LET’S FACE IT: the internet can be a nasty place. Between predators, malware, explicit content, and other bad actors, parents can find themselves in a never-ending cycle of doom and gloom as they try to fend off every threat their kids might face online.
It’s a tricky situation without a perfect solution, and it can be tough to know where to start. There are parental blocks, antivirus software, kid-friendly browsers, and the temptation to avoid the stress and ban the internet altogether. But Dave Lewis, a global security advocate at Akamai Technologies, says the most important thing actually has nothing to do with technology: It’s all about having an open conversation with your kids.
The framing of that conversation is key, Lewis says. When you’re talking with your children about the dangers of the internet, you should be engaging and nonconfrontational. “Kids really are information sponges, so if you package it in a way that makes them feel like they’re learning something, you’ll get a better return on that investment,” he says.
Instead of throwing down all of the scary things that can happen once they log on, parents should act as positive guardians, Lewis suggests, putting the right tools in place to keep their kids safe while also teaching them how to do it themselves. That means being aware of where your children should be going at their age, which he says is important as kids become tech savvy earlier. “There’s no reason for a kid around seven to have a Facebook or Twitter account,” he says. “They don’t need that level of exposure to the world, they still need a chance to be kids.” (It’s also against Facebook’s Terms of Service.)
Kids also need to be aware of the dangers of responding to messages from strangers, and Lewis suggests parents ensure kids feel safe coming to them with concerns about those things, so they feel comfortable letting an authority navigate that situation in a safer manner. This is going to be even more important as more companies make products specifically for kids, like Facebook is trying to do with its new Messenger Kids.
Once that part’s covered, there are some specific tools Lewis suggests parents take advantage of before handing the reins to their kiddos. First comes setting up parental controls and filters: You can use software like Net Nanny and Qustodio to block out the web’s nastiest sites, as well as control how much screen time the kids get each day. If you’re reallyconcerned about what your kids are doing on the internet, you can even block certain domains at the router level. And if you’re not ready to spend some dough on more heavy software, iOS and Android both offer parental controls to keep kids safe on the go.
Basic security tools are important too. Lewis suggests installing a firewall and antivirus software on computers, as well as ensuring that you’re up to date on software patches. The safer your computer is, the safer your kids will be. He also says keeping your computer in an open space can help ensure that your kids aren’t heading anywhere they shouldn’t be and that you’re available for any questions they might have.
You can also turn on some cautionary settings in individual apps. In Snapchat, for example, you can set Who Can Contact Me to My Friends to block out strangers. In Facebook, lock down their account to control who can see their profile and all of their posts. On Instagram, turn on Private Account to keep prying eyes from seeing what your kids are up to.
Can parental controls protect your kids completely? Absolutely not. The nastiness of the internet will always try to find its way onto their screens. But if you follow Lewis’s advice, hopefully you’ll get a little closer to parental zen.