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How to Keep Kids Safe Online

Advice from security experts and what they tell their kids

November is Child Safety Protection Month, which brings to mind the phrase “stranger danger” as an easy way for kids to remember to be careful when they are approached by someone they don’t know.

On the internet, however, “stranger danger” may not be as obvious. It can feel safer because they’re not confronting a stranger face to face and fancy themselves alone. But especially online, people use fake names or pseudonyms and can come across as friendly or wanting to help when the reality may be otherwise.

Stuart Dredge, a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Guardian Technology, asked internet safety and security experts how they talk to their kids about online safety. Here’s some of their advice on talking to kids, and what they tell their kids about being safe online.

Talk Safety at an Early Age

David Emm, a senior security researcher at internet security company Kaspersky Lab, suggests talking to your kids about internet safety at an early age. He points out that if they’re still young enough to be using the computer with you, you can use that time to “highlight the fact that the online world parallels the real world and that there are both safe and unsafe things out there.”

Use Real-World Examples

Amichai Shulman, CTO of network security firm Imperva, uses real-world examples to help explain cybersecurity and online safety to his kids. He describes hackers as “a type of criminal that breaks into your house through the computer rather than through the window” and uses a similar “stranger danger” analogy to explain when not to open things like email attachments.

When Catalin Cosoi, chief security strategist at Bitdefender, talks to her kids about cyberbullying, sexting, phishing, and scammers, she equates them to real examples from their school or group of friends to help her kids better understand. One example similar to phishing might be impersonating an older friend in order to get into a club.

Communicate Openly

A common thread throughout advice on keeping kids safe online is openly communicating, even about things kids often don’t want to talk about with parents.

Mark Gibson, former sales director at web filtering firm Bloxx, makes a point to talk about anything with his kids, so “that when they see sexual content on the web, which is inevitable, we talk about it. The rights and the wrongs, what it all means.” The goal is for his kids to feel safe in coming to him about anything, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Protect Their Identity and Privacy

Adults hear about the importance of strong passwords so often it’s easy to be dismissive, but kids often have not, so it’s important to explain what a strong password is and why it’s important.

Jesper Kråkhede, an information security consultant, tells his kids to use long sentences as passwords for two reasons: sentences are easier for them to remember, and long sentences are harder passwords to break.

There’s more to passwords, too, than using strong ones. Kaspersky Labs, for example, offers some additional password safety tips for kids:

  • Don’t share passwords for things like social networks with anyone, not even best friends.
  • Don’t send passwords in an email or through a messaging application like Skype, Facebook Messenger, etc., even if asked.
  • Don’t write passwords down on paper or store them in a file on devices.

Samantha Humphries-Swift, who worked as a product manager at cybersecurity firm McAfee Labs, encourages her daughter to observe safe online behavior, like not accepting friend requests from people her daughter doesn’t know, not agreeing to private chats with strangers, and not giving out or publicly posting her home address or mobile number.

Identifiable information goes beyond home address, mobile number, name, birthday, and social security number. It can also include the name of the school your child attends or social check-ins at the movie theatres or restaurants where they hang out with friends.

Chris Hoff, former vice president of strategic planning and security at Juniper Networks and now senior vice president of cyber security technology at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, explains to his kids that they should assume anything posted to the internet is permanent, so “they must be careful what they expose” and know that “their identity and all that goes with it is precious.” He goes a step further, too, saying not to disclose age or gender and to generally limit identifiable information online.

Share Consciously and Behave Ethically

Adults may know about sites like the WayBack Machine and understand that what’s written on the internet can’t be deleted. But Chris Hoff sums it up in one lesson: the internet is permanent.

With apps like Snapchat, kids may think what they post or share can be deleted and may be careless or think they’re participating in harmless fun. Parents need to explain that, even with apps like Snapchat, what they’ve posted and shared exists somewhere, whether on a server or in a follower’s screen shot.

For Sue Gold, senior counsel at Wyndham Worldwide, this means using a simple rule: apply your offline standards to being online. In other words, if you wouldn’t say it to someone in person, don’t post it online.

Additional Resources

The internet is fluid, and as kids grow up, their interactions with it change. Here are some additional resources to help talk to your kids about online safety:

You can use multiple approaches, but what’s most important is that you talk to your kids about how they use the internet and how they can keep themselves safe online.

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