Children are online as young as 2 to years of age now. Smart phones, ipads, laptops are all easily handled by young children now. Our resident 9-year old often helps me access Netflix on the laptop, while our teen helps us cast movies via Chromecast, fix glitches on Whatsapp, and also introduces us to new features on social media. The most tech-savvy folks in most households are usually children.

If one laptop was the mainstay some years ago, now everyone has their own electronic device and most of these devices use a wifi connection. Children play video-games which have a chat service on them. If we were to take an off-line analogy, it is like your child has access to an open door to go out and come in anytime. As they do this they are free to talk to anyone who accosts them on the road. The role of the gatekeeper is officially over. The keys are in the hand of the user who might not understand the enormous power and powerlessness they find themselves in. Strangers who do not have to reveal who they really are can trick children and harm them. The stories are numerous, and if you think your child would never do that, you will be surprised.

Proactive parents and teachers can help children use the internet safely. This requires a consistent approach, where children are made aware of how to use the internet, internet etiquette and techniques to keep themselves safe.

One way of thinking eschews use of any screen at all. They discourage any screen time. Children and teens are very curious creatures. For instance, if the landline telephone or tape recorders intrigued us, this is the age of the smart devices. The influx of such devices is only going to grow and soon they will be ubiquitous. Many of our actions through the day will be governed by these technological devices. So if one understands that using technological devices is a key part of learning, we can educate children accordingly.

It must be noted that it is not technology that is unsafe per se, it is still humans who use technology to harm, malign, conduct illegal trades and hide their tracks. Hardwiring children on how to use the Internet is a skill as important as assessing people who are good for you and those who are detrimental. There is a ton of material online that parents and educators can use to assist children. This article tries to point out the salient ones.

Personal Information: Teach children to never give out personal information. The requests for information are not always overt. It could start with simple questions like “What colour do you like?”. “Hey, I live near a beach, what about you?” As conversations progress, questions about school, apartment may pop up. Your child must be taught that these sort of questions must ring a bell. They must report such questions or simply stop chatting. Tell them it’s perfectly alright to disappear from the chat room by going quiet or leaving.

Screen Name and Info: Teach your child not to include any personal information in their usernames. Social media accounts often ask for a short bio. Adding information about which grade you are in, your name, your school or putting your photo are unsafe. Teach them to use strong passwords that have special characters in them and are tough to crack open. If their devices have strong passwords they are less likely to be misused.

Passwords: Despite parents repeatedly asking their children not to share passwords, sometimes children come under pressure to share their passwords. Friends can pressure children to share passwords to chat other friends their parents may not know about. Sharing passwords is like giving the keys to your house to someone without any accountability. They are free to use and trash the house as they please. Children must be careful not to share their passwords with anyone but their parents.

Photos: Children are posting many of their selfies online. It is not advisable to share their pictures on social media platforms. If they want to share a picture with a small group of friends who they trust, parents can enable it by sharing through Whatsapp or Telegram. Sharing a picture of private parts or dressed skimpily are strict no-no’s even if the request comes from someone the teen may be desperately seeking to please or like deeply. As parents, please do not be embarrassed to talk about this with your children. It will be all the difference between safety and infamy. The pressure of such infamy could devastate a child. If you feel you cannot discuss this, please show online safety videos, programs or get a third person to talk to the child about risky behaviour online.

Online Friends: Teach children to chat only with someone they know in the real world. Chatting with someone who they don’t know is fraught with danger. Today technology allows us easy access to pictures and we can create an online persona quite quickly.  So the 14-year-old teen your child thinks they are talking to may be a 40-year-old in reality. Predatory adults love the internet. They have the required psychological tricks to nudge a teen to meet in an unsafe location and tell teens not to inform their parents or friends. Sometimes, children divulge so many personal details, that it becomes very easy for such predators to kidnap them or harm them.

Clicking on Online Ads:  Kids will click on ads when they play a game to unlock more treats. However, some of these ads are simply click bait to collect personal information.

Downloading: Use protective software and ensure your child constantly update their laptop or mobile phone so that they may not download unsafe attachments. Using child safe options on the system will prevent unsafe content from being downloaded. Encourage children to talk to you before they open an email attachment or download a software. Attachments sometimes contain viruses. Tell them to never open an attachment from someone they don’t know.

Bullying: Children should be taught not to send or respond to mean or insulting messages. They must escalate it to the adults in their life, like parents and teachers. Bullying thrives in a climate of secrecy. Once it is called out, the danger reduces greatly. This is especially true of teens who tend to conceal bullying messages from friends. This coupled with not being mindful impacts sensitive teens adversely. In some cases it might be your child who is sending out offensive messages. If you catch them, make sure they are called out and inform the school and parents of the affected child.

Social Networking: Teens are often attracted to social media like moths to a light. Very little of what parents say makes sense. Instead children who do not use social media often feel left out. Talk with your child that this is not true. Meaningful and real connections can be made by talking face to face. Even though social networking websites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, have minimum age requirements to sign up, children lie about their age to be a part of them.

If your child is using social media, have an open policy and inform them that deleted messages only vanish from their devices not the servers. Encourage children to talk and post safe, because what goes up on the Internet stays up forever.

Research Safety:  School may ask children to research and learn more about a topic from the internet. Teachers and librarians can share a list of safe sites. Parents can help too. This is a good way of collaborating with your child while ensuring online safety.

Offline rules work online too: Just as we teach children not to talk to strangers, give them safe words and ensure they are well-protected, we must be the same online as well.  They must continue to be kind online, not chat with anyone they don’t know and talk about their friends online behaviour as they would about them offline.

Take a look at this video and share it with your children. It is a little dramatic  but the advice is very sound and these are common mistakes, even worldly-wise teenagers make.

You can put up posters on internet safety or arrange for a workshop on internet safety in your apartment, child’s school, or neighbourhood. Advocating online safety in the environment where your child and their friends move is very important. By talking about Internet safety and online behaviour, we are creating an open space for discussion and assistance for children. They can enjoy the power of the internet more safely.