecting their privacy. 

Maintaining lines of communication with an Internet-surfing minor, where possible, can give parents an indication of websites they are visiting, social network accounts in use, and content that is being accessed. It's nothing to be ashamed of if your child understands the Internet, mobility, and apps more than you do, but understanding and becoming familiar with these services is key to mitigating risk.

This is a world difficult to navigate, so ZDNet has created a guide for making the job easier.

At the router level:

If you want to control what Internet services and websites can be accessed at home, this is possible by changing your router settings. You can establish blocks on specific websites, set up adult content controls, and in some cases, to set schedules to prevent too much screentime. 

A handy guide is available over at sister site CNET. WiFi Attendance has also compiled a list of routers with parental control features. 

Devices and security:

A question that is often asked is at what age should a child have a phone, and there is no simple answer. 

Some parents give their kids a phone as soon as they enter middle school for use in emergencies and to make sure they have a direct line to their parents, whereas others do not allow their children to own one until many years later. 

Research conducted by Common Sense Media suggests that 53 percent of children growing up in the United States have a smartphone by the time they are 11, and 69 percent do once they are 12 years old.

Both smartphones and tablets on the Android and iOS operating systems can be managed for age appropriateness; at least, as much as possible. Kids may want to be able to join Facebook, participate in group chats between their friends, and online communication is not only turning into a way to maintain and deepen friendships -- schools, too, are increasingly using online resources and email as study and homework tools.

However, these devices may open up an avenue for peer pressure or toxic lines of communication at a turbulent time in our lives as teenagers. 

It is up to parents to decide when a personal smartphone is appropriate, and for younger ones, controls can be put in place.

  • Locking up screentime: The simplest way to manage how often your young child has access to a device is simply to set up either a passcode, lockscreen pattern, or biometric recognition so children can only use a device with supervision -- this is a basic security measure that should be implemented anyway in case of loss or theft. On Apple iPhones, the passcode feature can be used to establish a four or six-digit code and TouchID can be used for facial recognition. On devices before iPhone X, go to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode, and beyond, Settings > Face ID & Passcode. On Google's Android OS, go to Settings > Security & location/Security > Lock Screen to set a passcode, PIN, or password. 
  • For standalone devices, download only age-appropriate apps that you are happy for them to be able to access and do not have any linked credit cards to app stores to prevent in-app purchases (there are some horror stories out there).
  • You may want to consider monitoring services. Apple has a dedicated Screentime app for mobile devices, and Google offers parental controls for app downloads on Google Play. 
  • Parental control applications: You should be careful with this, as using such apps can be severely privacy-violating, but for very young users, they may be valuable in keeping track of online activity as part of a family plan. Tom's Guide has a selection of reviewed apps for Android and OS here.  

Social networks:

No matter which social network, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, before your child sets up an account you should navigate around the system yourself to become familiar with privacy controls. 

Facebook: There are few out there who have not heard of Facebook, the largest social network on the planet. Nowadays, photos of children end up on the platform before they can speak due to proud parents, and while the company stipulates that users must be at least 13, this rule is often circumvented or ignored. 

A global social network like Facebook can be brilliant for keeping in contact with friends and family, but the platform may also be abused for cyberbullying, data harvesting, the promotion of fake news and related content, and grooming. 

If your child wants an account, you may want to stipulate that your own is not only added as a 'friend,' but until you deem them mature enough, you have access to their account and messages. There is, of course, a balance between respecting a pre-teen who is growing up and their right to privacy and the means to allay your own concerns which should be considered in any such decision.

(There is also the Messenger Kids application for users under 13 years of age.)

To begin with, at the least, here are some privacy and security settings you should become familiar with.

When an account has been opened, go to the top corner, click the arrow, and maneuver to settings.

  • Security and login: This is where passwords can be changed, friends can be nominated if a user is locked out of their account, and two-factor authentication (2FA) can be enabled. 
  • The "privacy" tab should be of importance to parents. Settings include who can see posts -- and this should always be set to 'friends' rather than 'public' -- past posts can be limited, and you can enable 'review' to check content you are tagged in before it is added to your timeline. 
  • Under "How people can find and contact you," you should set friends lists, lookups, and phone number checks to friends or only me. Content settings can also be checked under "Timeline and tagging." Search engine results should also be disabled to prevent the Facebook profile from turning up in search results. 
  • "Location" and "Face recognition" should be turned off, and under the "Block" tab, contacts can be prevented from seeing your Facebook profile.  
  • Information shared under the "About" tab in a profile, when hovered over, can be checked to see if it is public or friends only. The "View As" option, found next to "Activity Log" on the main account page, allows you to see how a profile appears to the public. 

Twitter: Twitter is a microblogging platform used to post public messages -- known as tweets -- as well as share videos and images. It can be a valuable tool for reaching out to schools, businesses, and organizations, as well as maintain feeds showing updates for people a user "follows." 

However, the platform can also be a breeding ground for abuse and trolling, a problem Twitter itself is attempting to clamp down on. 

Once an account has been set up, the main restrictions and controls you should be aware of are found under the "Settings and Privacy" tab. 

  • Under "privacy and safety," you can make sure the "protect your tweets" option is selected. This makes sure only accepted followers on an account can see and reply to messages. 
  • The "Location" setting should be disabled, which prevents GPS and location-based information from being tagged on to tweets. 
  • Twitter's "Direct Messages" tab includes the options to allow or disallow direct messages from non-followers, enable a "quality" message feature to reduce spam, and "discoverabilty" -- which links email addresses and phone numbers to an account for search purposes. 
  • Under "safety," you can select whether or not to mask public content that is deemed sensitive. 

Instagram: Instagram -- also known colloquially as Insta -- is a platform for chatting and sharing both videos and pictures. Content can be uploaded, filters applied, images and video can be shared publicly, and the app likely owns its massive user base to mobile photography. 

It's rather straightforward: users sign up for an account, take a photo, plug a caption if they wish, and publish. This image can then be seen online. Users can also use a private messaging system. 

Following an explosion in popularity, Instagram has also given rise to a new breed of individuals who are called -- or call themselves -- "influencers," who may promote particular lifestyles and brands. 

The easiest way to maintain a level of privacy and security is to make sure any account your child sets up is changed to private, which in turn makes sure any content shared can only be seen -- and commented on -- by accepted followers. This setting can be turned on in Settings - > Privacy - > Account Privacy. It is also possible to block visitors by going to their profile, tapping the drop-down by their name, and block/unblock. 

You can read Instagram's privacy guide to learn more about the platform. 

For further exploration of these social networks and their privacy options, check out our Security 101 guide

Let's talk about other platforms

YouTube: YouTube is the most popular video-sharing platform online. Content creators are able to monetize their channels and may publish videos involving everything from cooking to game reviews. 

However, the platform is not focused on a young audience and so simply by clicking through, kids may end up watching content you would deem inappropriate. 

There is a simple, contained solution called YouTube Kids, created by Google -- the owner of YouTube -- which is a standalone app that children can use to watch approved, kid-friendly videos in a closed system. The mobile application can be used on tablets and smartphones and is available for Android and iOS

In the meantime, YouTube is also implementing changes for content creators on the main platform. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is now being applied to the platform, and so channel owners will need to start marking their videos as for -- or not for -- children.  

See also: Most parents never check their children's devices | EU orders recall of children's smartwatch over severe privacy concerns | Human Services finally reveals details of bungled child support IT project | Google faces probe over child privacy violations in Brazil

Tumblr: Tumblr is a 13+ years microblogging platform for sharing images, .GIFs, text, and video. Accounts are public, and frankly, anyone can share whatever they want. There is adult content on there -- which is meant to be tagged as such but may not always be -- and the kinds of content that show up depends on which blogs a user chooses to follow. 

When it comes to this service, Tumblr is a mixed bag for younger visitors, although filtering is possible.

Twitch: Twitch is a live video streaming and messaging service catering to millions of users. While officially designed for users over 13, children may access the platform. Twitch is generally associated with gamers who hold interactive gaming and chat sessions with viewers who can "donate" to their favorite streamers. Public chats are moderated but with so many users, trolling can slip through the net. If your child is a fan of Twitch, it is worth taking a look at which subscribers they are following.

Snapchat: Snapchat is a mobile application designed for image sharing and chatting which has risen in popularity over recent years with both kids -- although you are meant to be at least 13 years old to create an account -- and adults. Images sent vanish in a matter of seconds, which could lead to ill-advised pictures being taken and shared unless children are made aware of the risks. 

There is a guide on Snapchat privacy settings and it is worth walking through how accounts are set up, including whether or not locations are shared and who can see user content. 

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has published a risk guide for other popular services and games, including Fortnite, Mixer, Pinterest, Reddit, and WhatsApp. 

Cyberbullying:

Cyberbullying is an unfortunate reality of our lives today, and when it comes to children, exposure can lead to plummeting self-confidence, isolation, and mental health issues. 

But how do you know? First of all, let's start with what cyberbullying means -- it is an umbrella term for harassment, abuse, intimidation, the humiliation of, or threatening someone through digital means -- including through Facebook, tweets, chat apps, and forums. 

A child could be cyberbullied through insulting messages, embarrassing or manipulated images of them being posted online, cruel posts related to them, and more. 

They may avoid school, lose interest in hobbies, become withdrawn, have mood swings, show indicators of depression, or exhibit sudden secretiveness if they are being physically bullied, and these signs can apply to cyberbullying, too. 

Another red flag may be the closure of their existing social media accounts without warning or explanation. 

It is a topic that has to be brought up with sensitivity and caution. If you find your child is being cyberbullied, it is important to record any evidence at hand of these activities, including text messages, screenshots of social media posts, and a diary of incidents to bring up to the school -- or if necessary, the legal system. 

ESET operates a website, saferkidsonline.com, which contains resources and guides on this topic. 

It is also worth making sure your own kids understand the potential ramifications of becoming a cyberbully. They may be under the impression that online accounts mean they are anonymous -- a myth which must be dispelled -- or that persecuting someone online and acting like a troll won't have consequences in the outside world. 

It is, after all, no less serious whether bullying takes place in the playground, school gym, or an online forum, and inappropriate behavior can eventually impact everything from a school career to future job prospects. Explained simply, make sure your children don't post anything online they wouldn't be happy for their grandmother to see.

Below are resources on various cases of cyberbullying that ended up in the courtroom and how various legal systems are now handling prosecutions related to online abuse.

  • Michelle Carter: "An involuntary manslaughter conviction turns cyberbullying from tragic to criminal."
  • UK school cyberbullying rates: "It's the dark side of the modern age."
  • New Jersey: 'Man pleads guilty to charge in Rutgers cyberbullying case."
  • Mental health: 'Cyberbullying had the impact of amplifying symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in young people."
  • Michigan: Cyberbullies face "93 days in jail, a maximum fine of $500 or both."
  • Student felonies: "NC students could be given jail time for cyberbullying, attorney says."
  • Amanda Todd: "Accused Dutch man jailed for cyberbullying."

Data: 

As a final point, data may be a boring word but It is more important than ever that parents take the time to learn about it, what is being shared, where, and how it can be misused. Cybercriminals are now selling information belonging to minors -- complete with squeaky-clean credit histories -- for the creation of stolen identities. 

It's a terrible concept and one that has become a reality. While there is little parents can do if their child's data is involved in a data breach, and the idea may seem like nonsense, it is no longer just adults that should conduct regular credit checks to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. 

Additional resources:

Below are external resources, guides, apps, and how-tos that parents may find educational.