The Complete Kids Online Safety Guide for Parents

Complete kids online safety guide

Kids these days are spending more and more time online.

Even before the coronavirus crisis left most kids confined to their home and doing the majority of their schooling online, they would still spend a fair amount of time at school engaged in online learning.

When they get home from school, homework often involves going online too. And when they have time to relax, many kids will stream TV and movies online, play online games, and even chat with their friends online.

There is no escaping the fact that modern kids spend a significant amount of their day using the internet.

For many parents, this is a big worry. Lots of them don't really know what their kids get up to online and don't understand the software and technology they are using. Then there are the frightening headlines that crop up in the media warning about all sorts of different risks children can face online.

A quick search for help online can only make matters worse. There are lots of short incomplete guides that are full of confusing and often contradictory advice. Lots of parents come away from such research feeling even more worried than they did before.

In this guide, we are going to pull together all the best information that parents need to know to keep their children safe online. We will cover every topic that parents need to know and we will filter out all the wrong and misguided advice there is out there.

As parents ourselves, this has been a big research project and a significant labour of love. As tech writers and experts, even we have learned new things in the course of compiling this guide.

The result is VPNCompare's definitive parents' guide to online safety for kids. We hope it is as insightful and informative for you as putting it together has been for us.

Table of Contents

Background

If you are worried about your kids online, you are not alone. There have been countless surveys carried out on this issue and they have all reached broadly the same conclusion. The majority of parents are worried about their kids online.

A survey carried out in 2018 by the not-for-profit organisation Internet Matters, which works to keep families safe online, found that around half of parents have some worries about the amount of time their kids are spending online. A more recent survey carried out by Kaspersky, the Russian online security company, put the figure even higher at 84%.

According to Internet Matters, 54% of parents felt their kids spent too much time sitting down using internet-enabled devices, 38% worried their child wasn't getting enough exercise, and 36% felt it meant they did not have enough time to play outside.

Their data found that the percentages rose as kids got older with 49% of parents of 14-16 year old's worrying about lack of exercise while for parents of kids aged 4-5, the figure was just 31%.

Kaspersky found that 64% of parents felt kids were spending too long online.

They also asked about the biggest threats that children faced online with 27% saying it was accessing inappropriate, sexual, or violent content, 26% suggesting addiction to the internet, and 14% saying anonymous messages and grooming.

Another recent survey found that 71% of parents worried about what their kids were doing on social media with 58% of parents specifically concerned that content posted online by their kids could harm their future job prospects.

This is not just the case in the UK. Similar trends can be found globally.

An ESET survey of parents in the US and the UK found that 88% of parents worried about what their kids could access online. At the same time, Intel has reported that as many as two-thirds of parents were so concerned, they were actively keeping track of their kids' online activity.

So, the first take-away you should get from this guide is that you are not alone.

Lots of parents share your worries and if you speak to any of your friends who have kids, or other parents at your child's school, the chances are you will be pushing on an open door.

The sort of risks you might be concerned about include things like:

  • Cyber-bullying
  • Grooming – sexual and religious extremism
  • Accessing sexual, violent, religious, or other inappropriate content
  • Sexting
  • Sharing personal information
  • Online security – malware, ransomware, and other threats
  • Online privacy – identity theft and exposing private details online
  • Commercialisation
  • The amount of time kids spend online
  • Spending money

The question is, what can keep your kids safe online and stop you from worrying? It might seem like an impossible problem to overcome.

But it isn't.

To ensure your kids' online safety, what you need is a combination of education (for you and your kids), engagement, and rules.

In this guide, we have attempted to compile all the best information, advice and resources to help you to achieve this.

Section One: Your kids and the internet

Line drawn boy and girl with internet globe

It often amazes parents how quickly their kids pick up the skills they need to get online.

But remember, your kids have been exposed to internet-enabled devices from birth. They have grown up watching Peppa Pig on your iPad and speaking to Granny and Grandpa on FaceTime.

Using the internet is as intuitive to them as riding a bike or reading a book. The internet is where they go to socialise, to relax, to play games, to find information, to do their schoolwork, and to communicate.

If you want to keep your kids safe online, the first step is to accept that the internet is, and always will be, an integral part of their lives.

The second is to ensure that you have a close understanding about how they access the internet and what they are doing online.

How kids access the internet

Line drawn boy with technology such as phone and laptop

Let's begin by thinking about how your kids access the internet. What devices are they using to get online and what do they use these different devices for?

Smartphones and tablets

Key Data:

Line drawing of a boy and girl with social media icons

What are kids using smartphones and tablets for?

  • Calling
  • Texting
  • Web Browsing
  • Instant messaging
  • Online chatting
  • Video chatting
  • Social media
  • Online gaming
  • Buying and selling

growing number of kids these days have their own smartphone or tablet and the age they are being given them is getting younger and younger. Smartphones and tablets are mobile devices and this can make it hard for parents to keep tabs on what their kids are doing on them.

Smartphones are the most popular device for kids to use to go online. They can easily expose them to many of the main risks associated with going online but that doesn't necessarily mean that you shouldn't let your kids use one.

Laptops and Computers

Key Stats:

What are kids using laptop and desktop computers for?

  • Web browsing
  • Homework
  • Online gaming
  • Watching movies and TV shows
  • Social media
  • Video chatting
  • Instant messaging
  • Buying and selling

The majority of modern homes will have at least one desktop or laptop computer.

While these may belong to parents, their kids will often use them for things like browsing the internet, streaming TV shows and movies, online gaming, homework, using social media, and video chats.

A lot of kids have their own laptop or desktop computer. Often, this may be situated in their bedroom or playroom with 71% of kids saying they can get online in their room.

As you will see below, when we discuss good internet practice, this is not something we recommend.

Because laptop and desktop computers are used for a wide variety of different tasks, they can also expose kids to a wide range of online threats.

Games Consoles

Key stats

What are they using consoles for?

  • Online gaming
  • Online chatting
  • Video chatting
  • Web browsing
  • Social media

The days when a games console just let you play the game on the cartridge you plug into it are long gone. Today, consoles download and regularly update games from the internet while game-playing also involves competing against other players from around the world.

Instant messaging and other social interaction is also an integral part of this interactive gaming experience as players communicate with each other in real time.

This can result in an increased risk of grooming, cyber-bullying, or the sharing of excessive information.

An increasing number of consoles also offer web browsers and social media access. These carry all the same risks on consoles as they do on any other device.

Smart TVs

Key Stats:

What are they using Smart TVs for?

  • Watching TV
  • Watching movies
  • Web browsing
  • Social media
  • Online gaming

A lot of people don't think of their TV as an internet-enabled device, even though more and more of us are streaming content online through the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime.

But modern TVs don't just offer access to streaming services. They offer web browsing, social media apps, access to online gaming, and more.

This means that kids should be subject to the same controls when using a Smart TV as any other connected device.

Outside Devices

Key Stats

What are they using them for?

  • Web browsing
  • Social media
  • Online chatting
  • Video chatting
  • Instant messaging

Your kids will also use computers and internet-enabled devices outside the home too.

Most will have access to laptops, desktops, and tablets in school. These should be safe online environments but if you are concerned or want to be sure, you should be able to check on the details with your kids' school.

But kids can also access devices in unsafe environments too. These include public places like libraries as well as using devices belonging to their friends. These devices might not be subject to the same levels of supervision and restriction as your home devices.

It is therefore important for you to ensure that your kids are educated about the risks of using such devices and know how to keep themselves safe. This will be discussed in more detail further down this guide.

Public Wi-Fi

Key stats:

What are they using public Wi-Fi for?

  • Web browsing
  • Social media
  • Online chatting
  • Video chatting
  • Instant messaging
  • Online gaming
  • Streaming movies and TV shows.

Even if your kids are using devices you know, they might still be connected to the internet on insecure public Wi-Fi networks. These weak Wi-Fi networks make it easy for hackers to access devices and see some private content they contain as well as intercept some data they are sending.

Public Wi-Fi networks will also rarely offer parental filters or content filtering of any kind. There is, therefore, no limitation on what your kids can do online.

If you let your kids use public Wi-Fi connections, it is vital to ensure that their devices have parental filters switched on. It is also highly advisable to equip your kids' devices with online security and privacy tools like a VPN to keep them safe when using these networks.

What are your kids doing online?

Line drawn boy with phone and console controller

We have outlined the main devices that kids these days are using to go online and in each section, we also identified the main activities they were using these different devices for.

But what exactly do these terms mean and what are your kids actually doing online?

If you want to keep your kids safe online, it is vital that you know and understand what they are doing there. So, here is our brief rundown of what your kids are doing online and the potential risks these activities pose.

Social Media

Main risks: 

  • Online grooming
  • Cyberbullying
  • Fake friends
  • Sharing inappropriate content

Most people use some form of social media but parents who assume that their kids are using social media in the same way as them are being extremely naïve.

Sure, your kids might have a Facebook or a Twitter account just like you. But the chances are they are also using platforms like Tik Tok, Snapchat, and others that you haven't even heard of.

These newer and smaller social media sites tend to be more youth-friendly and focused much more on visual content rather than written posts. They often also contain far fewer safeguards than their more established competitors.

Kids use these social media sites to communicate with friends, reach out to other people with similar interests, and follow their favourite pop stars, sports personalities, and celebrities.

There is also likely to be significant crossover between social media platforms, instant messaging platforms, and video chatting software.

Instant Messaging / Live Chat

Main risks: 

  • Online grooming
  • Cyberbullying
  • Fake friends
  • Sharing inappropriate content

Most kids will communicate with their friends on instant messaging or live chat services, much like you probably do.

They might use platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to do this. Still, as with regular social media platforms, there are younger and more trendy sites that are more popular with kids and tend to offer fewer protections for users.

As well as chatting with friends, your kids will routinely use instant messaging sites to send messages, pictures, videos, and other files to friends and online contacts.

Video Chat and Live Chat rooms

Main risks: 

  • Online grooming
  • Predators
  • Cyberbullying
  • Sharing inappropriate content
  • Chatrooms that promote things like anorexia, self-harm, suicide, radical religious beliefs etc.

Video chat platforms and online chat rooms allow kids to engage in both one-on-one and group chats, either with or without a live video feed from their device. Some of these forums will be generic ones while others might specialise in a particular theme like a certain type of music or pop group.

Web browsing

Main risks:

  • Accessing inappropriate content
  • Visiting websites that are not suitable for them

Your kids will use web browsers to search for websites and information online in much the same way that you do. They will enter search terms and click on links to access the websites that interest them.

It is worth noting that most popular web browsers have minimal default restrictions on the type of content that your kids can find and access. But there are some child-friendly browsers that will only let your kids access appropriate content. We will discuss these in more detail later.

Streaming Movies and TV shows

Main risks: 

  • Watching inappropriate content

Kids don't watch TV like adults do. Almost all of the shows they like tend to be streamed online and accessed on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and BBC iPlayer.

Not all of these platforms have parental controls in place by default and other sites like YouTube have little or no content control whatsoever. As a result, it can be very easy for unsupervised kids to access content that is not suitable for them.

Buying and selling

Main risks: 

  • Spending excessive money
  • Purchasing inappropriate items

Your kids like to browse online shops for clothes, shoes, and anything else you can think of just like you do, especially during holidays.

Meanwhile, those who play online games might like to buy things like credits and add-ons to make games more interesting, exciting, or easy.

It is surprisingly easy for your kids to spend money online, even if they don't have a credit card of their own. And there also tend to minimal controls on how much they can spend or what they spend it on.

What Apps are kids using these days?

Line drawn girl with social media apps

Once you have got an understanding of what devices you kids are using to go online and what they are doing when they are there, the next thing to learn is what apps and software they are using.

A lot of kids will be using mainstream social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But most will also be using a wide variety of other apps that you have probably never heard of and have no idea what they do.

In this section, we are going to provide a brief synopsis of the 13 apps that we feel parents should be most concerned about.

There are lots more apps which warrant concern too and parents should ensure they always know what apps their kids are using and what they are doing on them. We will discuss this further down the article, but these thirteen apps are ones you should be particularly wary of.

TikTok

What it does: Video sharing, picture sharing, social media, instant messaging, comments.

Potential risks: Inappropriate content, grooming, bullying, trolling, privacy, addiction.

Tik Tok has exploded in popularity over the past twelve months despite a number of censorship and privacy controversies and its links to Communist China.

It allows users to create short looping video and sharing them online.

While users are supposed to be 13, there is little enforcement of this rule and privacy settings default to public meaning anyone can see what you post.

Tik Tok has been accused of exposing users to grooming, paedophiles, and inappropriate content. There have also been many issues of bullying and the app has a lax attitude to cyberbullying. It is thought by some experts to be addictive.

Ask FM

What it does: Online messaging, comments.

Potential risks: Grooming, cyberbullying, inappropriate content, trolling.

Ask.fm allows users to interact with friends and other users in an question-and-answer format.

The site allows anonymous posting and as a result, it is rife with cyberbullying and even grooming.

The 13+ age rating is only loosely enforced and some parents may have already received letters from schools asking them to stop their kids using it. Recently added a ‘report abuse' button but few other signs it is tackling its many issues.

Twitch

What it dies: Streaming, online gaming, messaging, comments.

Potential risks: Cyberbullying, inappropriate content, privacy, bullying, in-app purchases.

If your kid is a gamer, the chances are they either watch content on Twitch or stream themselves playing games there.

Twitch is a site that lets pro and amateur gamers live-stream or broadcast their gaming to the world. It has lots of legitimate content but for parents, the big worry is the lack of moderation.

Because streams are not moderated, explicit language is common and inappropriate activity can also be seen. Many streams also feature games that have been classified as for users aged 18+ but there is no control of what age can watch the streams.

Snapchat

What it does: Instant messaging, group chats, sending images, sending videos.

Potential risks: Cyberbullying, sexting, sharing inappropriate content, sharing location details, grooming, strangers, privacy.

You have probably heard of Snapchat by now and it is still a hugely popular app with older kids. It allows you to send messages that are automatically deleted after being read. You can also send images and videos this way too and there are lots of other child-friendly features too.

The risks of sharing inappropriate content and grooming are apparent but one thing many people don't know is that Snapchat also allows users to track each other using their smartphones GPS.

Kik Messenger

What its used for: Instant messaging, sharing pictures, comments, texts.

Potential risks: Cyberbullying, sexting, grooming.

Kik Messenger is an app that lets people text friends at high speed and with more of a “face-to-face feel”.

You can send text and visual content to any user.

Kik Messenger has a 17+ age recommendation but this is not enforced and anyone can set up an anonymous account. It is commonly used for sexting and there are frequent reports of cyberbullying and grooming on the platform.

Many experts have warned parents to keep their kids away from Kik Messenger at any cost.

YouTube

What it does: The world's largest online streaming platform

Potential risks: Inappropriate content, privacy, comments.

Everyone reading this article will be familiar with YouTube and many of you probably quite happily leave your kids watching videos on it.

But this is where the big risk comes as there have been multiple examples of users uploading kids content that has been spliced with inappropriate content or fake versions of kids shows with adult themes.

These types of videos can even evade YouTube's parental controls and privacy settings meaning any user can accidentally end up watching. YouTube is also owned by Google which has a long track record of collecting and monetising user data at the expense of user privacy.

Houseparty

What it does: Video chat, live video streaming, instant messaging.

Potential risks: Inappropriate content, grooming, cyberbullying.

Houseparty streams videos live and is a popular medium for kids to chat with their friends online in real time.

Live streams means there is no screening of content and therefore nothing to prevent your kids accessing inappropriate content or connecting with people they shouldn't.

Groups can be joined by friends of friends which means your kids could be interacting with almost anyone and grooming and bullying are both genuine concerns.

Tellonym

What it does: Online messaging, comments.

Potential risks: Inappropriate content, grooming, cyberbullying.

Tellonym's strapline is “the most honest place on the internet.” A bit like Ask.FM it allows kids to engage with each other using a question and answer format. The most worrying aspect of this platform is that it is anonymous which means you never know who you are interacting with.

There are numerous issues of cyberbullying, abuse and violent threats, and inappropriate sexual content and comments being shared.

It can also be used to access the internet unmonitored and while the age recommendation varies from 12-16 years old, most experts suggest Tellonym should be an 18+ app.

Minecraft Pocket Edition

What it does: Online gaming, online chatting, messaging.

Potential risks: Cyberbullying, grooming, in-app purchases, addiction, privacy.

Minecraft remains a hugely popular online game with players of all ages and the mobile version is a big favourite with younger users.

Players can enter each other's worlds where they are able to either work together or engage in combat. The app also features in-game messaging and live-chatting and as a result, there have been claims of cyberbullying and grooming.

IMVU

What it does: Online gaming, online chatting, messaging.

Potential risks: Cyberbullying, inappropriate content, grooming.

IMVU is a virtual world simulator much like the Sims series of games.

In this virtual world, users interact as avatars but all users are public. Some areas of the game, which are supposed to be 18+ can contain nudity and sexually explicit content.

Inappropriate chat between avatars is common and the Chat Now feature randomly links two users together and can result in improper connections.

There are examples of bullying and grooming on this platform and moderation is minimal at best.

Voxer

What it does: Online gaming, online chatting, messaging.

Potential risks: Cyberbullying, grooming, inappropriate content, grooming.

Voxer is a so-called PTT (push to talk) app. It allows users to exchange short voice messages quickly.

Chats can include multiple people and users just have to press play to listen to messages. It is popular among teens but is an accessible format for bullying and can be even more powerful as you can listen to abusive messages repeatedly.

Astonishingly, Voxer is only rated as 4+, which given the lack of moderation seems incredibly lax.

Wishbone

What it does: Private messaging, online sharing, image sharing.

Potential risks: Cyberbullying, inappropriate content, grooming, trolling, privacy.

Wishbone allows users to post an image and ask users to draw comparisons and offer comments.

It has inevitably become a popular forum for online bullies and cruel and abuse comments are common. It is also frequently full of inappropriate content and moderation of content and comments is minimal.

Whisper

What it does: Private messaging, online sharing, image sharing.

Potential risks: Cyberbullying, inappropriate content, grooming, trolling, privacy.

Whisper's motto is “Share Secrets, Express Yourself, Meet New People.” It is supposed to be for users aged 17 and over but anyone can set up an anonymous account.

Users can create images or graphics which can be overlaid with messages or confessions and as a result, deeply personal content can end up in the public domain.

Users' location data is also public by default and despite the age limit, lots of younger kids are using it and being exposed to bullying, grooming, and inappropriate content.

Where find out more about the apps your kids are using?

This list is by no means comprehensive but merely a rundown of the apps we feel parents should be most wary of.

If your kids are using apps not included on this list and you want to find out more about them and the potential risks they pose, there are various online resources you can turn to.

Searching for an app will turn up dozens of different reviews, many of which will offer independent expert advice on what an app does and what potential risks it could pose to users.

As parents, if you want an authoritative view with a view to young users, these site are all highly recommended:

  • UK Safer Internet Centre – A dedicated organisation with a wealth of material for parents.
  • Internet Matters – An NGO dedicated to helping parents keep their kids safe online.
  • NSPCC – Children's charity with plenty of online safety resources.
  • Common Sense Media – NGO advising on kids access to media and technology.
  • Net Aware – Informative site from the UK-based charity, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
  • GOV.uk – Official UK government guide to online safety for parents and carers.

Section Two: The online risks your children face

Line drawn boy with mobile phone

All parents want to keep their children safe online, and just as your parents will have taught you about ‘Stranger Danger' and how to cross the road safely, so you now need to teach your children about online risks and how to overcome them.

That can sound like a daunting task, especially if you are not very technically proficient yourself. It is quite easy for parents to have very little knowledge or understanding of the risks their children can face online and how to address them.

As parents, that is a challenge rather than an excuse. If you don't already understand about online risks, it is up to you to educate yourself about this risks and learn what you need to do to keep your kids safe.

In the previous section, we touched on the different types of risks that online devices and apps can pose to kids.

In this section, we will expand on that. We will address each of the main online risks in detail and outline what those risks are, how kids encounter them, and what you can do to help:

Grooming

Line drawn girl with phone and anonymous male predator

Grooming is the process of building a relationship and emotional connection with a child so they can then manipulate, exploit and abuse that child.

Grooming doesn't always happen online but the ease with which people can use the internet anonymously, particularly certain apps targeted at young people, can make it a place where kids are vulnerable to grooming.

The term grooming is widely linked with child sexual abuse and there is no doubt that this is one significant risk. But it is not the only one.

Children can also be groomed into religious extremism, drug use, or even into human trafficking.

The way online groomers operate is usually to create fake online identities that enable them to engage with children online and gain their trust.

After chatting on public forums, groomers will encourage kids to move to more private forms of communication such as instant messaging services. They will then attempt to escalate the relationship to phone calls and then face-to-face meetings.

There have been reports that kids can be groomed online in less than 45 minutes.

Statistics

Research by the NSPCC has shown that Instagram is the site where kids are most likely to be groomed, with 32% of cases reported to police involving the site. Facebook was second with 23% and Snapchat third with 14%.

To counter the risk of grooming, it is essential for parents to teach children from an early age that the people they speak to online may not be who they claim to be.

They should also understand that once they become friends with someone online, that person will be able to see lots of personal information and images about them, so they should be cautious about who they befriend online.

How to tell if your child is being groomed

We have all read the tabloid horror stories about kids who have been groomed and heard the agonising accounts of parents who say they had no idea what was going on.

This is eminently believable because it can be extremely hard to tell if your child is being groomed.

The groomer is likely to encourage their victim to hide their relationship from their parents or carers and if your kid trusts this person they will try to do so. But there are a few telltale signs that most parents will be able to spot:

  • Secretive – Children who are being groomed often start to be more secretive about what they are doing online. They might begin hiding the screen from you when you come into the room or giving non-descript answers when you ask what they are doing.
  • Spending more time online – Your child might start spending more time than usual online if they are being groomed as they will be encouraged to interact with their groomer more.
  • Heightened emotions – Children who are being groomed often become more emotional than they were before. This can take the form of anger, sadness, or anxiety. This can be particularly evident if you question or challenge them about what they are doing online.
  • Uncharacteristic language – A groomed child can sometimes start to use language they didn't before. This often includes sexually explicit words they never used before.
  • Other uncharacteristic behaviour – Other types of uncharacteristic behaviour can also sometimes be observed. This can include different personality traits that are not natural or were not evident before but the groomer is encouraging.
  • New tech – Groomers will often give gifts to the children they are grooming. Often this will be a new smartphone or another device they can use to communicate with the child. If your child has a new bit of tech, you should find out where it came from, especially if they are very secretive about where it came from.

What can you do if you think your child is being groomed?

If you are worried about your child being groomed, the most effective thing to do is educate them about the risks and how to stay safe online.

Try to maintain an open dialogue with your child and give them advice on how to avoid falling victim to groomers.

Educating your children about the risks of online grooming is the best way to keep them safe.

This means telling them about the risks, maintaining an open dialogue about this type of activity and sharing tips of how they can avoid falling victim to a groomer.

Good tips include:

  1. Don't share private information – Teach your kids not to share any private information with people they meet online. Private information means things like personal details, family information, addresses, the name of their schools, and photographs.
  2. Beware strange new friends – Your kids should understand that if they receive a friend request online from a stranger, they shouldn't just accept it to boost the number of online friends they have. Strange requests can come from anyone and this person may not be who they claim and could pose a risk. Teach your kids to only accept online friend requests from people they actually know.
  3. Never meet alone – Discourage your kids from meeting online friends in person and if they do, make sure they never go to meet anyone alone. They must always have a parent or responsible adult with them.
  4. Keep talking – Seek to create an environment in which your child feels comfortable talking with you about what they are doing online and are able to tell you about any inappropriate people they encounter online.
  5. Report suspected grooming – If you think your child is being groomed, it is important that you are not shy about reporting it to the relevant authorities. In the UK, you need to alert the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command. Other countries have their own national bodies to investigate grooming crimes and you can always tell your local police and law enforcement agency who will refer you to the relevant people.

Cyberbullying

Line drawn boy with phone and sad face

Kids have always had to contend with bullying but the internet age has created a whole new means for kids to harass and bully each other.

Cyberbullying has taken the issue of bullying to a whole new level and often means that kids are unable to escape their tormentors even when they are away from school.

Cyberbullying is helped by the fact that people can use so many of the most popular online platforms anonymously.

This not only helps bullies known to your child to harass them but can even enable people they don't actually know to bully them.

This anonymity means that cyberbullying can often be unrelenting, vicious, and particularly cruel. All of these factors combined means that sadly the consequences of cyberbullying can be far more severe than regular bullying.

Statistics

According to Support Solutions, 43% of kids admit to being bullied at least once online with 25% saying it had happened more than once. 58% of kids have had something hurtful said to them online.

Girls are more than twice as likely to be both the victim and the perpetrator of online bullying.

Support Solutions suggests that victims of cyberbullying are between two and five times more likely to consider committing suicide.

What constitutes cyberbullying?

In the old days, it wasn't too hard to spot a child that was the victim of bullying. If a child was being hit, there would be bruises, if their lunch money was being taken, they would be very hungry when they got home.

But cyberbullying can take many different forms and is often psychological rather than physical in nature.

Some of the most common types of cyberbullying that parents need to be aware of are:

  • Hate sites – Bullies will sometimes create social media pages, chat groups, or entire blogs dedicated to sharing abusive and unpleasant content about their victim.
  • Trolling – This involves posting threatening, abusive, or just unpleasant messages on social media, on instant messaging sites, in chat rooms, or on other websites.
  • Abusive messaging – Sending abusive and threatening messages to the victim via text messages, live chats, or instant messaging services.
  • Encouraging self-harm – Bullies will often use chat rooms and messages tools to encourage young people to self-harm or even commit suicide while telling them they are worthless or posting other hurtful comments.
  • Embarrassing pictures/videos – Some bullies may either elicit or even create embarrassing or humiliating images of their victim and then share these online or even send them directly to family members or friends.
  • Account hijacking – This involves hacking into a victims social media account or website and either stealing their identity or using the access to cause problems or embarrass them.
  • Exclusion – Bullies might deliberately leave their victim out of an online group or social media page to make them feel excluded.
  • Online votes – Running online polls on apps or social media sites asking questions about their victim that are designed to embarrass them.
  • Sexting – Sexting involves either sending unsolicited sexual pictures, videos or other content or demanding that this content is sent to them. It can then often be used to blackmail or embarrass a victim.

What can you do to help?

Cyberbullying is one of the first things you should discuss with your child when they start to use the internet.

This is not a one-off discussion but an ongoing topic that you need to keep talking about with your kids and updating as they get older.

This can be an awkward conversation to have, which is why child online safety experts have come up with five key things that parents should focus on:

  1. Tell someone: If your child is being subjected to cyberbullying, they must feel comfortable telling someone about it. Ideally, this should be their parents or carers, but if not make sure your kids know they can also speak to their teachers, an adult friend or relative, a sibling, or anyone else they trust.
  2. Report it: A lot of apps have buttons or other mechanisms that users can use to report instances of cyberbullying. If you let you kids use an app, make sure they know where these report buttons are and know how to use them. Encourage them to use these if they ever feel they are being bullied on the site.
  3. Save the evidence: Teach your kids that if they are victims of cyberbullying, they should take a screenshot of the offensive or bullying messages or any other content to show their parents or carers and to use when reporting cyberbullying.
  4. Delete and block: Once they have a copy of the evidence, tell your kids to delete the messages immediately and block the person sending them, even if it is someone they know.
  5. Share safe: You should have a lot of conversations with your kids about what information they share online. Teach them not to share personal photos or any information which could end up being used to embarrass or bully them, even if they are engaging with someone they know or trust.

Accessing inappropriate content

Line drawn boy with phone and unsuitable content example

There is a tremendous amount of material on the internet and much of it is wholly inappropriate and potentially damaging for children to view.

Pornographic, violent, and extremist content has proliferated widely online and a lot of parents are amazed at how easily their kids can access it.

But this is not the only type of inappropriate content that can be found online.

Kids increasingly have to do schoolwork projects and research online, yet the amount of false and misleading information that is available on almost every topic is staggering. This sort of information can have a profoundly damaging effect on your child's education and indeed their view of the world.

What risks does inappropriate online content pose?

The impact that inappropriate content can have on a child will vary depending on the individual. Some may brush it off, but it can have a profound effect on others and leave lasting scars.

Possible risks include:

  • Long-term trauma – Seeing violent and sexually explicit content online can be deeply traumatic for children of all ages, but especially younger ones. It can also have a long-last psychological impact.
  • Radicalisation – If young children are exposed to extremist religious or political content online, they can be persuaded of the arguments this content is making and therefore susceptible to radicalisation. This can manifest itself in the form of intolerance but can become much more severe.
  • Influence behaviour – If kids are repeatedly exposed to inappropriate content, it can have a major impact on their everyday behaviour. They can become more violent, behave in a more sexualised manner, or even worse. Such behaviour may emerge gradually, but parents should always keep an eye for subtle behaviour changes that could reveal a more serious underlying problem.

How to protect your child from inappropriate online content

The internet is a sprawling place and it can seem like a nearly impossible task to keep your child away from all the inappropriate content there is out there.

It is quite possible that your child will access inappropriate behaviour at some point no matter what you do. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take whatever steps you can to minimise this risk and there are a number of things you can do:

  1. Use a parental filter – A parental filter is a tool which allows parents to restrict the content their kids can access online to that deemed suitable for their age range. All Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the UK are required by law to offer parental filters. A lot of apps and games will also provide this service. Parental filters are good, but they are never 100% reliable. Despite this, it is important for all parents to engage parental filters on any device their kids are using to go online.
  2. Go online together – Spend time surfing the internet together with your child. This will give you a greater understanding of how they are using the internet and this information will help you give them the most appropriate advice on how to avoid inappropriate online content.
  3. Educate and communicate – Even if it feels awkward, you should be trying to discuss the dangers of inappropriate content with your kids regularly. Make sure they understand the risks of such material and know what they should do if they encounter it. The simple rule here is to tell you or a responsible adult such as a teacher straight away.
  4. Keep devices public – Don't let you kids access the internet in private. Make sure your internet-enabled devices are kept in a public place in your home so you can keep a close eye on what they are doing online.

Sexting

Line drawn boy with phone and male and female symbols

Sexting is the term used to describe the sharing of sexually explicit content. It can be done via instant messaging services, online chat rooms, or text messages and other direct online messaging platforms.

Sexting usually involves the sharing of two types of content.

The first is known as ‘nudes‘ and refers to naked or semi-naked images and videos.

The second is ‘dirties‘ and this refers to images or videos featuring a person engaged in sexually explicit activity. Sometimes content such as this can be elicited out of people maliciously through the use of things like threats or blackmail.

Statistics

According to the NSPCC, 12% of 11-16 year olds had seen or received sexual messages online with 2% getting them more than once a week. They also found girls were slightly more likely to receive them than boys.

Some older kids and teenagers may choose to send such content as part of a consenting relationship.

However, this doesn't mean there won't be long term repercussions if the relationship ends and the recipient chooses to make the images public.

There is an increasing trend of young people being pressured to share sexualised or naked images of themselves.

But kids must understand that the risks of that content being made public and having long-term consequences for them is extremely severe and real.

The Guardian reported in December last year that more than 6,000 children under 14 have been investigated by police for sexting offences in the past three years, including more than 300 of primary school age.

What are the risks of Sexting

Your kids can be exposed to a surprisingly large number of potential risks if they engage in sexting either willingly or under duress. These include:

  • Sextortion' – ‘Sextortion' is the term used for adults coercing kids into sending explicit pictures and then forcing kids to send more by threatening to make the first images public or sending them to friends and family. The number of sextortion cases being reported to the authorities is on the rise and the likelihood is that many more cases go unreported. The issue can lead to further and even more serious offences being committed.
  • Cyberbullying – Sexting can be used as part of a campaign of cyberbullying to either bully, intimidate, or even blackmail kids.
  • Pressure – Children can feel pressurised into sharing sexually explicit images by their peers or even online connections they don't really know. Such pressure is, legally speaking, a form of sexual harassment and it is important that your kids are aware of the issue and know not to comply.
  • Image sharing – Just because you send an image to one person, doesn't mean they are the only ones who will see it. Once your kids have sent an image, you have no control over it and it can be sent on to others or even posted online without your permission.
  • Legality – It is important that kids are aware that the sharing of sexualised images of underage children is a criminal offence in the UK and most other countries. Even if it is your kids, their partner, or a friend, they can still end up facing very serious charges if they are caught sharing such content.
  • Psychological damage – Knowing that a sexualised image of them is being shared among their friends or is available online can result in severe mental health and emotional issues for your kids not least because it can often result in bullying, harassment, embarrassment, and more.
  • Risk of grooming – If naked and sexualised images of a child are available online, that child is likely to be at greater risk from groomers, paedophiles, and other malicious adults who might use the image as a tool to initiate content and exploit your child.

How to keep your child safe from sexting

The most effective way to prevent your children from falling victim to sexting is engaging in open and supportive conversations about the issue with them regularly.

Be sure they are aware of the risks sexting poses and offer them some guidelines on how to avoid getting sucked into sending images and content they are not conformable with.

Some useful tips that have been proffered up by child protection experts include:

  1. Raise the issue early – It's never too early to talk about sexting with your kids. Keep the conversation light and informative and always try to be sensitive and navigate the awkwardness that inevitably comes with such topics. Don't be threatening or accusing but lay out the facts and discuss the possible consequences. Your aim is to give your kids the confidence and authority to say no and be in control of what they share with others online.
  2. Support rather than discipline – Trying to force your kids not to get involved in sending sexual content tends to be counter-productive. Try to be supportive of your kids and understanding of their situation and the social pressures they might be facing. They must know about the risks but you also want them to feel comfortable talking to you or other responsible adults and knowing what other support is available for them.
  3. Outline the risks – Make sure your kids understand the serious consequences and possible legal implications of sharing nude and sexually explicit images online. Make it clear that once an image is sent to someone else, it is out there and could come back to haunt them at any point in the future.
  4. Show your Granny – The golden rule that a lot of experts advise when your kids are asking what they can and can't share is the ‘show your granny' test. If you wouldn't share an image or video with your grandmother, don't share it with anyone on the internet. It is a wise rule that can help your kids stay out of trouble.

Online Security and Privacy

Line drawn boy with phone and padlock inside sheild

Online security and privacy are issues that affect all internet users and kids are no more immune to them than anyone else.

With cybercriminals using ever-more-sophisticated techniques to hack into our devices and intercept our data, it has never been more important for all internet users, including children, to keep safe online.

Young internet users can be a particularly attractive target for hackers as they tend to spend a lot of time online, be less aware of the security and privacy risks of what they are doing, and therefore less likely to have taken steps to protect themselves.

Hackers are also not the only potential threat to your kids' security and privacy online. A lot of tech companies and social media sites routinely harvest user data and sell it off for profit.

Governments and law enforcement bodies from across the world are also dramatically ramping up their online surveillance and monitoring of everything their citizens are doing.

In the UK, the Investigatory Powers Act requires all ISPs and mobile data providers to keep a record of everything we do online for twelve months and this data is available for a vast number of public bodies to access.

All of these potential risks to security and privacy are out there and kids are every bit as vulnerable to them as the rest of us.

What are the main online security and privacy risks for kids?

The type of risks that kids can face online are not too dissimilar to everyone else. They include:

  • Corporate data harvesting – Tech companies and social media sites harvesting user data and selling it to third parties for profit. Because kids use these sites a lot, they can be a lot more at risk of this practice than adults.
  • Online surveillance – Governments, law enforcement bodies, ISPs, mobile data providers, and others can routinely watch and record everything you do online and store this data in a format that can be accessed later.
  • Malicious software – hackers can tempt kids to download files that contain malware, spyware, ransomware, and other malicious software that can steal data, compromise devices, and do all sorts of other nasty things.
  • Phishing attacks – Malicious software and other threats can often be delivered through phishing emails and kids can be less aware of these and more easily fall victim to them.
  • Data theft – Hackers can use phishing attacks and other means to steal personal or financial information or other things that they can either sell to third parties or use to blackmail your kids or worse.

How to help your kids stay safe and secure online

A quick Google search will reveal that there are dozens of different guides for parents on keeping kids secure online. We have read many of these guides and it is staggering how many different tips and contradictory pieces of advice there are out there.

Little wonder so many parents find this topic confusing, especially if they are not particularly technically proficient themselves.

Our advice would be to steer clear of all the complicated and contradictory guides and keep things nice and simple. There is no point trying to explain something to your kids that you don't understand yourself.

There are therefore five basic recommendations that we would suggest all parents try to implement:

  1. Communicate and Educate – Be sure to talk to your kids about online security and privacy and the potential risks there are out there. If you don't know much, why not research the topic together so you and your kids can learn at the same time. Knowledge and understanding of security and privacy risks dramatically reduces the chances that your kids will fall victim to the dangers.
  2. Make sure they use anti-virus software – Ensure that every device your kids use to go online is equipped with an effective anti-virus programme. Make your kids aware it is there and make sure they know how to use it. Crucially, make sure they keep it updated too.
  3. Give your kids a VPN – VPNs are a superb tool that helps to protect your online privacy and security. They encrypt all your internet data, hide your IP address and stop ISPs and mobile providers logging what your kids are doing online. Most VPNs allow you to connect multiple devices using the same account, so be sure to install a VPN onto your kids' devices as well as your own. Make sure they know how to use it and tell them to keep it connected at all times.
  4. Explore other online security tools with them – There are lots of other online security tools that can help your kids stay safe online. Research them together. Getting your kids to use a password manager is a great way to keep their various online accounts secure, firewalls should be mandatory on all devices, and there are various scanners that can help to clear up laptops of malicious software. Teach your kids to use these and make sure they do so regularly.
  5. Educate about privacy settings – Most websites and apps have privacy settings that you and your kids can tailor to suit their needs and age. Sit down together with your kids and make sure they know how to use these and understand how important they are. You should also be sure you are happy with how they are set up before you kids use the site.

Screen time

Line drawn boy with phone and egg timer

As the internet becomes a more integral part of all our lives, it is no surprise that kids are spending more and more time in front of a screen.

Exactly how much more is a question that is difficult to answer. OFCOM suggests in the UK it is around 2 hours a day although others say this is a very conservative estimate.

The Vision Council, a US charity, has claimed that 72% of US parents say their kids spend at least two hours a day looking at screens.

Another survey by Common Sense Media concluded that kids under 2 already spend an average of 42 minutes per day on digital devices. In the 2-4 age bracket, this goes up dramatically to 2.5 hours a day once kids reach the 5-8 age range, it is already almost 3 hours a day.

Data suggests that in the USA, the amount of time kids spend looking at screens has doubled since 2015 and that upwards trend appears to be continuing.

Screen time is an issue that worries parents a great deal. And there is good reason for this. Spending too much time staring at a screen can have both physical and psychological effects on children.

How excessive screen time can impact your child

The Vision Council charity carried out its research because it was worried about how screen time affected children's sight.

They found that around half of US kids now have myopia. In the 1970s, this figure was just 25%. Similar results have also been found in various Asian studies where kids spend even more time looking at screens than in the USA and Europe.

Meanwhile, New Zealand-based charity Kiwi Families has carried out research into the other symptoms that can be seen in kids that use screens and internet-connected devices for too long. They found evidence that kids suffered from things like:

  • Excess stress
  • Tiredness/lack of energy
  • Forgetfulness
  • Higher levels of impatience
  • Emotional volatility
  • Were easily frustrated
  • Lack of concentrate
  • Obsessed with technology
  • Disconnected from friends and family members

It is unlikely that your kid will show all of these symptoms but if you are already worried about screen time and you recognise some of the physical or psychological symptoms discussed here, you might want to begin to get your kids to cut down on their screen time.

How to get your kids to reduce their screen time

This can seem to some parents like an impossible task. Lots of kids are tied to their screens for so many different reasons, from games to social media, and peer pressure, that it can seem impossible to tempt them away.

The truth is there is no simple solution to getting kids to spend less time looking at their screens. But there are a few different techniques that other parents have found effective and which might work for you:

  1. Lead by example – If you spend all your time looking at your phone, it should come as no surprise that your kids do the same. Try to not to use your own devices when the kids are around as much as possible. Perhaps you could set some rules about when and for how long all the family can use their devices. One technique that can be effective is to establish a set family digital time when everyone can use their devices and even do fun online things, like playing games, together.
  2. Limit screen time – If you can't reach a consensus, it's time to lay down the law and place a firm limit on screen time. How long this should be is down to you to decide. The World Health Organization has suggested that kids aged 3-4 should spend no more than an hour a day on screens but not all experts are in agreement on this. After all, some screen time can be educational and beneficial. Our advice would be to decide what works best for you based on common sense and your own lifestyle.

If this limitation does mean cutting your kids screen time quite drastically, we would advise you to phase this change in gradually.

If you try and slash their screen time immediately, you are more likely to meet resistance and will then find making the change that much harder.

  1. No tech in the bedroom – There are lots of reasons for keeping bedrooms as a tech-free space and monitoring the amount of time your kids spend on screens is an important one. All internet-enabled devices in the home should only be used in communal areas so you can always keep an eye on what they are doing online
  2. Not missing out – The main reason kids give for looking at their screens all the time is that they are missing out on what their friends are doing when they aren't online. This addiction to being up-to-date is common among adults too. Try to reinforce to your kids from the earliest possible age that this doesn't matter. Nothing is going to happen in the few hours they are offline that they can't catch up on later.
  3. Invest in alternatives – If you want your kids to get off their screens, you have to be able to offer them some alternatives to fill the time. Help your kids to develop other interests and hobbies and if needs be invest your time and resources into these. Why not also try doing things as a family like bike rides, walks, and playing board games?

Spending Money

Line drawn girl with phone and dollar sign

Online shopping has revolutionised the things kids buy. It was a hugely lucrative market even before the coronavirus lockdown forced everything online, but now young people are spending more money online than ever before.

It is not just clothes, shoes, and entertainment that they are spending their money on either. Lots of games and apps offer in-app purchases and other items which attract kids but can also result in huge debts if spending is not controlled.

Finding reliable statistics on this issue is tricky. One recent study revealed that more than a third of parents of children aged between 5 and 15 were worried about them being pressured into making in-app purchases.

Even more concerning, a quarter of parents of kids aged 2-4 had the same worries.

The risks of in-app purchases are not just that kids will spend money without thinking. The survey found that 17% of kids aged 5-15 had accidentally spent money on in-app purchases.

While kids have a responsibility to control their online spending, so too do parents.

It is possible to disable in-app purchases on smartphones and tablets but the same study found just one-in-five parents had done so with many unaware this was possible.

Kids will often also be spending money on their parent's credit cards, meaning parents have to ask themselves whether this is a good idea or how their kids can get hold of these cards so easily.

What do kids spend money on online?

  • In-app purchases

A lot of apps, online games, and even social media sites will be free for kids to download but include in-app purchases to unlock features and gifts.

This is how these apps make their money so they tend to try and encourage users to buy them.

Because these apps and games are often highly addictive, kids can be tempted to buy them regularly. There are various anecdotal accounts of kids spending thousands of pounds at a time.

  • Online shopping

Kids are just as susceptible to the temptations of online shopping as adults and these days, it has never been easier to find and buy almost anything online.

If you let your kids have unrestricted access to shopping apps or websites, it is possible for them to spend unlimited amounts online.

  • Online gambling 

The proliferation of online gambling sites is a worry to all age groups but kids can be easily drawn in too.

Online gambling sites are made to look just like computer games with cartoon characters and brightly-coloured sites and this can attract children even though it is illegal for them to play.

Not all sites take their age verification requirements seriously and kids these days are clever, so there is often nothing to stop them from running up big gambling debts online.

How to control your kids spending online

Unlike other risks like screen time, It is actually quite easy for parents to control their child's online spending:

  1. Parental controls – Most apps and devices have built-in parental controls that allow users to prevent kids from buying in-app purchases. These controls might annoy your kids but they will also ensure you have no nasty credit card bills coming your way.
  2. Check your statements – If your kids have their own bank account and cards or access to yours, make sure you keep a close eye on statements to ensure they aren't spending money on anything you don't like or don't approve of.
  3. Don't give kids your card details – We would advise all parents to refuse to give their kids access to their credit cards and bank details. If there is something they want to buy online and you agree, make the payment yourself and ensure that the card details are not saved.
  4. Limit access to money – If your kids have their own bank account, choose one which doesn't let their spending to get out of control. There are lots of kids accounts available that don't offer overdrafts while prepaid bank cards ensure your kids can only spend the money that is loaded onto the card.

Section Three: How parents can keep their kids safe online

Line drawing of father and daughter with technology

This is a comprehensive guide with an awful lot of information and if you are new to this topic, it probably all seems a bit overwhelming.

If that's how you are feeling, you may well have skipped all of the first two sections and alighted here in the hope of finding the answers to your worries about your kids' online safety.

Hopefully, we can oblige, but we would urge you to take the time to read through the opening two sections as it is important for you to have as much of an understanding of how your kids use the internet and the risks they could face as you can.

In this section, we are going to focus on four key steps that can help all parents keep their kids safe online.

These steps have been devised by the NSPCC and are known as the TEAM approach to child safety online. TEAM stands for

  • Talk to your children.
  • Explore the internet with them.
  • Agree rules and boundaries for the whole family
  • Manage children's access to the internet.

In this section, we will take a deep dive into each of these four tips and offer some detailed advice about what the NSPCC means and what you should be doing.

Talk

Line drawing of boy and girl with father and speech bubbles

All parents should talk to their children about the internet regularly. By talking about the internet, we don't mean discussing your high scores on games or your favourite cat memes, we mean talk openly about the risks that are out there.

Nothing will help keep your kids safe online more than confident and regular communication with you.

These chats shouldn't be judgmental or critical. You should be open and honest, listen to what they have to say and help your kids make positive decisions together with you.

To keep your kids safe online, you will have to place some limitations on them. But if this is going to work, they have to understand why you are doing this and accept it. Communication and dialogue is the only way to reach a positive decision with them.

What should you talk about

You need to be talking about all the things we have raised in the first two sections of this article.

Engage with them about how they use the internet and what apps and websites they are using. Discuss all the risk with them, with a focus on anything you have particular concerns about.

Don't make it a lecture, but a conversation. Let your kids have their say as well as getting your own points across.

Some ideas of topics to kick these conversations off could be:

  • Sharing – Talk about why it is important not to share too much information about themselves online. Explain the risks of that information getting into the wrong hands and why photos and videos can be used out of context or against you, even by someone you trust.
  • Inappropriate content – This needs to be an age-appropriate conversation in which you explain that there are things online which are not appropriate for children and if they do come across it online, it might shock or scare them. Ensure they feel comfortable telling you if they see this sort of thing online. Make it clear that you won't be angry with them and will help them to understand what they have found and how it makes them feel.
  • Sexting – This is a delicate topic but an important one, especially with older kids. Explain how a shared image can be recirculated without your permission and you lose control of it the moment you share it. Talk about how some kids can be pressured into share nude or explicit images. Discuss with them how they should react if they do get asked to send such images and be clear that you won't be angry if they do things wrong or have already sent images like this.
  • Cyberbullying – Anyone can be a victim of cyberbullying and some kids may not even realise that's what is happening to them. Teach them about how they should engage with others online and the type of language and behaviour that is acceptable. Be clear about the kind of behaviour that is unacceptable online and explain that they don't have to put up with it if they are treated that way. Also be sure that they know they can come to you for help if they are being bullied online, but also make them aware of external support services like ChildLine if they prefer to speak to someone else.
  • Strangers – Another age-appropriate conversation, but it is important to have a discussion about the risks that strangers can pose online and how a person's online profile is not always true and accurate.

Explore

Line drawing of girl and boy with father and globe with magnifying glass

A really effective way to help keep your kids safe online is to explore the internet together with them.

Spend some time online with your kids, learn about the apps they use and the games they are playing. We have provided an oversight above, but each kid is different and this is the best way to know and understand what they are doing online.

This might feel awkward at first, especially if your kids are older, but persevere and try to make it seem fun and you will be amazed how much you learn about your kids' online habits.

What apps and games are your kids using

Ask your kids to show you what they do online.

If they don't want to show you their accounts, ask more generally about the apps, social media sites, and games they are using. Ask them how it works, why they like it, and what sort of things they use it for.

Armed with that information, you will be able to go away and do some research into the app and the risks it may pose. This will help you to ensure your kids are using these popular apps safely.

Keeping up with the kids

If your kids are reluctant to share, do some research yourself to find out what kids are using online at the moment. Even a basic understanding can put you in a position of strength and let you help your kids stay safe.

You can ask your kids if they use certain apps and if they say yes, start a conversation about it. Don't end up embarrassing yourself by trying to engage on their level, but if you show a genuine interest, most kids will engage.

Agree

Line drawing of girl and boy with globe containing tick mark

All kids need to have rules and boundaries in their life and their online lives are no different. But enforcing these can be difficult.

Our recommendation is to create a family agreement of online rules that apply to everyone in the family, not just the kids.

This agreement should be developed together with input from everyone to ensure the kids have a sense of ownership and involvement in the decision. Reaching this agreement also gives parents a great platform to discuss some online safety issues as a family.

Family agreements must have some flexibility. For example, you might want to agree to revisit some of all of it on an annual or bi-annual basis or put in certain exceptions around exam time etc.

It should be age appropriate, so teenagers who might need to use the internet for schoolwork more than younger siblings have this recognised in the agreement.

What should a Family Agreement look like

The concept of a family agreement on internet usage is not a new one and there are lots of organisations that have developed templates to help family develop the right agreement for them.

Some of the best we have found are:

We wouldn't suggest you lift these templates completely.

Instead use them as a starting point and compile something that covers all the issues that are most important to you, in discussion with your kids and other members of the family.

The sort of things you could decide to include are:

  • Screen time – Agree how long your kids can spend online each day.
  • Privacy settings – What settings do you want your kids to use on their apps and social media?
  • Age restrictions – Ensure that your kids are only using age-appropriate apps, games, and content and being honest about their age online.
  • Sharing – Agreements about what can and can't be shared online.
  • Where you can use the internet – Things like not in bedrooms, only in communal areas, and not at the dining table.
  • When to use the internet – You might decide to agree a set internet time each day.
  • Which apps and social media you use – You might decide to agree which apps, social media sites, or games your kids can use.
  • Chat rooms – Which chat rooms and instant messenger apps can they use and which they can't.
  • Passwords – An agreement on how strong passwords should be and whether to use a password manager.
  • Downloads – Agreements about what can and can't be downloaded.
  • Sexting – Agreements on how to deal with sexting requests.
  • Strangers – Agree on how to deal with online approaches from strangers.

Manage

Line drawing of girl and boy with globe, cog and magnifying glass

Reaching agreement and consensus with your kids on how they use the internet is very useful and can be extremely effective, but it isn't always.

This is why in addition to reaching agreement, it is also advisable for parents to proactively manage what their kids can and cannot do online.

There are a lot of parental control tools out there that allow parents to create boundaries for children and control what do online.

We wouldn't recommend you use this without your kids' knowledge.

Such tools should form part of your conversations with your kids and any family agreement you come to. But for parents, these tools are like a safety net in case your kids err from the rules or simply make a mistake.

What sort of parental controls are there?

There are a lot of parental controls available and individual parents have to make their own decisions about which they want to use.

Some of the options available for you include:

  • Device controls – Almost all internet-enabled devices come with built-in controls and filters that parents can set up. These are usually password protected to stop your child from being able to change them without your knowledge.
  • Device monitoring – There are various options available to download that you can use to monitor what your kids are doing online. Some will also let you micro-manage what they can and can't do online, including controlling things like who they can call and what apps they can use.
  • Content Filters – Most web browsers and some devices offer controls that allow parents to filter out adult and other inappropriate content. There are also plenty of kid-friendly browsers available too.
  • Download controls – Most devices will allow parents to restrict or block the downloading of certain apps or in-app purchases without parental approval.
  • Location controls – A worrying number of apps will log users locations and monitor their real location using the GPS in smartphones and tablets. These settings can be switched off in the settings menu of your kids' device. We strongly advise all parents to do this to ensure that no-one is able to see your child's location in real-time.
  • Time restrictions – Some devices have a feature that will allow you to limit the amount of time your kids can spend online. A number of apps also offer this feature.
  • Spending controls – In the settings of most mobile devices, there are options to prevent kids from spending money on apps or in-app purchases.

There is merit to all of these parental control devices, but be warned that if you use them arbitrarily, without engaging with your kids about it first, you could wind up making things worse.

A lot of kids don't like parents exerting this level of control and might rebel against it. Given how tech-savvy many kids are these days, the chances are they can get around these controls better than you can.

It is also important to remember that none of these controls are perfect either. Some things will still get though that you'd probably rather your kids didn't see.

Equally, if your kids have access to other devices via friends or at school, they may not have the same controls in place and your kids could still access stuff you don't want them to.

The key message is that parental controls are great as part of an all-round online safety toolkit. But they are not an online safety panacea on their own.

Top Parental control tools

If you are keen to use some type of parental control tools as part of your strategy to keep your kids safe online, there are a lot of options out there.

Many of the tools are built into your existing devices or apps so all you need to do is seek them out and work out how to use them.

There is lots of online guidance about using these tools available, but the majority are also very simple and user-friendly, so we are not going to focus on those here.

Instead, we are going to zoom in on a different type of parental control device. A number of software providers have now developed dedicated parental control software that give parents control of almost every aspect of their kids' online lives.

While it is important to restate that these should only be used with the agreement of your kids and as part of a family agreement, there is a lot to be said for what they have to offer.

Our top three recommendations are:

Norton Family Premier

This is a very feature-heavy parental control app from Norton, a name you probably recognise as the producer of the well-known anti-virus software tools.

Norton Family Premier includes features like location-tracking, time-scheduling, web-filtering, and device monitoring. Android and Windows users also get the option of time-limitation, app management, and text messaging monitoring too.

If you use Norton's Security Premier Suite, the Family Premier tool is free, but even if you choose to pay for it as a stand-alone product, it still offers excellent value for money.

Net Nanny

Net Nanny is a well-designed app that can be deployed on Apple and Android devices. It lets parents track their children's locations, set time allowances, block apps, and filter web content.

There is no function to enable you to monitor calls or text messages but a lot of parents don't like to take their control to this extent anyway and for many Net Nanny offers everything they need.

Qustodio

Qustodio is available for Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon devices but the features on offer do vary depending on which device you are using.

All apps boast location tracking, but their app management features are more comprehensive on Android devices.

Conversely, web filtering actually works better on Apple devices but there are some options on all apps. Call and text monitoring is also available but this can only be used on Android.

If Qustodio has a downside, it is the price, which is a bit higher than other software of this type. But there are some features you won't find elsewhere, provided you are using the right device.

Best child-friendly search engines

In the previous section, we referred to the fact that most common web browsers like Google, Mozilla Firefox, and Bing offer some form of parental controls to filter results and keep them age appropriate.

The truth is that these filters are patchy at best and if you really want to help keep you kids safe from inappropriate content, your best bet is to get them using a child-friendly browser or use a child-friendly search engine.

There are quite a few different child-friendly search-engines on the market but this is our pick of the top three:

KidRex

This search is designed as if drawn by a kid and is great fun for kids to use.

It is powered by Google but will process any search term and generate a list of child-friendly links. It is as reliable and safe as any kids browser on the market and really simple to use too.

It doesn't have an option to search for images, news, and videos, like Google which might make it more suited to younger kids, but if safety is a priority, KidRex is an excellent choice.

Safe Search Kids

Safe Search Kids is a more feature-heavy child-friendly search engine.

It is again powered by Google and as well as a basic search facility, other features include additional help with maths and other subjects, sets of articles on different topics written specifically for kids, and even its own child-friendly online safety tips.

This search is a little more complex than KidRex but ideal for slightly older kids.

Kiddle

Kiddle is Google's own child-friendly search engine and is billed as a visual search engine for kids.

It is modelled on the full Google and has the familiar appearance with the search bar in the middle of the page.

But when kids put in a search, it comes up with an image as well as the usual links. Kiddle uses all of Google's parental content filters but this has resulted in some complaints that it can turn up slightly strange results sometimes.

Age Appropriate Advice

An awful lot of research has gone into compiling this article. We have sought out the best advice we could find from all the top online resources and there is lots of useful stuff out there.

But if there was one thing that we found hard to find, it was appropriate advice for kids of different age groups.

There is a mountain of general advice out there, but if you are the parent of a child aged 5 or 6, you probably don't want to apply the same sort of rules and advice as you would be giving to teenagers.

Fortunately, there are a few organisations out there that have realised this and have generated age-specific advice that parents can use.

In this section, we have compiled the most useful tips for four different age groups:

Under 5s

If you have young children, you might wonder if it is worth applying such controls at that age. But it is amazing how quickly kids start using online devices and apps and it is never too early to start setting boundaries and ensure their safety:

  • Keep devices out of reach – Make sure your kids cannot get hold of internet-enabled devices when they are not supposed to be using them.
  • Use pins and passwords – Use pin numbers and passwords to keep all devices secure and stop your kids gaining access without your knowledge.
  • Use parental controls – Make sure you are using the parental control features on all your devices. 
  • Stay age appropriate – It can be hard to judge what apps and websites are suitable for such young kids but do everything you can to keep them watching age-appropriate content. 
  • Older siblings – Talk with older siblings and put controls in place to make sure they cannot show younger brothers and sisters age-inappropriate content. 
  • Share rules with other carers – If you leave your kids in the care of grandparents, babysitters, or others, make sure they know the rules you have and follows them.

6-9 years old

As kids reach this age range, they are likely to be wanting to use the internet for longer and to undertake a wider range of online activities:

  • Use parental controls – Make sure you have parental control software enabled on all the device your kids are using.
  • Agree time limits with your kids – make sure they know when they are allowed to go online, and how long they can use it for.
  • Stay age appropriate – Make sure your kids only use apps and games that are age appropriate.
  • Older siblings – Make sure older siblings don't show younger brothers and sisters content that is unsuitable for them.
  • Agreed apps and websites – Develop a list of agreed apps and websites that your kid is allowed to use.
  • Be strong – Don't give in to pressure from your kids or others to let them use apps or watch online content that you don't think they are ready for.

10-12 years old

By this age, with most kids entering secondary school, not only are they likely to be using the internet for lots of schoolwork and socialising, but the pressure to provide them with their own devices is likely to be reaching a crescendo:

  • Device rules – If you do choose to give your kids their own devices, be sure to set some boundaries in advance. This should include things like how much time they can spend using it and what they can use it for.
  • Online security – Teach your kids how to use their device securely and stay safe from hackers and other online threats. 
  • Stay age appropriate – Make sure your kids only use apps and games that are suitable for their age. Remember, most social media apps like Facebook have a minimum age of 13 and parental controls can still be used on your kids' device.
  • Sharing – Make sure your kids know the rules about what they should and shouldn't be sharing online.
  • Inappropriate content – As your kids become teenagers and puberty begins, they are likely to start to have more of an interest in age-inappropriate content online. Use parental controls to manage access but also talk to your kids about what is OK and not OK to look at online.

13 and over

This can be the toughest age group to keep safe online and they are likely to have more knowledge than you and be confident they know much more than you as well.

  • Reinforce agreed boundaries – Be strong and stick with your agreed limits on acceptable screen time and content no matter what they say.
  • Parental controls – Use parental controls but make sure you update your policies to keep them age appropriate.
  • Legality – Make sure your kids are aware of the law when it comes to things like accessing and sharing inappropriate content and copyrighted materials.
  • Talking – Conversation is the key with kids at all ages. Be sure to talk with your kids about online risks and age-appropriate content even if it feels more awkward and difficult to do so.
  • Spending – This is the age when your kids might start spending more money online. Agree with them what is and isn't OK and settle on an allowance with them.
  • Stay up to date – You kid will soon know a lot more than you do about this kind of stuff. Try and keep your knowledge up to date by making sure you understand latest trends and technologies and reading useful content on sites like ours!

A Visual Guide to the issues of online safety

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Infographic on Kids Online Safety

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Conclusion

Line drawing of girl, globe, tick and magnifying glass

We know there is a lot of advice and information to take in in this guide and we wouldn't necessarily expect you to take it all in at first reading.

We do recommend reading all of it, but this article is going nowhere so you can always refer back to it in the future as well.

If there is one key bit of advice we would pick out from everything we have covered, it is the effectiveness of the TEAM approach:

  • Talk to your children.
  • Explore the internet with them.
  • Agree on a family plan to set rules and boundaries.
  • Manage children's access to the internet using parental controls.

These four key points are all-important but also flexible enough to be OK to adapt to every individual family circumstances. That is another important point too. No two kids and no two families are the same and it is OK to find a solution that works for you.

There is no right and wrong way to keep your kids safe online. Things will go wrong along the way and you will get some things wrong. Don't beat yourself up about that. Just do your best and follow the advice we have outlined in this guide.

If you have any great tips or advice that have worked well for you that we haven't covered here, do drop us a comment in the box below. You never know if your good advice might just save another reader a whole lot of angst!

David Spencer

Author: David Spencer

Cyber-security & Technology Reporter, David, monitors everything going on in the privacy world. Fighting for a less restricted internet as a member of the VPNCompare team for over 3 years.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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