How to keep children safe online

09 November 2020

woman and child using laptop

The internet is wonderful, but most of us worry about our children's safety online. Here are some of the family rules Mumsnetters have come up with for keeping their kids safe while they explore the web.

Online safety can be a tricky area for parents, particularly for those of us more used to Smash Hits than YouTube as teens.

Parents are having to come to grips – and fast – with a flurry of issues: social sharing, privacy, digital footprints, internet safety, parental controls, and how a child can watch videos on YouTube without stumbling across something altogether less suitable.

It might be tempting to ban technology altogether, but navigating the digital world is crucial for children today. Learning the language of code will be as important to them as the three Rs. And without it, there would be no Mumsnet for us parents!

Just like real life, advice changes as they get older, but you still need to teach them to steer clear of strangers, how to manage their screen time and what they should never post on social media.

Here’s how to keep your kids safe online.

1. Keep talking

women talking

The younger you can introduce the idea of internet safety to your child the better, but it’s never too late. A Mumsnet survey with the Internet Watch Foundation found that 52% of users have talked to their children about how to stay safe when playing online games with live chat, and 46% have spoken to their children about staying safe on social networks. This Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) cartoon featuring Lee and Kim, aimed at children aged five to seven, is a good start.

Remember, it’s not a one-off conversation. Keep the communication going so that you can remind them about dangers and they can tell you if they stumble across anything that disturbs them.

As well as talking, you can also set a good example. If you tell them not to overshare, don’t post personal rants or every detail of their school report on your Facebook page. And if you have a rule like ‘no tech at the table,’ then it should apply to you as well as them.

What parents say:

“I think it’s important to have lots of informal chats about the issues surrounding their use of technology.”

2. Explore the same sites they do

woman on laptop

Mumsnetters recommend going on the websites your children go to, use the apps they do and play the games they like so you can tell your Creepers from your Robloxians. It’s the best way to make sure the sites they’re hanging out on are as suitable as they’ve told you they are.

Some parents also insist on being a ‘friend’ so that they can see their child’s Facebook account, and following their Instagram or TikTok pages – although that may change as they get older. When they’re almost 20 you won’t need (or want) to know every detail of their lives.

What parents say:

“Download and tinker with the apps that are current as she grows. If you have knowledge you can provide the best support and sensible limits.”

“If the boys are on Facebook then it's on condition that I'm their friend. I have promised DS1 I won't post on his wall though.”

3. Set up a VPN

boy pointing at laptop

Parents can use a VPN to restrict what their kids access – and monitor it too. It encrypts your internet traffic and redirects it through a private tunnel, hiding everything you send, do or type online from hackers.

While all secure websites will keep your data safe if you’re using a private wifi connection, a VPN will protect your data and your children’s if you use devices on public wifi networks.

What parents say:

“It was my daughter who told me I was stupid not to use a VPN and she not only installed them on my devices, but also explained to me how to use it.”

4. Teach them to be cautious about what they post

child taking selfie

When we were children, our mistakes and dodgy photos were quickly forgotten about but, growing up today, children’s digital footprints will follow them for life. Mumsnetters regularly tell their children that if they wouldn’t want relatives or friends seeing certain photos or reading certain words, then they shouldn’t post them in the first place. It can be easy to forget social media is public, even if your privacy settings are locked down.

Seemingly innocent posts can be dangerous too. Posting about holidays in real time can signal to burglars that your house is empty. If your children have also put up photos in uniform and near their front door, it only takes a few posts for would-be burglars to know which house is vacant and when. Your children, like you, should think twice before posting anything online.

What parents say:

“I tell them that if they aren't happy for their nana to see it then don't post it.”

“I think it's important not to post when you’re on holiday. My kids know my expectations. Nothing posted so far by them or me.”

5. Check their devices

child on phone

It was easier in the days of big PCs that could be set up in one room. You could easily walk by and check over your child’s shoulder. Tablets and phones have made this harder, but you can still keep tabs.

It depends on the age of the child, but lots of Mumsnetters advise having access to their children’s phones, tablets and laptops as a house rule. Some do sporadic spot checks, others get reports sent to them every week so that they can see which sites their children visited and how long for. Locking down privacy settings is key to internet safety.

Some set up parental controls, only allow access to YouTube Kids and set up safe search on Google, but it doesn’t solve everything.

What parents say:

“The deal here is that they hand devices over, without question, whenever asked. Having gadgets and being allowed on social media is a privilege, not a right. I will block people and reply to inappropriate messages if I feel they have gone too far.”

6. Set clear limits

woman giving stop hand gesture

Screen time is a perennial issue on Mumsnet. During the height of the pandemic when parents were expected to work and homeschool their children, many turned to tablets to get through the day. The consensus was to do whatever it took to cope.

Lockdown aside, technology – like so many things – is better in moderation. Mumsnetters recommend setting firm guidelines on how long your child can be online for and sticking to them (easier said than done). Some tablets let you set an actual timer, so if your children have been online too long it physically locks them out. Active educational apps (like Teach your Monster to Read for younger children or the BBC Bitesize games) are said to be better than hours of passively watching other children unboxing expensive toys on YouTube.

Time limits won’t work for everyone. For some games, users suggest restricting children to one or two rounds rather than an arbitrary time limit as if they quit it will leave teammates in the lurch and possibly get them banned from the game temporarily.

One wise Mumsnetter gives out ‘screen tokens’ for good behaviour. Win-win!

What parents say:

“I’ve trained my DC so when I say ‘screens off’ they go off (OK, after a token whinge). I’ll tell them what to do next, like ‘shoes on, go outside!’ or set up an activity and some crafts etc.”

“It's a pandemic. You do what you can to survive. If that means too much screen time for the kids while you work, then just go with it. It won’t be forever.”

7. Only connect with friends

children playing

With young children, the best option is often to disable the ability to play online with other people – either via the settings, or not connecting the tablet to the internet in the first place. It’s also much easier to insist they can only play when you supervise.

Older children often want to play online with their friends. During lockdown when schools were closed, online games were one way they could maintain their friendships – a lifeline, particularly for children with no siblings. Games like Minecraft let you set up servers so only invited friends can join a game.

But even playing with friends isn’t a guarantee that they are safe. In the old days, bullies had to be in the playground to pick on their victims. Now, they can reach them in their own houses. By keeping a close eye on who contacts your child, you can help protect them. If they are being bullied, treat it like you would if it happened in real life – report to the school or possibly the police.

What parents say:

“My boys use a game about building dens with a 'chat' feature which I'm super scared of them using in case they get roped into conversation by adults. To warn them, I showed them on there how I could send them a message from 'seven-year-old Danny' when actually it was me.”

“I let them play, but always turn off the chat features.”

“People who usually get bullied online are teenagers. Taking away their Facebook, Bebo, whatever, removes them from socialising the same as all their friends.”

8. Disable in-app purchases

money

There have been a few pleas for help after Mumsnet users discovered gaming charges on their bank statements – anything from £100 to £1,700, all with a certain amount of understandable panic. They have all subsequently discovered parental controls, spending limits, and the benefits of not linking your credit card to a device your child (however well-behaved) has access to.

It’s important to explain to your children the difference between virtual and real money, and lock down the parental settings so that they can’t inadvertently shop. If they want to blow their own pocket money on pixels, then that’s up to them.

What parents say:

“My five-year-old managed [to buy items] without a password on Hello Kitty Cafe. We have parental controls now so purchases require a password.”

9. Beware of stranger danger

man in shadows

Make it clear to your child that people online are always strangers, no matter how often they chat to them, and no matter how well they think they know them. The photos they use may have been copied from other people and they may not be who they say they are.

Make sure your child understands that they are never to tell a person online their real name, their school, their phone number or where they live. If you think your child is being groomed then make a report to the CEOP.

What parents say:

“We have also always discussed grooming in simple, straightforward terms with him. We have explained that people can be whoever they want to be online.”

“Both children, aged four and nine, cannot use their tablets unsupervised. I have always told them that if anything unusual happens, or someone tries to contact them, then they need to tell us straight away.”

10. Remember the benefits

child and dog

It’s easy to worry about children going online but there are lots of benefits too. This generation are digital natives and will need to navigate technology as part of their work and social lives as they get older. People used to worry about books, the theatre, TV and computer games, but they have now all become a big part of our lives. You wouldn’t ban crossing the road just because it can be risky. Instead, you teach them how to stay safe – to look both ways and listen for traffic. The same applies online.

There is a whole host of apps that offer a range of educational content and skill development to technology that has transformed children with disabilities’ lives. If you and they can navigate the risk, then there’s a lot they can learn – from coding to skills like learning a language.

What parents say:

“200 years ago, parents talked about novels the way we talk about screen time. Every generation has something new to panic about their children being ruined by. And then 100 years later it turns out it's fine and just a new, enjoyable part of our culture.”

“I've found the trick here isn't to ban or restrict anything but to actually introduce and add extra activities into their lives so they'll naturally do other things with their time and self-moderate.”