Discussions around children’s online safety have slowly moved to the fore in recent months. Just last week, the CEOs of Meta, X, Snap, Discord and TikTok were quizzed by a US Senate Judiciary Committee about this very issue. The 21 senators were highly critical of the social media platforms and accused the owners of failing to protect children from mental health issues and falling prey to sexual predators. It begs the question about whether enough is being done to ensure children are safe online.
We cannot wait for online platforms to put the guardrails in place to ensure children are shielded from these risks. Taking proactive steps by talking to kids about cybersecurity and how to stay safe online are going to be vital in building responsible online citizens of the future.
Shielding kids from explicit content
Because much of our day-to-day takes place online, the internet has become a huge and complex space. Whether it’s work, shopping, banking, socialising or entertainment, the lines have blurred between reality and virtual life. The same is true for children. Everything from research for a homework assignment to watching funny videos, the amount of time kids spend online has increased.
And while these can be productive spaces for schoolwork and a playground for unwinding, without realising it, children can very easily slip into segments of the internet that are not age appropriate. While websites and apps like YouTube have child-friendly versions, these are not always foolproof. In fact, YouTube has often been at the centre of scandals involving children accessing violent or explicit content. A recent research report found that kids using YouTube are receiving recommended videos on guns and school shootings.
A quick and easy way to prevent a rapid descent down this and other rabbit holes is to turn off the autoplay feature on video apps like YouTube. This small stop gap creates a pause between videos and helps users to stop and think before being whisked to another part of the internet. There are also parental controls built into browsers and operating systems. Windows has a set of family settings available to parents while Google has a SafeSearch function that can be activated in all browsers.
There’s no doubt that mobile devices and the internet have made it easier for us to stay connected to one another. Messaging apps and social media have come a long way, and we are able to catch up with family members and friends around the world as a result.
That being said, guarding these communication spaces with friends and family are important. Social media makes it easier for strangers to strike up a conversation with users of all ages. Children can be easy targets for interactions with cybercriminals and online predators. Simple social engineering tactics are often used by bad actors with generative AI tools making it easier to fool both adults and children. AI generated images, for example, can be used as profile pictures while large language models like Chat GPT can help draft answers that might sound like a benign new friend.
To avoid falling into these conversations, encourage children to only interact with people online that they know in person. It’s best to stay away from chats and messages and to not click on any links from strangers.
In the cybersecurity industry, there’s an architectural approach called zero trust. It’s based on the idea that no person, device or transaction can be trusted until it is checked and verified. This concept is becoming a vital component of how we interact in digital spaces. People are not always who they seem online and so having a zero trust mindset can be a very useful protection measure to stay safe and secure.
Cyberbullying on the virtual playground
Unfortunately bullying continues to be a major challenge facing children in digital spaces. Social media provides many of us with a platform to share our daily lives, but it can also leave us vulnerable to digital harassment. Online gaming might feel like a safe space for children to interact with likeminded peers in a virtual world, but it still exposes users to the risk of being cyberbullying victims.
Much like bullying in the real world, online harassment can fall out of our control, but there are ways to mitigate it. Controlling your audience and who sees your social media content is possible with the right privacy settings. Social media apps like Instagram and Facebook have a variety of privacy controls that can hide a profile and block and report unwanted followers.
Parents can also encourage children to interact with friends who will lift them up and not tear them down. Keep the channels of communication open so that if they feel that someone is treating them badly or they see someone being bullied, they always have an adult to talk to. Discussing their online experiences, good or bad, is a great way to understand what digital behaviours they might have and when it might be time to intervene.
Access to online spaces has become more ubiquitous for kids. Whether it’s a parent’s smartphone or their own, a gaming console, computer or tablet, children are spending a lot more time online to do homework, spend time with friends or be entertained. And while the internet can be a fun and exciting place, it also opens them up to risks such as exposure to inappropriate content, unwanted contact, cyberbullying and even the work of cybercriminals. With the right habits and precautions in place, children can engage online safely and become responsible digital citizens.