The internet can be a powerful tool for learning. It’s also a place where your child could encounter dangerous material or people. With some practical internet safety precautions, you can help your child enjoy the benefits of the internet while minimising the risks.
Why internet safety matters
Connected to the internet, your computer, mobile phone, tablet, TV and other devices bring the whole world into your family life – the best and the worst of what’s out there.
When you take some practical internet safety precautions, you protect your child from risky or inappropriate content and activities. And your child gets to make the most of her online experience, with its potential for learning, exploring, being creative and connecting with others.
You can help your children use the internet safely by monitoring, protecting and teaching them, and by learning about the internet yourself, if you’re not familiar or comfortable with it.
Learning to use the internet safely is like learning to cross the street. Your child needs time, practice and careful guidance from you and other trusted people, like teachers.
Monitoring your child online
You can monitor and supervise your child’s use of the internet in several ways:
- Talk with all family members about internet access. Monitoring works best if you can have calm and frank discussions with your child about his internet activities.
- Keep your desktop computer in a family area, or make sure your child uses tablets, phones and hand-held devices where you can see her. If possible, avoid online activity in a study or bedroom. This helps you keep an eye on how long your child is online as well as what websites she’s visiting.
- Turn off all internet-accessing devices at night, including mobile phones, and keep portable devices in a common family space.
- Together with your child, set up some simple and fair rules about internet use. For example, set a reasonable limit on your child’s screen time. Discuss how these rules apply outside your home – for example, at the local library. When your child follows the rules, give him lots of positive feedback.
- Let your child know that social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram don’t allow children aged under 13 years to set up accounts. You can direct your child to more age-appropriate sites such as Moshi Monsters or Club Penguin instead.
- Check the websites your child has been visiting by using the History tab in your browser.
You could discuss and agree on a written internet use contract with your child. This can include things like how long your child can be online each day and where your child is allowed to use her device. It can also include rules about you knowing your child’s passcode and checking her browsing history. You could note consequences for breaking the agreement too.
Protecting your child online
You can actively protect your child while he’s using the internet:
- Use a family-friendly internet service provider (ISP). This is an ISP that has agreed to offer families information and tools to make the internet experience safer for children.
- Help your child identify unsuitable material by naming some things to look out for. For example, ‘If you see a site with scary or rude pictures, swearing or angry words, let me know. It’s not a good site for you to look at’.
- When your child gets a new app, joins a new website, starts a new account, signs up to a newsletter and so on, make sure the first thing you do is check and set privacy settings. Select the strictest privacy settings, turn off location sharing and so on.
- Tell your child not to share personal details online. This includes surname, address, phone number, birth date and school.
- Ask your child to let you know if a person she doesn’t know contacts her via email, instant message, social networking and so on. Block this person from your child’s account.
Ensure that your child understands that people he meets and chats to online need to be treated with serious caution. These people could be pretending to be someone they’re not to gain your child’s trust. Some even pretend to be another child so they can exploit and befriend children.
Teaching safe and responsible online behaviour
You can help your child learn how to use the internet safely, responsibly and enjoyably:
- Focus on the positive aspects of the internet when you’re guiding your child. Spend time showing her sites that are fun, interesting or educational (and then bookmark them for later use). For example, you could help your child find some information she needs for homework.
- Explain also that some areas of the internet are for adults only and not intended for children to see.
- Explain to your child that not all information on the internet is good, true or helpful. Encourage your child to question things he finds on the internet. When he finds a new site, he could ask, ‘Who is in charge of this site?’, ‘Have I found information or is this just opinion?’ and ‘Is this site trying to influence me or sell me something?’
- Talk to your child about being a good and safe digital citizen, including the way she behaves towards others online and the things she shares about herself, particularly photos. As a general guideline, if your child wouldn’t say or do something face to face with someone, she shouldn’t say, do or share it online.
Extended and frequent use of the computer can affect a child’s health and fitness. Encourage your child to do lots of other activities that get him up and moving or that stimulate his thinking and creativity. For some ideas, read our articles on activities for younger kids
and activities for school kids
Learning about the internet yourself
If you’re not familiar with the internet, start by learning about it yourself:
- All you need is a basic understanding to help you supervise and guide your child. You can check out community resources such as your local library, neighbourhood house, TAFE or Council of Adult Education programs. Many of these have classes or further information.
- Be reassured that you’re not alone if you find that your child knows more about the internet than you do. So why not ask your child for a lesson? This can be fun for both of you and helps you understand just how much your child does know.
- Set up your own social network accounts. You can experiment with privacy settings on your own account and learn how to best protect your child.
Internet safety worry 1: seeing inappropriate content
Children might be only one or two clicks away from violent, pornographic or offensive material (even accidentally), especially if there are no filters or monitoring software installed on your computer.
Some websites might contain advertisements for alcohol, cigarettes or gambling. These can be difficult to block, because they’re usually images without text.
And some chat rooms can encourage inappropriate or harmful behaviour such as extreme dieting, underage sex or drug use.
You can use a screening program or filter to block entry to certain websites. Buy and install a filtering program that will block emails or web pages containing unsuitable keywords. Many ISPs offer internet filters as part of their service.
If your child finds inappropriate material, discuss the material calmly. Let your child know how pleased you are that he’s talking to you about it. Tell your child that if he comes across material that scares him or makes him feel uncomfortable, he should tell you or a teacher.
Filtering programs aren’t completely effective and don’t replace your supervision. Filters can’t screen everything, and children can sometimes find ways to get around them. Also, filter performance depends a lot on how the filter is set up. Check the features of filtering programs carefully.
Internet safety worry 2: contact with strangers
Chat rooms, forums and in-game messaging are lots of fun and great ways to exchange ideas, but they can be risky. They let people interact anonymously, and age limits can’t be enforced.
Also, children might be invited to meet up in the real world with people they meet online, which could lead to very dangerous situations.
Avoid the risk of stalking or child abuse over the internet by telling your children never to give personal information to or communicate one on one with people they don’t know.
Internet safety worry 3: privacy leaks and breaches
This can happen when you provide personal details on websites or you share personal information with online strangers, or when you don’t keep your privacy settings up to date on social networking accounts.
Tell your child that anything she enters on a website or online account, writes in an email or text message, or posts on a timeline can become public property. It’s very important for your child to check with you or a teacher before giving out any personal details to anyone.
Internet safety worry 4: too much time online
You might worry that your child spends too much time online.
If a child is already shy or uncomfortable in social situations, that child might spend a lot of time online, withdrawing from family and friends. If most or all of a child’s interaction with friends is via computer – instant messaging, emails, chat rooms – this can affect the development of the child’s social skills.
A healthy family lifestyle includes limits on daily screen time.
Australian guidelines say that children under two years should steer clear of screens altogether. Children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour of screen time a day. And children aged 5-18 years should have no more than two hours.
Internet safety worry 5: breaking family internet rules
If you’ve agreed on internet rules and your child breaks them, you can block your child’s access to the internet. You can remind your child that you’ve agreed on the rules and the consequences for breaking them.