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The better we as parents can understand the key online safety risks facing our kids, the more we can help avoid and handle them.

Are you wondering: what are the hazards that kids can encounter when they’re online? Do you sometimes hear online safety phrases like “cyberbully” and wonder: “what does that actually look like in real life? What does that mean?”

Let’s take a “big picture” (rather than comprehensive) look at online safety for kids by outlining the most risks parents need to know when it comes to online safety.

Here are the online risks we’ll examine: 

  • Social engineering – including phishing, which can lead to malware and invasion of privacy
  • Cyberbullying
  • Online sexual soliciation of children
  • Inappropriate content
  • Screentime overuse

But first: these are big scary topics. If reading about these online safety topics fills you with fear and dread, you are definitely not alone. The subject of online safety for kids can be incredibly emotional, for many valid reasons.

Start by acknowledging your efforts, and how much you care. You want your kids to be safe and healthy online, and you’re taking proactive steps (however small) to the best of your ability to accomplish this important goal.

If you find yourself feeling scared, try placing your open hand over your heart and take a few deep breaths. This simple technique is extremely helpful in almost all difficult situations. In order to be there for our kids, we need to simultaneously take care of ourselves.

1. Social Engineering, e.g., Phishing

Social engineering is a crime (often carried out online) in which people are tricked into giving money, spreading malware, accessing data or personal information. One of today’s most common forms of social engineering is phishing. Phishing is a term for the fraudulent attempt to gain access to financial and personal information (e.g., passwords, bank account information). Although it usually happens with email or texts, it can also happen in video games, in social media apps– anywhere online through clicking on malicious links that lead to bad places.

Even free educational games can sometimes contain unhealthy advertising tactics and clickbait. Ads within the game often look like the game itself, so kids can’t always tell the difference between an ad and the game itself.

Examples of phishing: 

  • Links to prizes offered in exchange for personal information
  • Links to “free games” that can lead to malware (malicious software which can harms a device and allow scammers to steal personal information)
  • In-game ads asking kids to spend money to upgrade
  • Ads and clickbait can collect personal information from kids

To prevent phishing:

  • Set the parental and privacy controls on children’s devices
    • use a service like Bark
  • Install anti-virus software and keep software up-to-date to deter hackers
  • Stay close, involved, and communicate regularly with your child about their online activities
Teach your kids good digital habits (see more below): 
  • Not to click on the ads in games
  • Always check the URL to makes sure it’s a safe website
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam
  • If there’s a sense of urgency to take action, it is probably a scam
  • Never to share any personal or account information online
  • How to spot signs of scams (e.g., misspelled words)
  • Never give out their present location
  • Never give out personal information like their real names, home address, neighbourhood, name of their school, phone number, email address, social media handles, etc.

“A best practice with younger children is to use devices with them, be present and participate in their online activities. You can also have them check with you whenever they encounter anything new or strange during their time online.” – GetCyberSafe

2. Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying refers to posting mean, offensive, embarrassing, rude or private content about another person online. Cyberbullying usually includes an element of repetition and harassment.

Cyberbullying can range from mild examples like cyber drama (see below), to physical threats of harm, which are against the law and should be reported (see below). Cyberbullying can take place among children who know each other, or it can take place between a child and an anonymous cyberbully.

Cyberbullying can take place on any device, e.g., smartphone, computer, tablet, or in a multiplayer gaming environment. Cyberbullying can potentially be very upsetting for children, leading to physical and psychological effects such as withdrawal, depression, and headaches. In the extreme, cyberbullying can result in death by suicide of the victim.

Examples of cyberbullying behaviours (please note, this is by no means a comprehensive list): 

  • Threatening: A cyberbully sends a threatening direct message or email to a targeted child
  • Embarrassing: A cyberbully posts an explicit or embarrassing photo of the target in order to harm them
  • Social exclusion: A cyberbully messages the victim they’re no longer included in a social activity or group
  • Flaming: An angry fight online involving cruel, hurtful language
  • Griefing: Someone playing a multiplayer video game that goes goes out of the way to intentionally annoy the other players [READ: Kids Interacting with Strangers Online: What Every Parent Needs to Know about Multiplayer Games]
  • Revenge Porn: Someone posts pornographic material of someone else without their consent
  • Cyber Drama: Arguing or gossip online that doesn’t escalate or get shared, and drops off after a few messages. In an article titled 42 Examples of Cyberbullying, Cyberpsychology researcher Dr. Michael Nuccitelli talks about “Cyber Drama” as being one of the most common forms of cyberbullying.

To prevent cyberbullying:

  • Monitor your kids devices regularly, including their friend lists
  • Talk to your kids regularly about their online activities and friendships, including how to handle conflict
  • Cultivate an environment of open dialogue, so that they feel safe to tell you if something challenging is happening online or in real life

Teach Kids: 

  • The importance of respectful communication: do not say or do anything that you wouldn’t in real life
  • Features of a healthy relationship (mutual respect, trust, honesty, compromise, good communication, self-confidence)
  • Good digital habits (see below)

Steps to Take with Cyberbullying

A child or teen who is victimized by a cyberbully can be helped (or guided) by following these steps: 

  • Do not respond or retaliate
  • Block the user
  • Document/save the evidence
  • Talk to a Trusted Adult

How to Report Cyberbullying:

In the United States, get cyberbullying help at Get Help Now – Stop Cyberbullying. In Canada, cyberbullying can be reported (day or night) at Bullying Canada. For help, you can call or text ​– (877) 352-4497. Or you can email the Support Team.

3. Online Sexual Solicitation of Children

Sexual solicitation of children is also known as Internet Child Exploitation (ICE). The Journal of American Medical Association defines sexual solicitations as: “requests to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or to give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not . . . made by an adult.”

In research published by the Crimes Against Children Research Centre, 1 in 25 young people received a sexual solicitation where the solicitor made (or tried to make) contact with the youth offline using the phone, mail or in person. Most victims actually go voluntarily to meet with the offender, taking advantage of vulnerable young people who are seduced by flattery and attention:

“Internet offenders manipulate young people into criminal sexual relationships by appealing to young people’s desire to be appreciated, understood, take risks, and find out about sex.”

To Prevent Online Sexual Solicitation of Children: 

  • Cultivate an environment of open dialogue so kids feel comfortable sharing their feelings with you
  • Monitor devices regularly, including their friend lists [READ: Do Kids Have the Right to Privacy on their Devices?]
  • Sex education – kids and teens alike need access to safe and reliable information about healthy sexuality. Talking to Parents About Adolescent Sexuality states: “parents are the single largest influence on their adolescents’ decisions about sex, and parents underestimate the impact they have on their decisions.”
  • Good digital habits (see below)

4. Inappropriate Content

Children need to be protected from inappropriate images such as pornography and violent images.

To prevent inappropriate content: 

  • Set the parental and privacy controls on children’s devices
  • Install pop-up blockers
  • Stay close, involved, and communicate regularly with your child about their online activities
  • Try a 3rd party app like Bark or Aura to monitor activity

Teach your kids: 

  • Never to share any personal or account information online
  • Age limits on different apps (e.g., YouTube TikTok) are there to protect them from inappropriate content
  • Not to click on the links to ads in games
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam
  • How to identify a fake website and spot signs of scams (e.g., misspelled words)
  • Never give out their present location
  • Never give out personal information like their real names, home address, neighbourhood, name of their school, phone number, email address, social media handles, etc.
  • Good digital habits (see below)

5. Screentime Overuse

Too much time on the screen is one of the most common challenges parents face when it comes to their kids online. Kids of all age groups are spending long hours in front of the screens. At worst, screentime overuse can develop into Internet Addiction Disorder, which has many emotional and physical costs.

Some of the challenges that can come from too much screentime include:

  • a sore neck from having bad posture while using the screen
  • headaches and eye strain
  • sleep interference
  • not getting enough time playing outside
  • moodiness
  • weight gain from sitting still too long
  • withdrawal

 To prevent screentime overuse : 

  • Set screentime rules and reinforce them using the parental screentime controls on devices
  • Let your kids know that the rules are there to protect them and help them be safe and healthy, and that you care about their well-being
More Good Digital Habits to Teach Kids

If they aren’t already, many of these good digital habits will quickly become second nature: 

  • Use the internet in the common living areas, so you can be close by
  • When online, younger kids should communicate only with people they know in real life
  • Never give out present location
  • Never give out personal information like their real names, home address, neighbourhood, name of their school, phone number, email address
  • Say no if a stranger tries to “friend” or follow them
  • Don’t open emails (or click on links) from strangers
  • If they think someone might be pretending to be a friend or family member, ask them a question that they should know the answer to (but do not reveal any personal information). If they cannot answer it, they are likely not who they say they are
  • Tell you if anyone makes them uncomfortable online
  • Never post inappropriate pictures of anyone, including themselves
  • Social media accounts need to be set up as private
  • Always communicate with respect with others online

Each of these topics weigh heavy on the hearts of parents everywhere: phishing, cyberbullying, online sexual solicitation of children, inappropriate content, and screentime overuse. By learning about each of these online safety risks, the better you’ll be able to take action to protect your kids and guide them toward a more healthy digital life.  

Download free games and resources to share with your kids.


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