“Kids don’t understand what a strong password is this until you teach them … Kids tend to use their birthday or their best friend’s name, which is when their online identities can be compromised.” – John Ooi.
We all know that we need to teach our kids to use the internet safely. The web is a maze of fantastic information and opportunities, but there’s also plenty of pitfalls and dangers – particularly for pre-teen kids, who know how to get online but often lack the maturity to know when something’s not quite right. And with many kids now engaging with social media before they’re 10, their online safety and wellbeing needs serious consideration.
But when many of us are juggling work, parenting and life in general, it’s difficult – if not downright impossible – to keep a close watch on our kids’ online activity at all times. The good news is that with a few basic strategies in place, plus good communication and some clear boundaries around acceptable behaviours, even the busiest of parents can navigate these hazardous seas.
Cyber safety 101
Up-to-date antivirus software, using Google’s safe-search settings, and best practice password management are the pillars of good cybersecurity when kids are online. But it’s important for kids to understand that online safety applies to all of us, regardless of age.
John Ooi, Australian Unity’s Chief Information Security Officer, suggests a “CIA” cyber safety framework for families to consider: that is, Computers, Identity and Applications.
“The devices you use – phones, laptops, iPads – need to have a base foundation of protection,” says John. Your operating systems and antivirus software need to be completely standard.”
John also points out that people often have cyber safety problems when they inherit a machine with reconfigured security settings or a non-standard platform from someone else: “This is where a lot of people fall down,” he says.
John suggests that parents have a conversation about passwords with their children: “Kids don’t understand what a strong password is until you teach them,” he says. “Then they say, ‘Ah, I get it now!’ Kids tend to use their birthday or their best friend’s name, which is when their online identities can be compromised.”
John has a simple idea to help structure children’s engagement with apps. “I create a checklist,” he says. “What you can share and what you can’t share online – because I think it’s dangerous to share holiday plans on social media, for example, or to take a photo and post it while you’re away.”
Online safety – it’s more than a game
You might have played board games like Monopoly or Guess Who? when you were young, but kids’ games are different these days – and a lot of them happen online.
Dr Joanne Orlando, a leading family digital literacy expert, explains that parents don’t often visit the gaming sites their kids are using, so they’re unsure of the safety issues that may be emerging.
“The number one step,” says Joanne, “is to regularly play the game that your child plays – just enjoy the game with them. Then when ads pop up or if there’s the potential for someone to contact them via the game, you will be able to identify the safety issues as a natural part of the cyber safety conversation.”
Joanne also suggests that it's good practice for younger kids to use their devices in a family area – in the lounge room or the kitchen – rather than alone in their bedrooms. It makes parents feel a lot more comfortable too. “But we also have to be careful how we do it, “ she adds. “Children might read an ebook before they go to bed, for example. So parents have to be consistent in making sure they remove the device or get the child to put the device back.”
Smartphones present a raft of risks for kids, particularly when they’re away from home.
Rather than allowing open-slather use from an early age, John suggests parents consider a five-stage progression towards full smartphone freedoms. After kids have completed the first two stages with a basic walkie-talkie device and a “dumb” phone, parents can start introducing a smartphone.
“At stage three you move to a managed smartphone – where a parent can control the apps their child can and can’t use. The fourth stage is where a parent says, ‘I’m going to give you a bit more liberty and control, but I’ll install some monitoring software’. Stage five is full smartphone use,” says John.
“The intention is not to control children,” John continues, but rather to implement some conditions of use that are intended to teach kids how to use phones safely as they go along.
Cyber safety and schools
Many Australian schools provide students with take-home laptops – often from the age of 10. But what role do schools play in educating kids on how to stay safe online?
“All Australian schools run cyber safety programs these days,” says Joanne. “Children have cyber safety sessions with their teachers, and they often get a guest speaker in to talk with parents. Schools take responsibility and parents take responsibility – but both groups need to do it jointly.”
John agrees: “Parents should really engage and get involved with school cyber safety programs.” But he also warns that the balance between school and parental responsibility isn’t quite right yet, with many schools lacking the funding to monitor kids’ online behaviours.
Keep the conversation going
Trolling, identity theft, cyberbullying… it’s confronting stuff to discuss with kids. But it’s important to have these conversations early – and often – to try and prevent missteps when kids do enter the online realm.
“It needs to start early on,” says Joanne. “We teach our three-year-olds to be safe out on the street, to eat healthy foods. We have all sorts of age-appropriate safety messages for young children. And it’s exactly the same with online safety – you communicate in ways they can understand, which become more complex as they get older.”
John backs this up: “It’s a continuous communication – a continuous education as your kids grow up.”
Needless to say, it pays to keep the tone of these conversations calm and neutral. Be authentic, be empathetic – your kids are learning, and you are learning too. Online safety and wellbeing is a journey that kids and parents take together.
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.