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10 Ways to Keep Your Family Safe Online During the Coronavirus

Kim Porter  |  May 7, 2020

How to set online safety guidelines for digital device use and keep your kids from stumbling into “cyber dark alleys” and other scary stuff.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a massive change in the way families balance work, childcare and remote learning. And the new normal is, well, not really normal at all. For one thing, it involves a lot more time online for work, school and play, making online safety a higher priority than ever.

School closures for more than 55 million students across the U.S. have led to an unprecedented rise in internet usage as kids move online for school and socializing. Screen time limits might go out the window, and that’s OK right now. What’s important is keeping online safety top of mind, says Michael Levin, cybersecurity expert and founder of the Center for Information Security Awareness.

“Parents need to understand what the risks are to their kids,” Levin says. “There’s everything from online predators, cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content and the potential for identity theft.”

There’s no official playbook for how to manage a household during a worldwide pandemic, but you can protect your kids during the coronavirus by helping them manage their increased device usage and keeping their devices safe, too.

1. Be realistic

Now that the whole family’s working and attending school under one roof, routines are shifting. Pretty much everyone will be spending more time in front of screens, but not all screen time is created equal. In recent years, child and media experts have advocated a shift from counting screen time minutes to considering how children are using devices.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Aside from schoolwork, let your kids use media and technology to explore, share, create and communicate. Fun time is OK, too, but aim for balance. Maybe your kids are binging Netflix shows while you’re in Zoom meetings, but they can also spend time outside and eat well.

2. Talk about “cyber dark alleys”

Levin uses this phrase to describe potentially dangerous corners of the web. That’s anywhere kids might see inappropriate content, meet suspicious strangers or accidentally download malware.

Online safety involves teaching your kids to identify potential danger. Just as importantly, they should feel comfortable talking with you about it. If you’ve been busy with work all day, “take a moment to catch up,” Levin says. “Ask, ‘Have you seen bad behavior online? What do you think about it, and how does it make you feel?’” You also might set up parental controls. (More on this in a moment.)

3. Teach your kids about online privacy (or lack thereof)

Kids often don’t understand that the online world isn’t truly private. “When you post something on the internet, it’s there forever,” Levin says. “A lot of kids think they can say and do anything anonymously, and a lot of times it comes back to bite them.”

Teach your kids how to keep information private. They shouldn’t share their location, login information, date of birth or Social Security number, Levin says. With these details, a criminal can easily steal your child’s identity.

4. Set digital device rules

It’s a good time to revisit your digital device rules. Tools such as The Smart Talk can help your family create rules. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides technology recommendations for families and companies, has dozens of coronavirus resources.

Your online safety rules may vary based on the child’s age, but more so their maturity level, says Kristelle Lavallee, a content strategist with the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “There really isn’t this kind of magical age,” she says. “We always recommend doing whatever the parent thinks is developmentally optimal. Parents know that children of different ages raised in the same household have wildly different personalities.”

With that said, here are a few guidelines you can use:

  • Have your kids ask permission before using a device. Just getting that permission helps remind them you’re paying attention.
  • Set a routine. Try to get up at the same time every day, set goals, and establish a time frame for work and school. Device usage can happen after school work is done.
  • Preserve family meals as screen-free zones. Set a good example and put down your devices, too. This is also a great time to talk about your kids’ daily online activities.
  • Reserve devices for specific tasks. For example, if your kid has a tablet for schoolwork, it shouldn’t be used for games or talking to their friends.

5. Monitor their usage

As your kids spend more time online, it’s important to check in regularly. You can’t be everywhere at once, but right now, everyone’s pretty much in the same space, Lavallee says.

“Maddening as it may be at times, being in the same space allows parents to monitor a bit more what their child is doing and how they’re using various devices,” Lavallee says. “If the child knows Mom and Dad can pop in anytime, they’re so much more likely to stay on task.”

She suggests putting the kids’ work station near yours and setting rules about where they can do certain activities. For example, maybe your kids can read e-books in their bedrooms. But they can’t send text messages unless they’re in a shared space where you can check on them.

6. Consider creating a technology agreement

After discussing rules and expectations, it might help to organize these guidelines — and appropriate consequences — in one place. Here’s a sample agreement from Common Sense Media. Post your agreement where your family can see it, such as the fridge or a Google Sheet. If someone breaks the rules, your kids will know what to expect. For example, if your young child was texting with someone while in their bedroom, they may lose phone privileges for a while.

7. Ask your school about virtual school online safety measures

Thousands of schools recently made the abrupt shift to online learning. But some of them “don’t have the IT infrastructure and support they need to ensure safety and security,” Levin says. For example, hackers are reportedly finding ways to enter virtual classrooms where they post lewd comments and pictures.

It might help to check out this guide to preparing kids for online classes. Then, Levin says, ask the teacher or a school administrator if they have set appropriate security settings for online safety and who will be there running the class meeting.

8. Watch for coronavirus-related scams

Scammers tend to follow the headlines. As soon as the coronavirus became a global pandemic, criminals started taking advantage of the widespread uncertainty and fear. The Federal Trade Commission’s coronavirus consumer advice boils down to a few key rules:

  • Ignore emails and texts claiming to come from the government, and hang up when you get calls from someone pitching health insurance and work-from-home jobs.
  • Also ignore messages about coronavirus cures and vaccinations. They’re fake.
  • Use websites such as coronavirus.gov and usa.gov/coronavirus to get updated information.

9. Update the anti-virus and safety software on your devices

Security updates are designed to patch security holes, improve the stability of your software and remove outdated features. They also shield your device if you accidentally download malware from scam emails and texts. Look for these on devices that connect to the internet, such as smartphones, laptops, tablets and video game consoles. And set automatic updates on all devices.

10. Use privacy settings and parental controls

Parental controls come standard on plenty of devices these days. You can usually set time restrictions, block content based on age, control spending and restrict communication. Common Sense Media has a handy guide for when to use these parental controls.

Social media apps may also come with kid-friendly options, such as YouTube Kids and Facebook’s Messenger Kids. Kids Email can also help you oversee your child’s email account. And some browsers help you limit search results. You’ll have to decide whether you want to use parental controls and age-appropriate media alternatives.

Most of all, it’s your presence that will help ensure your child’s digital experience is enriching and safe.

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