Common Sense Media parenting expert Caroline Knorr answers questions about keeping kids safe online for Internet Safety Month.
1. At What Age Should My Kids Go Online?
The age they begin is entirely up to you. Lots of kids start playing around online during the preschool years, but many parents wait until kids are in elementary school to get them started. Whatever you choose, these guidelines will give you and your kid a good beginning:
- Sit with little kids -- at least at first -- so you can explain what they see.
- Find age-appropriate sites with high learning potential.
- Put a time limit on your sessions (instill the idea of balance early).
- Avoid just-before-bed computer time. It can be stimulating and interrupt sleep.
2. How Do I Keep My Kid Safe On the Internet?
Internet safety goes way beyond protecting kids from strangers or blocking inappropriate content. It's about helping your kids use the Internet productively and practice safe, responsible online behavior -- especially when you're not there to answer their questions or check in on where they've ventured. Keep in mind that what may seem like basic knowledge to parents is new to kids just getting started in the digital world. Having a conversation before your kid embarks online helps set expectations and establish ground rules. Here are the basic guidelines to share with your kid:
- Follow your family's rules about when and where to use the Internet.
- Be polite, kind, and respectful.
- Understand a website's rules, and know how to flag other users for misbehavior.
- Recognize "red flags," including someone asking you personal questions such as your name and address.
- Never share your name, your school's name, your age, your phone number or your email or home address with strangers.
- Never send pictures to strangers.
- Keep passwords private (except from parents).
- Never open a message from a stranger; it may contain a virus that can harm a computer.
- Immediately tell an adult if something mean or creepy happens.
3. Is It Safe to Post Pictures of My Kid Online?
Sharing pictures of our kids with friends and family is one of the most popular uses of social media and has become an everyday way to stay in touch. But it's worth knowing the facts before posting pictures or letting other people post pictures of your kids.
First, posting photos of your kids creates a digital footprint -- a kind of electronic paper trail -- that forms their identities in a world they haven't chosen to enter. Someday your preschoolers will grow up, and they might not want documentation of their diaper days hanging out online for their friends to find! Second, once you post a photo online, you lose control over it. Someone could easily copy the photo, tag it, save it or otherwise use it -- and you might never know. Finally, everything you post has information that is valuable to advertisers and data collectors; posting a photo of a kid identifies you as someone who might be interested in baby products, for example.
At the very least, you can minimize the consequences with these precautions: Use privacy settings; limit the audience of a post (only to family, for example); turn off your phone's GPS; consider using a nickname for your kids; and think about using photo-sharing sites such as Picasaand Flickr that require users to log in to see pictures (unlike on social media, where all your followers can see them).
4. What Are Some Good Rules for Screen Names and Passwords?
It can be fun for kids to think up screen names and passwords. Make sure they come up with strong passwords and know never to share them. If kids need to write down passwords to remember them, consider writing down password hints, and store any written-down passwords or hints in a super secret place away from the computer.
Password tips to share with kids:
- Make passwords eight or more characters long (longer passwords are harder to crack than shorter ones).
- Try not to use dictionary words as your passwords (nonsense words are better).
- Include letters, numbers, and symbols (these make it harder to guess passwords).
- Change your password at least every six months (this way, even if someone does guess a password, he or she won't be able to get into your account for long).
- Don't use your nickname, phone number, or address as your password.
- Give your password to your parent or guardian (they will help you remember it if you forget it).
- Sharing your password with your friends is not a good idea (even if you trust them, they might unintentionally do something that puts you or your information at risk).
- Create a password that's unique but memorable.
Screen name tips to share with kids:
- Avoid using your real name.
- Skip personal details (no ages, addresses or jersey numbers, for example).
- Consider a screen name's effect on others (make sure it's readable and inoffensive).
- Keep it clean (avoid bad words or anything sexy, which can attract the wrong kind of attention).
5. What Are the Best Privacy Settings for My Computer and Smartphone?
The place to go to protect your computer against privacy invasion is your web browser. When you go online, websites install cookies on your computer that track your movements. Some cookies can be beneficial, such as those that remember your login names or items in your online shopping cart. But some cookies are designed to remember everything you do online, build a profile of your personal information and habits, and sell that information to advertisers and other companies. (Check out these kid Web browsers.)
Take a look at the privacy settings offered in your browser (usually found in the Tools menu) to see whether you can fine-tune them to keep the good and block the bad.
Privacy settings on smartphones vary, but you can tighten up privacy with these precautions:
- Turn off location services. That prevents apps from tracking your location.
- Don't let apps share data. Some apps want to use information stored on your phone (your contact list, for example). Say no.
- Enable privacy settings on apps you download. Make sure your teens are using strict privacy settings on services such as Instagram and Facebook.
- Be careful with social logins. When you log onto a site with your Facebook or Google username and password, you may be allowing that app to access certain information from your profile. Read the fine print to know what you're sharing.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org