Keep kids safe online

With COVID-19, parents, workers, families and kids are all spending more time online. Three experts weigh in on how to keep the littles safe

Although the world is cautiously opening up again, many people are choosing to spend more time at home. The need to communicate, work and study continues, and while we are fortunate to have the Internet to meet many of these needs, it comes with a responsibility to be cautious with what our children are accessing on the web.

While we acclimate to a new normal of primarily digital interaction, we may be presented with targeted cyber threats, says Jennifer Leuer, CEO of CyberScout. “Our children are no exception. Criminals go where the opportunity lies… It’s important to talk with your children about digital hygiene.”


According to Leuer, children are spending more time completing schoolwork online, opening the door to a host of new vulnerabilities and risks. And when their homework is done, they are also spending a lot more time online for entertainment as parents juggle their work-from-home arrangements and childcare.


These children are the first generation to grow up in a completely digital world, says Mary Cianchetti, president of standards, CSA Group, a global organization dedicated to safety, social good and sustainability. “Technology has not only given everyone the ability to stay entertained and educated, it has also provided the tools to stay in touch with those we know and, more dangerously, with those we don’t. Now, with… physical distancing dramatically changing the way we interact, children are spending more time than ever online, and this has clearly increased risk.” 


Although children’s screen time has increased, Cianchetti says that Canada’s national policies and standards for online safety have not kept pace. “Internet regulation in the 1990s and early 2000s did not envision the implications of an ‘always on, always connected’ lifestyle, nor could it have anticipated the risks we currently see for children,” she says. “Sometimes the only safeguard seems to be a checkbox to indicate whether a visitor to a website is over 13 years old – something that many kids can maneuver their way around.”


Recent research from CSA Group on children’s digital safety and privacy found three main areas of online risk: privacy and data security; unsafe online interactions; and unsafe or inappropriate content. This can result in sexual exploitation, harassment, cyberbullying, hate speech, radicalization and extremist recruiting, Cianchetti says.


So, how can we help keep kids safe while learning, playing and connecting online?


“We need policy makers to develop regulations that govern data collection and content moderation; and we need companies to improve the design of online services to protect children’s safety and privacy, and to be more accountable for children’s digital rights,” says Cianchetti. “Together, these actions can help create safer online experiences for our children.” 


Here are some tips to help navigate through the potential pitfalls:


Realize that COVID-19 makes you a target. “Criminals take advantage of chaotic situations like the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their goal: steal valuable personal information from adults, children, businesses – anywhere they can get useable information,” said Adam Levin, founder and chairman of CyberScout.


Be hands on. Sit with your child and teach them good Internet habits, including how to navigate through web pages and use search engines, says Tony Anscombe, chief security evangelist at ESET, which develops industry-leading IT security software and services for businesses and consumers worldwide. “Set parameters on what they should do, where they can go and what they should — and should not — be clicking on. It would also be a good time to show them that a record is kept of everything they do online, and that at no time should they be offering up any personal information.”

Don’t worry about being a helicopter parent. Set restrictions and enable parental controls to limit what kids can access, says Leuer. Establish rules about app shopping. Require children to run any app purchases by an adult.


Talk to your kids about what they are reading and seeing online. “Take the time to have an open dialogue with children about the potential dangers online and how to report unsafe activity,” says Cianchetti. “This can take place as a daily dinner time check-in to discuss new things learned online, and with whom they interacted, to make kids feel more comfortable about sharing their online experiences.”


Think before clicking. Online security threats are constantly changing, says Leuer. “Ask children to approach every email with caution. Ask children to pause and check with a parent before they open any email, click on links or open any attachments.” Teach your children how to identify proper sources and senders – by checking the URL before typing it in a browser or clicking a link and recognizing spelling errors, altered graphics and logos as signs something isn’t right. During your day to day, you may find a phishing email. Use it as a teaching tool. Show it to your child and point out how you knew it was a fake.


Protect against malware. Malware is one of the most prevalent threats in cyberspace, and also the sneakiest, says Anscombe, who is also an established author, blogger and speaker on the current threat landscape, security technologies and products, data protection, privacy and trust, and Internet safety. “A security solution with proactive detection capabilities will protect your child’s devices from infections while using social networks. Antispam and firewall tools will enhance their safety online and minimize the risks they could potentially face.”


Use better passwords. Consider using a password manager, which generates random passwords and allows you to manage it all with a single master password, says Leuer. “If a password manager is not being used, make sure everyone in the house is using sufficiently complex passwords that are unique to the key accounts.”


Secure mobile devices. Secure all mobile devices in the household with frequent and routine firmware and software updates, says Leuer. Back up data frequently on hard drives that are not connected 24/7 to the Internet.


Use parental controls. Available through your web browser, parental controls can help keep your kids out of some of the darker corners of the web, Anscombe says.

Have a clear online time limit. Children who watched videos online doubled the amount of time they spent online overall, CSA Group reports. “Whether you choose to utilize parental controls to manage time limits and filter content, or prefer to discuss and create rules, it is important to take the first step by initiating a conversation about the amount of time spent online and the content children are consuming,” Cianchetti says.


Set conditions. Even if the Internet is being used as an educational tool, Anscombe recommends setting limits on its use, particularly the how many hours a child can be online, and at what times. For example, the hour before bedtime should be spend offline, Anscombe says. This allows the body’s internal clock to wind down before bed.


Educate against misinformation. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing what we read online. There is a lot of opinion masquerading as fact and social media discussions that throw out “facts” without any evidence or verification, Anscombe says. Teach your kids to differentiate between official and unofficial sources that may look official, like blogs. “Early on, work with your kids to identity and assess the source of the material,” Anscombe says. “These skills will help kids first identify fake news, and then dismiss it.”

Finally, report incidents to the authorities. “As a parent, you may feel helpless after hearing about an online incident your child experienced, such as cyberbullying, unsolicited and inappropriate messages, or hate speech, among others,” says Cianchetti. “Help by reporting incidents to the appropriate authorities, whether it be the local police, school board, or an online tip line such as”