It’s tough to know exactly how to talk to kids about Internet safety.
We want children to feel safe enough to go online to learn and play, but we know that there are people preying on unsuspecting users, regardless of age.
Here are some tips for starting important Internet safety conversations with children (Note: These are also good conversations to have with other adults.):
1. There are mean people online. As adults, we are fully aware of this. We know that mean people take the form of bullies, terrorists, thieves and predators.
For a kid playing in an interactive online world, the environment typically “feels” safe. It feels safe because the child is likely playing these games at home, and on devices purchased by parents or guardians.
Many of these online games feature characters that resemble other children. But the sad fact is, you can’t be sure that the real people sitting behind those characters are really children. So, add a twist to the “stranger danger” talk that your parents had with you. This talk usually happens when kids are old enough to understand (pre-kindergarten).
The twist? Include “online” stranger danger to your warning.
Starting with kindergarten students, Mary Beth Hertz, an art technology teacher in Philadelphia and blogger at mbteach.com, encourages caregivers to start these conversations by asking several questions.
“What is a stranger? What kinds of things should we not tell a stranger? What kinds of things are okay to tell a stranger?” This conversation should lead to the important online safety question: “Are there strangers online?”
Kids are pretty good at determining who a stranger could be online, but they’re not always equipped with strategies for dealing with these interactions. They’re naturally inquisitive about kids their own age.
It’s important to tell children things like “Get a parent if you’re not sure” and “Never talk to people in private chats if you’re not sure who they are.”
2. Make password creation and management fun, not tedious. Forced password reset messages are annoying, but necessary. I decided to have fun with resets, creating passwords that other people would never guess because, well, they’re strange, yet unforgettable.
Talking to children about passwords should be fun, too.
Children are well aware of passwords. They know that to gain access to someone’s mobile device or computer, or to download a new game or app, there might be a code or password that no one else can know.
Talk to children about why we use these passwords (e.g., keep private information safe, etc.).
For fun, ask them to make their own passwords.
Give them strategies for creating fun, easy-to-remember passwords, but focus on creating strong passwords. For example, if their password suggestion is “cheesepizza,” give examples for how to make it stronger (e.g., “ch33sePi22a” or “ChZp1zzAh!”).
Finally, encourage kids to make regular password updates.
Every six months (e.g., New Year’s Eve, Fourth of July) ask them to log in and reset their passwords. It teaches them to be diligent about online security, and you can keep better tabs on their accounts and passwords.
Plus, it’s a good reminder to update your passwords at the same time.
Check out my other columns in the "Connected" section of The Vindicator (Sundays).
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is special assistant to the provost and professor of communication in the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA where he also directs the graduate program in professional communication. He researches and writes on a variety of topics including communication technologies, relationships, and sports (with an emphasis on fandom). His work has appeared in Mahoning Matters as well as The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers.