Vigilance is a word often used when discussing parenting because the key role for any parent is to safeguard and protect your kids as best you can from the inherent dangers that life throws at them. The internet is no different.
The real world is one thing but the digital world – an ever-changing landscape – opens up your kids to a new wave of potential vulnerabilities and threats.
Instead of continually worrying about it, or worse, worrying your kids about it, my advice as a parent is to immerse yourself in the digital world, educate yourself and in-turn, educate your kids.
I’m a father of three and already I’m teaching my 5-year-old about the internet - what it is, how it works, how to use it and what’s good and bad about it – and like a sponge, he’s soaking up everything.
I believe in educating rather than scaremongering so here are some of my tips for educating and securing (as best you can) your kids online.
Step Into Their Digital World
Get involved - the internet is a digital playground and it’s inevitable that your kids will want to access it so find out what they are interested in and what are the best websites and apps for their respective ages and interests.
Be their co-pilot and learn about what they are doing, what they have access to, and what they like doing. Guide them and teach them about the rights, the wrongs and the dangers of using the internet and instil in them a sense of responsibility.
Show them that you are open, interested and enthusiastic about their online hobbies and interests and you’ll find that they’ll be much more responsive to you. As they get older, let them ‘fly solo’ but frequently check in on what they are doing. They are kids after all.
Note: There's a multitude of free parental control mobile apps available to download that protect your child from accessing potentially harmful content online.
Establish House Rules
Decide how much time you're comfortable with your children being online and which sites or apps they may go on. I introduced mobile apps to my children when they were three.
I allow them 30 mins of shared time on my phone each day – mainly Lego, driving games and puzzles - and an hour of shared time at the weekends. This is all on the proviso that they have behaved themselves during the day and that they have completed their chores.
Talk about the rules and explain them to your children but don’t be averse to negotiation.
We do not under any circumstances allow our kids to go online unaccompanied or without our permission. We have multiple devices in our house but we have them all set to forget our Wi-Fi password so that they cannot get online without either my wife or myself present.
Teach Your Kids to Protect Their Privacy
Depending on their age, children won’t really understand the consequences of sharing or revealing personal information online. Sure even adults struggle with this so from an early age educate them on the ‘Dos and Don’ts’ of sharing information and make sure that they know the following:
- Never to give their name, phone number, email address, password, postal address, school, or picture without your permission
- Not to open emails from people they don't know
- Don’t accept friendship requests from people they don’t know
- To verify requests if they look to be coming from someone you do know
- Not to respond to hurtful or disturbing messages
- Never agree to a private chat with a stranger
- Not to arrange to meet up with anyone they "met" online.
Educate them early and educate them often.
Beware of Strangers Baring Gifts
From an early age, children understand the concept of ‘cops and robbers’ so if explained simply to them they too will understand the concept of a hacker being a type of ’burglar’ that breaks into your house via the computer rather than through the window.
My kids are too young to have email accounts – we’re still at the Jolly Phonics stage – but kids are always thought never to accept sweets, gifts or lifts from strangers so it shouldn’t be a big leap to educate them on the dangers of accepting ‘gift’s from strangers online. Gifts in this instance could be unsolicited email attachments such as viruses, worms, phishing applications and so on.
If it looks suspect then it usually is. For example, I once received the following text message from ‘Irish Tax’ with an accompanying web link
Teach Your Children to Log Out
Simple I know but you’d be amazed at how many people forget to log out of their computers. This is particularly relevant if they use a shared computer or device.
Logging out will prevent siblings or friends from posting or emailing from their account, even if it’s done as a joke.
Be Careful What You Post or Say
Children (and adults to some extent) need to remember that the online world is the real world. Just because a screen separates you from the people that you’re talking to or the sites/apps that you’re interacting with doesn’t make it any less real. Think of Donald Trump’s use of Twitter!
Teenagers, in particular, should be regularly reminded that everything they do over the internet is captured forever and could come back to haunt them at a later date. Nowadays, schools, universities, and employers look at social media profiles when researching candidates.
So make sure that your children understand from an early age that anything that is put online should be assumed to be permanent.
Some Rules For Securing Yourself Online
So now that your children are online how do you protect them from hackers, cyberbullies and identity thieves? In truth, there’s no single or simple answer to this. Everything within reason can be hacked so again you just need to be vigilant and follow a few basic rules.
My advice is to put down the ‘Nasa’s Encryption Techniques for Dummies’ book and focus, instead, on the mundane everyday stuff that you might not realise you should focus on.
Here are a few simple tips to get you started.
Secure Your Wi-Fi Network
Start with your entry point to the internet.
- WiFi Encryption - First and foremost make sure you’re using WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protection Access) encryption on your Wi-Fi network. WPA2 provides government grade security by implementing various encryption algorithms. If you are using WEP security I’d recommend changing it so refer to your user manual for making the quick change.
- Router Password - A Wi-Fi password is one thing but make sure your router is password protected too. Change the router’s default password (usually ‘password’) so that you don’t give someone access to it. With access to the router, a person could change your router settings, including viewing any security keys. Refer to your router manual for making the necessary changes.
- Disable remote administration - If you never plan on wirelessly connecting to your router, I recommend disabling remote administration. Again, refer to your user manual for making this simple change.
If someone has access to an open Bluetooth connection they can potentially switch on your phone’s microphone and listen to you. Most people think that hackers have to be within a close range to do this, but in some cases, they can be within a mile radius.
Again just be vigilant. If a device that you’re paring with is giving you the standard 0000 code then it’s vulnerable. If it’s giving you a unique code then it’s a lot more secure.
Secure Nanny Cams
It’s horrible I know, but if you have an unsecured Nanny Cam (or any connected device for that matter), hackers can potentially gain access to it and spy on your little ones. According to security experts the two most commons methods of gaining access to cameras are:
- Google Dorking - This is just using regular Google searches to find open cams. For instance, if a camera always has a public URL + camera number, hackers can run some quick queries and search for more open URLs. There’s even a search engine for internet connected devices called Shodan which has a section that lets users easily browse vulnerable webcams.
- User Manuals - Another simple, but overlooked way to get access. Every camera owner is going to forget their password at some point, which is why manufacturers put that reset info in the manual. Now those instructions are sitting on their site waiting to be exploited.
To protect yourself from this type of hacking, look for a camera that has the following features:
- Administration settings - Get a camera with a lot of administration settings and change the username and password as soon you set up the device.
- Remote shutdown - Get a camera that will allow you to shut it off remotely without being physically there.
- Private URL - Get a camera who’s URL isn’t public. If you’re able to easily watch your kid online, chances are other people can do it too.
Geotagging is the act of tagging your photos with geographical information about where a photo was taken.
By default, the camera application on your smartphone has the ability to add GPS coordinates to the image file so potentially this could put your children at risk. For example, let’s say you post a picture on Facebook of your child’s first day at school, a hacker can now scrape that photo for information and tell exactly where the photo was taken.
The easiest way to prevent this is to turn off or change your location settings on your phone.
Hopefully, this article has informed you of some of the risks associated with being online. Could you get hacked? Sure. Are you likely to be hacked? Not particularly but there are always opportunists waiting to strike so it's better to be vigilant than ignorant...
If you have any comments, tips, stories or you like/don't like what you're reading feel free to get in touch. Likewise, if there are any topics that you'd like me to cover please feel free to ask.