How to keep your children safe online

In a technology driven world, it’s impossible to keep your children offline, and trying to do so will only hold them back. So, making it safe is one of your many responsibilities as a parent, and this guide can help you do just that.

What devices do children use?

The way that children access the internet is changing all the time. Everything from tablets and smartphones to games consoles, TV’s and laptops are now online.

The use of internet enabled devices in schools is also a growing trend. Primary schools across Ireland use tablets and computers, and this increases further in secondary schools, including for homework.

During lockdown due to COVID-19, most children relied on laptops for homeschooling and online teaching.

Online learning platforms, emails, text messages, WhatsApp and Zoom, are all examples of tools being used for communication and lessons. However, most of these methods are dependent on a reliable broadband connection, that many Irish households lack.

Recognise the risks

The first step to protecting your children online is to identify and understand the most common risks they could face.

Cyberbullying

This is a type of bullying that happens online, for example, on a social network like Instagram or TikTok. It might take the form of a hurtful comment about a photo, a threatening text message, or the spreading of fake news.

When targeted, children often become withdrawn and depressed and quickly believe what’s being said about them. At its worst, cyberbullying can lead to eating disorders, self harm or even suicide.

The Internet Matters website offers practical ways to protect your child from cyberbullying.

Inappropriate content

Content may be inappropriate if it causes distress and upset, leads to dangerous behaviour, or is adult in nature. Examples include material that is:

  • Explicitly sexual
  • Violent towards people or animals
  • Racist, homophobic or promoting hate crime
  • Full of expletives
  • Promoting self harm or other dangerous behaviours
  • Promoting gambling, drinking or drugs

For advice on how to protect your child against unwanted content, visit the ISPCC website

Online grooming

This is where a child is targeted online by someone posing as a friend that they start to trust. Once the trust has been built, they trick or pressurise the victim into doing something of a sexual nature and retain the evidence.

The threat of the content being published often results in ongoing abuse.

To find out more about how to protect your child from online grooming, visit the Internet Matters website.

Sharing information

The danger of sharing information that should be kept private is that it’s very difficult to undo in time.

If information is posted in a public place it can be seen instantly by many and could get into the wrong hands.

Sharing personal details like their address and phone number leaves them open to identity theft and harassment.

Phishing

This is where a fake email, text or message is sent and often includes a link to a website that’s also fake.

The scammers may trick the victim into clicking on the link or sharing personal details or financial information, in exchange for something they might want.

For help on recognising the signs of a scam that you can also teach your child, or what to do if you’ve been scammed, visit the Citizens Information website.

How you can help

The more aware you are of potential risks, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with them if needed.

You can use the resources available to understand how your child might be targeted and tackle the topics with them when they’re old enough.

By understanding what children can go through online, you’ll be more alert to the signs, such as changes in their behaviour, attitude, friendships, school work, sleep patterns, eating habits and much more.

How to reduce risks

Being able to recognise risks is great, but reducing the chances of them occurring is even better.

When your child is young, it’s about limiting what they can access and as they get older, it’s more about empowering them to question what doesn’t feel right, and share their concerns.

Here are some practical things you can implement to reduce risks, and some things you can do to encourage the right behaviour in your child.

1. Set boundaries

By setting out some rules about internet usage, you’ll have more control over any potential risks. For example, you can control:

  • How much screen time your child has: Use a timer when they’re young and stick to a regular slot each day when they’re older. Internetmatters.org has some great tips on how to manage your child’s screen time.
  • When they can access the internet: At least an hour before bedtime should be screen free, as the blue light it emits can make us feel stimulated instead of restful. Poor sleep can lead to irritability, poor concentration, difficulties in learning, increased stress levels, and behavioural problems.
  • Where they can access the internet: Being in a shared part of the house rather than in their bedroom, will enable you to keep an eye on what they’re viewing and have some involvement in their sessions.
  • What devices they can use: You’ll need to decide when they’re ready to have their own device, or if you’d rather they just share yours. As well as posing risks, a phone could also enable them to contact you in an emergency and even trace their whereabouts.

2. Set up parental controls

Parental controls put you in control of the content your child can access. It does this by blocking certain sites and filtering out inappropriate content on each device they use.

You can also monitor their usage, track their screen time and automatically turn their devices off for periods of time.

Most internet service providers offer parental controls for free. To find out how to set up controls on your systems and devices, visit Webwise.ie which covers:

  • Computer operating systems
  • Smartphones and tablets
  • Internet browsers
  • Search engines
  • Video sites
  • Games consoles

Check the terms and conditions of any sites and apps your child uses, and choose the right privacy settings.

What about social networks?

Each social network has tips for parents on the best ways to stay safe and secure using their apps.

The following links will help you select the right privacy settings and explain how to block someone or report an issue:

You’ll also find links to resources that can support your child if they do suffer any abuse online.

3. Set up internet security

Installing anti-virus software on each device and keeping it up to date will help to minimise risks if you do suffer a cyberattack, caused by a scam.

You don’t always have to pay for this software, but you may get added protection with packages you do pay for.

Always check the legitimacy of any software before you download it.

There are plenty of independent review sites to help you choose a security package, and you can also check out their website and ensure it starts with HTTPS, so you know it’s secure.

Increase data security

It’s also important to educate your children in the importance of:

  • Never sharing any personal details online without checking with you first: Sophisticated scams can appear to be from friends, so teach your child to question everything.
  • Never opening emails or attachments from an unknown source: Just opening them can install malware onto your device and allow access to your information.
  • Never clicking on embedded links from an unknown source: You can hover over the link to check where it’s going and then do your own search of the website to check it’s legit.

4. Use two-factor authentication (2FA)

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is used widely to add an extra layer of security when you’re accessing your device or confirming a transaction. As well as a login and password, a second factor is required, this is usually a one-off code that’s texted to your phone.

2FA can also be used to stop your child from signing into a service that’s blocked or purchasing something without your approval.

If your number has been set up as the 2FA, you’ll be alerted to any breach your child is attempting. You can then either block it, or allow it to go ahead by confirming your password and the unique code.

How to educate your child about internet safety

Educating your child about the dangers of the internet including how to spot risks and deal with them, will arguably have the biggest impact on their safety.

You need to start talking openly about safety from a young age and what they can and can’t do online. To help your child stay alert and safe, ensure they:

  • Question what they see: Fake news is everywhere, here’s how to spot false information
  • Don’t share personal details online: This could be abused if it gets into the wrong hands.
  • Don’t share photos they wouldn’t want you to see: Make sure they understand that photos can be shared by someone you thought you could trust, against your will. If this does happen, support them to deal with it in the right way, Webwise.ie can help.
  • Don’t click on unknown emails, texts or pop ups: These could be scams and should be checked by you or safely deleted.
  • Tell you about any abusive messages or comments they receive: You should help them to block the sender and report them, never reply to them. You’ll need to look for signs that they’re being harassed, as they may feel too ashamed to speak out.
  • Don’t speak to strangers online: They need to know that what they’re being told might not be the truth.
  • Don’t meet up with anyone they meet online: Again, they can’t be sure who they have been talking to, which puts them in danger.
  • Know how to get rid of inappropriate content: This could appear at any time if the filters fail. They should be shown how to close the tab down, press the back button or turn the device off immediately and let you know.
  • Don’t accept friend requests from strangers: Let them know it’s not about popularity, it’s about only adding trusted friends.

What you can do

As well as all these things, you should also:

  • Lead by example: Limit your time online and keep to the same rules you’ve given them, for example, no phones at the dinner table.
  • Get involved: Be around when your child is online and on hand to answer any questions they may have. Build up trust so that they will come to you when they need you.
  • Look for changes in behaviour: If your child becomes withdrawn, upset, angry or secretive, don’t ignore it. Ask them what’s bothering them and let them know you’re there for them. Reach out to some of the many online resources that can help.
  • Stay up to date: Research the latest trends, apps and games your child may want to get involved with, and decide whether or not they’re suitable.

Internet safety FAQs

How do I know which apps are safe for my children?

Common sense media has put together some ultimate guides for parents on the latest apps trending and some of the old favourites.

Their reviews help you to understand what each app does and whether it’s safe, along with plenty of links to other helpful resources.

How much screen time should my child have?

This is really tricky to answer, especially with so many different devices and uses for the internet. It’s likely to depend on a number of factors such as:

  • Your child’s age: The younger they are, the less time they should spend online, but any child who is sensitive to too much screen time should also be closely monitored.
  • What they’re using it for: If it’s used for educational purposes as well as leisure, you should take this into account, otherwise they could exceed their daily allowance just on schoolwork.
  • How it affects them: If you notice your child’s behaviour, sleep, mood, friendships or schoolwork being negatively impacted by the amount of screen time they have, it’s even more important to monitor/reduce it.
  • What their peers are doing: You shouldn’t feel pressured to do the same, but chatting to their friends’ parents may help you gauge whether you’re being too soft or too harsh.

There are lots of resources available to help you manage screen time, like those found on internetmatters.org. However, how much time they spend online is ultimately up to you.

Creating a healthy balance between online and offline activities is the best thing to aim for, all within agreed wake up times and bedtimes.

Nothing is ever set in stone. Don’t worry about increasing or reducing screen time if it’s not working, but try and involve your child in the rule setting as they’ll be more likely to comply.

How old must you be to have social media accounts?

Most social networks allow users aged 13 and above to have an account, but until they’re 16 (the digital age of consent in Ireland), the way their data can be used is restricted.

Data protection laws protect children’s personal data from being collected, used, processed or stored for marketing, profiling or micro-targeting without parental consent, until they are 16.

Webwise.ie explains more about the digital age of consent.

What age should my child have their own smartphone?

This depends on lots of factors, including things like:

  • Their level of maturity
  • Their behaviour when using other phones/devices
  • Whether their peers have phones
  • How you feel about it
  • What they use it for
  • The safety measures you put in place

If your child can responsibly use another device or your phone and respects boundaries like when, where and how they can use it, they may be ready for their own phone.

If you’re not comfortable they will follow the rules when you’re not around, it’s probably not the right time.

Setting up parental controls will offer some protection against inappropriate content for your child, webwise.ie explains how to do this.

Whether they have their own phone or not, they’ll still be exposed to the internet, so, the most important thing is to keep communication open with your child.

Keep up to date with their likes and dislikes, and let them know they can come to you about anything they see or hear that they’re unsure of.

Make use of the many resources available for parents online like cybersafekids.ie and look at them together.