This back-to-school season looks a little different in much of the country. With over 6 million kids distance learning, working families are met with an entirely new set of challenges. With kids on the computer for several hours a day—and working parents not able to give their full supervision—cyber safety is a concern now more than ever. Here are seven top tips on how to keep your child safe online from cybersecurity company NortonLifeLock.
Check your surroundings: With children remotely attending school through Zoom and the like, families now have multiple surveillance cameras throughout the house, potentially making their homes far less private than they might otherwise be. If your child is using video to attend class virtually, ensure there’s nothing in the background that can give away sensitive information (for example: windows can unknowingly reveal your neighborhood or location, or mirrors in the background can unintentionally expose the entire room to the view of the camera). Hackers can use malicious software like spyware to infiltrate your child’s computer and spy on you and your family through the webcam. Additionally, you don’t know what adults have access to the video feed, especially if the teacher does decide to record the class. Designate an area in your home that your child can use for school that you know is safe, secure and comfortable, ensuring there is nothing privacy-sensitive within view of the cameras.
Triple-check the settings on tools and apps: First, make sure your child isn’t downloading apps for schoolwork that haven’t been vetted by the school. Take a look at the tools your child will be using for school and their respective security settings. For example, if your student will be using Zoom to set up meetings with other pupils to collaborate on school projects, you’ll want to make sure certain features—like only allowing signed-in users to join and the waiting room—are enabled. This protects them from hackers and other unwanted participants from crashing a video call, or “Zoombombing” their calls.
Enable automatic updates: You likely aren’t using the same devices as your kids, and as a busy mom, it can be tough to closely monitor your kids’ devices to ensure the latest updates are installed that protect kids from hackers. Enabling automatic updates is a great place to start in keeping your children safe online. You’ll want to make sure automatic updates for schools apps and programs on your child’s learning devices are turned on. Developers often launch updates to patch security issues or address specific viruses. If your children’s devices aren’t updating automatically, they could be vulnerable to evolving viruses and malware.
Use tools to prevent distractions and filter inappropriate content: Take a proactive approach and set up parental controls on your child’s devices. You can limit access to certain websites or apps during the school day to prevent your child from getting distracted, or even block websites to prevent your child from accidentally being exposed to inappropriate content. You can’t be everywhere at once and parental controls are your partner in the fight to protect your child online.
However, parents should resist becoming over-reliant on content filtering solutions—no online safety tool is perfect. At some point, inappropriate or spammy content may slip through the cracks. Additionally, parental control tools can cause friction in the family if the tools also block harmless content the child wants to access, or if the child feels the tools overstep. We encourage parents to have open conversations with children about the risks posed by the internet, and why it’s important to understand these risks. Parental control tools are meant to be a complement to this. Parents can tell their children that they plan to monitor their internet usage and why they plan to do so, and then use parental control tools to receive alerts about inappropriate content appearing on their children’s devices, which they can use to further conversations with their children about digital dangers.
Unfortunately, many of the best tools are able to prevent accidental encounters with inappropriate content, but can also be easily circumvented should the child wish to do so. For example, Safe Image Search on images.google.com, and equivalent tools on other search engines will block most pornographic content, but can easily be changed to be more or less restrictive. Additionally, YouTube’s restricted mode eliminates inappropriate content that has been reported by users and by Google’s algorithms; on most devices, children can switch to an unrestricted account or temporarily disable such restrictions. That said, many established social media platforms and device manufacturers offer parental controls that parents can configure on behalf of their family that are not easy for children to work around without creating a separate account. For example, Apple’s iOS operating system combines Screen Time and Family Sharing features to enable parents to impose device use limitations. Spotify and Apple Music offer family plans where you can set explicit music filters for certain family members, and TikTok has parental control features that parents can use to filter objectionable content.
Educate on chat room “friends”: According to a recent NortonLifeLock study, of parents who said their child’s screen time has skyrocketed during the pandemic, 52 percent point to wanting to give their child a way to connect with friends and family. However, some predators use fake online chatrooms and social media profiles, lying about their name and age, to befriend young children. Predators will try to take advantage of children, pressuring them to share sensitive or personal information about themselves. Stress to your kids to interact online only with those they know, such as friends and relatives. Emphasize that they can always come to you if concerned or confused.
Be on the lookout for cyberbullying: A 2019 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center found 39 percent of students have experienced cyberbullying in their lifetimes. NortonLifeLock’s recent study found that children are spending roughly 1.5 more hours in front of screens per day on school days, excluding time spent for school purposes—a 52 percent increase in screen time compared to pre-pandemic. When children are spending more hours connected to the web, they’re more likely to encounter cyberbullies. Explain to your children that hurtful comments or pranks delivered online are never OK and that they should immediately come to you if they experience cyberbullying. You can collect evidence by taking screenshots of hostile messages or cruel photos and record any harassing videos, but be sure to eventually block any messages from the bully and tell your child not to communicate with this aggressor. If the bully attends the same school as your child, contact the school or the district office. And if the bully is threatening to harm your child, report this to your local police.
Teach that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is: Scammers like to lure in victims with pop-ups and fake emails touting free perks and other offers that unfortunately are often a vessel to infect devices with viruses or unknowingly expose private and valuable information. Unfortunately, to children these offers can simply be irresistible. Encourage your child to think before they click, and instill the mantra that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Whether they’re watching online videos, receiving a message from an unknown sender or even just browsing the web, remind your child not to click on unfamiliar or sketchy links that may take them to dangerous or inappropriate sites.
Kevin Roundy is a technical director and family Cyber Safety expert at NortonLifeLock. He and his colleagues have developed many algorithms that block millions of malicious software files and mobile apps each day on behalf of nearly 50 million customers at NortonLifeLock. Recently he has focused on alerting cellphone users to apps that domestic abusers use to harass and spy on intimate partners.