Why internet safety matters for children
School-age children like going online to look at videos, play games and connect with friends and family. They might also be using the internet for schoolwork, homework or hobbies. School-age children can go online using computers, mobile phones, tablets, smart watches, TVs and other internet-connected devices, including toys.
Because school-age children are starting to be independent online and might go online unsupervised, there are more internet safety risks for them than there are for younger children. There are particular risks if your child uses the internet to communicate with others – for example, on messaging apps, on social media or in games.
When you take some practical internet safety precautions, you protect your child from potentially harmful or inappropriate content and activities. You also teach your child skills for using the internet safely on their own. And your child gets to make the most of their online experience, with its potential for learning, exploring, being creative and connecting with others.
As your child gets older and more confident and starts using the internet independently, you’ll need to review risks and strategies for handling them. Our article on internet safety for children aged 9-11 years has ideas.
Internet safety risks for school-age children
There are 4 main kinds of internet safety risks for children.
For school-age children these risks include things that they might find upsetting, disgusting or otherwise uncomfortable. This might include sexual content in games or movies, pornography, images of cruelty to animals, and real or simulated violence.
These risks include children coming into contact with people they don’t know or with adults posing as children online. For example, a child might be persuaded to share personal information with strangers, provide contact details after clicking on pop-up messages, or meet in person with someone they’ve met online.
These risks include children acting in ways that might hurt others or being the victim of this kind of behaviour. For example, a child might destroy a game that a friend or sibling has created. Another conduct risk is accidentally making in-app purchases.
These risks include children signing up to contracts, membership agreements, or terms and conditions that they aren’t aware of or don’t understand. For example, children might click a button that allows a business to send them inappropriate marketing messages or collect their personal or family data. Or children might use a toy, app or device with weak internet security, which leaves them open to identity theft or fraud.
Practical precautions to protect children from internet safety risks
These tips use family relationships to keep your child safe and build their safety skills:
- Create a family media plan, and involve your child. Your plan could cover things like screen-free areas in your house, internet safety rules like not giving out personal information, and programs and apps that are OK for your child to use.
- Use the internet with your child or make sure you’re close by and aware of what your child is doing online. This way you can act quickly and reassure your child if they’re upset by something they’ve seen online.
- Check other parents’ internet safety rules before deciding whether your child can go to a friend’s house. For example, is your child’s friend allowed to use the internet independently?
These tips involve choosing child-friendly and age-appropriate technology and content to keep your child safe:
- Set up profiles for different household members on streaming services, so your child can’t choose inappropriate programs.
- Use child-friendly search engines like Kiddle or Kidtopia, or content providers like ABC Kids, CBeebies, YouTube Kids and KIDOZ, or messaging apps like Messenger Kids.
- Check that games, YouTube channels, TV series and websites are appropriate for your child. You can do this by looking at reviews on Common Sense Media.
- Be aware that even though a site or app is appropriate for young children, the advertising it shows might not be.
Boundaries and limits
These ideas involve using technological restrictions to keep your child safe:
- Check privacy settings and location services, use parental controls, use safe search settings on browsers, apps, search engines and YouTube, and limit camera and video functions.
- Block in-app purchases and disable one-click payment options on your devices.
- Avoid reviewing your child’s browser history or using surveillance apps to monitor your child’s online activity. This can send the message that you don’t trust your child. If you choose to do this, it’s best to let your child know.
Internet safety precautions are important. But it’s also important to help your child learn how to use the internet safely and responsibly and respond positively to online risks. Good ways to do this include going online together, being a role model, talking about appropriate content and behaviour, talking about privacy, and showing your child how to handle privacy and online purchases.
Going online with children
Going online with your child is one of the best ways to help them learn about using the internet safely. That’s because it gives you the opportunity to see the apps, games or videos your child enjoys. It also helps you understand how your child uses technology.
You can share your child’s experience while also checking that the content is appropriate and good quality. One way to do this is by encouraging your child to tell you about the games and sites they enjoy. Or you can ask questions that show genuine interest in what your child is doing. For example, ‘That looks like an interesting game. Can you teach me to play too?’
You can also show your child apps and sites that are fun, interesting or educational and explain how to save these for later. You could help your child find information they need for homework by using the right kind of search words. For example, for information on a school project about how people lived in the past, your child might use a phrase like ‘life Australia 1900s’, rather than ‘past life’.
If you come across pop-up advertisements while you’re online together, it’s a good opportunity to talk with your child about not clicking them. You can explain that pop-up ads are trying to sell you things. Or they might lead to sites with unpleasant pictures or sites that want your personal or financial information.
Talking about online content with children
It’s a good idea to explain to your child that the internet has all sorts of content and that some of it isn’t for children.
You could explain that there are parental controls, safe browsing settings and internet filters set up on most devices to protect children from inappropriate content. But these aren’t a guarantee, and your child could still come across inappropriate content.
So it’s also a good idea to encourage your child to talk to you or another trusted adult if they see something that worries them. For example, ‘Sometimes people put horrible things on the internet. Some of it’s made up and some of it’s real. If you see anything that upsets you, let me know’.
If you name things to look out for, it can help your child identify inappropriate material. For example, ‘If you see a site with upsetting, scary or rude pictures, swearing or angry words, let me know. It’s not a good site for you to look at’.
You could also explain that not all information on the internet is true or helpful. For example, some news is made up. If you encourage your child to think critically about internet content, this helps them learn to spot good-quality information online.
Calm, open and regular conversations about internet use can help your child feel that you trust them to be responsible online. And if your child feels trusted, they’re more likely to talk with you about what they do online and tell you about online experiences that worry them.
Talking about appropriate online behaviour
Talking with your child about appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour will help your child learn how to stay safe.
Here are things you can do:
- Tell your child not to do or say anything online that they wouldn’t do or say face to face with someone.
- Encourage your child to think before posting photos or comments.
- Help your child to walk away from online arguments. You could say, ‘Friends can say things they don’t mean. It’s good to let people get over their moods and not talk to them online for a little while’.
Being a good role model
Your child learns from you. This means you can model safe and healthy internet use by using digital media in the way you want your child to use it, now and in the future. For example, you might keep internet-connected devices out of bedrooms, and use technology for positive purposes like sending supportive messages to friends.
Taking care with privacy and personal information
It’s a good idea to make sure your child knows not to communicate online with people they don’t know in person. This is particularly important if your child is using in-game social networks. For example, gaming sites like Roblox and Minecraft are targeted at children but have messaging features that might allow strangers to communicate with your child.
Here are things you can do:
- Ask your child to tell you if someone they don’t know contacts them online.
- Explain that your child should never give out personal information. You could say, ‘Some people online are fakers. Never tell anyone online your name, address, phone number or birthday. Never send or post images of yourself’.
- Ask your child to check with you before filling out membership forms on gaming sites, entering online competition entry forms and so on.
- Check any new apps before your child uses them. In particular, check the terms and conditions about data collection and use.
- Show your child how to check the privacy settings on apps, to keep their personal information safe.
Avoiding online purchases
You can help to stop any accidental in-app purchases by switching off in-app purchases and one-click payments on your devices.
It’s also a good idea for you and your child to agree on clear rules about not accepting in-app purchases. You might say, ‘It’s important that we don’t waste our money on things we don’t need. If you want to buy a new game or something in a game, please ask me’.
It’s OK if your rules are different from those of other families. If you’ve thought them through and you’re happy with the way they’re working, you’re helping to keep your child safe online.