Are Your Kids Cybersafe?

No matter the age, your children are drawn to the Internet, Internet-connected toys and the cyberworld at large. Your cell phone is likely your toddler’s favorite toy and a lifesaver on errands or at restaurants. Marketing efforts push digital and internet-connected toys and devices into younger and younger hands.

As parents and caregivers, you rightfully worry about the obvious risk – who your child might interact with online. But you should also be aware that companies are collecting kids’ viewing, purchasing and gaming habits, as well as sensitive information to use for their own profit – to target them with ads, learn their preferences and habits, etc. Kids are exposed to manipulative games and other sites which lure them to share their data, see advertisements, gamble for in-game upgrades and/or make purchases (perhaps without your knowledge or consent). Children have access to lots of content, in games, on YouTube and through social media, which at best is marketing masquerading as content and at worst mature and inappropriate.

As parents, what do you need to know to make sure your kids are cybersafe? Here are some resources to help you and your family remain safe online:

Online Tools : Many games have setting controls which permit the parent to turn off features such as internet access, chat or more mature content (e.g., blood, etc.). Many internet service providers also provide parent-control features (e.g., set hours when internet is off). Many third-party software platforms (e.g., NetNanny, Disney Circle, Bark, etc.) also can be installed on computers, tablets and cell phones that give parents the ability to limit questionable content, control usage and set other parameters.

You!: Parents and caregivers are the most important tool. Regularly talk with your kids about “stranger danger” online, instill rules about who they can (and cannot) chat with through gaming platforms or on social media. Most importantly, teach them the importance of maintaining privacy online as social media contains a treasure trove for access to minors. Many organizations, such as Family Online Safety Institute, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood or We Start Now provide toolkits and workshops you can use.

Basic guidelines from experts such as KidsHealth.org to share with your kids for safe online use include:

  • Follow the family rules and those set by the Internet service provider.
  • Limit screen-time and encourage “unplugged” time.
  • Never post or trade personal pictures.
  • Never reveal personal information, such as address, phone number or school name/location.
  • Use only an anonymized screen name and don’t share passwords (other than with parents).
  • Never agree to get together in person with anyone they met online without parent approval and/or supervision.
  • Never respond to a threatening email, message, post or text.
  • Always tell a parent or other trusted adult about any communication or conversation that was scary or hurtful. Kids are exposed to significantly more harmful content and online grooming attempts than parents know. 1

Basic guidelines for parental supervision from the experts include:

  • Spend time online together to teach your kids appropriate online behavior.
  • Keep the computer in a common area where you can watch and monitor its use, not in individual bedrooms. Monitor any time spent on smartphones or tablets.
  • Bookmark kids’ favorite sites for easy access.
  • Research their apps and games on sites like Common Sense Media.
  • Make sure all passwords on every connected toy and device are complicated and tough to crack.
  • Check your credit card and phone bills for unfamiliar account charges.
  • Find out what, if any, online protection is offered by your child’s school, after-school center, friends’ homes or any place where kids could use a computer without your supervision.
  • Several Federal Trade Commission-approved groups verify children’s privacy, so you can do your research before buying an internet-connected toy.
  • Take your child seriously if he or she reports an uncomfortable online exchange.

Other legal guidelines and education support can be obtained from federal, state and local government agencies.

Legal Landscape: For children under the age of 13, the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prevents collection or use of a child’s personal information (name, address, phone number or SSN) without parental permission. COPPA also prohibits a site from requiring a child to provide more personal information than necessary to play a game or enter a contest.

The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) imposes certain requirements on schools or libraries that receive discounts for Internet access. Schools and libraries subject to CIPA may not receive the discounts unless they certify that they have an Internet safety policy and technology which blocks or filters Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors). Schools subject to CIPA have two additional certification requirements: 1) Their Internet safety policies must include monitoring the online activities of minors; and 2) As required by the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act (PC21), they must provide education for minors about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social media and in chat rooms, and about cyberbullying. The National Conference of State Legislatures compiles a table and overview of state laws relating to the filtering, blocking and usage policies in schools and libraries.

Local Services: In addition to state criminal statutes, state and local agencies also provide resources for parents and caregivers. For example, the Maryland Attorney General has partnered with NetSmartz Workshop to provide online educational programming on online safety, cyberbullying and sexting. It has also partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to provide a CyberTipline for the reporting of child sexual exploitation, online enticement, molestation, sex tourism, prostitution of minors and unsolicited obscene material sent to a child. Reports may be made at cybertipline.com or by calling 1-800-843-5678.

In cooperation with CIPA and PC21, local agencies, such as Montgomery County Public Schools , the DC Public Libraries or the Virginia Department of Education, also have robust educational materials on these topics, provide warning signs of exploitation and other tips for caregivers.

For more information about this or other consumer issues, call the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection at (240) 777-3636 or visit montgomerycountymd.gov/OCP.