Keeping Your Children Safe Online

By: Krista M. | Cyber Threat Intelligence Analyst, NJCCIC

This weekend, if you’re a parent, you’re probably going to spend some time reminding your children to be careful when they head out the door to go trick-or-treating. You might tell them to walk in a group and not wander off, and to stay in safe, familiar, well-lit neighborhoods. You’ll remind them to look both ways before crossing the street and to not venture into strangers’ houses, no matter how friendly they seem. You may even insist on going with them to ease your own mind. Then, at the end of the night, you’ll carefully sift through your children’s candy before allowing them to eat it, looking for anything that may have possibly been contaminated. You’re a good parent who wants to keep your kids safe from harm while still allowing them to enjoy all the fun of trick-or-treating.

But what about keeping your children safe online this Halloween (and beyond)?

The Internet is certainly an invaluable tool, but with its many advantages come very real threats and potentially severe consequences. The Internet can be a very hazardous place for children who are naturally trusting of others and who can’t predict or even comprehend the potential long-term ramifications of their online actions. With all the devices that can give your children unfettered access to the Internet, now is the time to sit down with them and have a serious conversation about Internet safety. We at the NJCCIC understand that it might be difficult to start the conversation and to figure out what to say and do. We know that you’re busy and it can be tough to keep up with the pace of technology, so we’re providing you with some tips and guidelines on Internet safety.

There are four main threats that can potentially affect an unsupervised child using the Internet:

  1. Exposure of personally identifiable information (PII)
  2. Cyberbullying and harassment
  3. Exposure to inappropriate content
  4. Stranger danger – child predators and others who could harm your family

It’s 2015, Do You Know Where Your Child’s Information Is?

The exposure of PII, such as full names, addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, etc., is particularly concerning because it can be used in multiple ways to wreak havoc on your child’s life and the effects may not be evident until several years later. For instance, cybercriminals can use your child’s PII to commit fraud and identity theft. This can negatively impact your child’s future credit rating and result in the denial of student loans, car loans, jobs, or home financing when he or she becomes an adult. By then, the damage that’s done will be very difficult to repair. PII can also be used to target your child and your home in “swatting” incidents. Swatting is a term used to describe when someone makes a false report of an emergency to dispatchers in an attempt to prompt a heavily-armed law enforcement response to a specific location. This is a growing and disturbing trend within the online gaming community and many innocent people have been placed in these dangerous situations because children have unwittingly exposed their PII through gaming consoles and social networks.

Bullies: Beyond the Schoolyard

Cyberbullying is another growing trend among children and teens and can happen over email, social media, text messages, and online games. It might involve teasing, name-calling, threatening, spreading rumors, or posting embarrassing pictures or videos of the victim. Cyberbullying can result in feelings of fear and isolation, often causing the victim to become withdrawn and depressed. Ongoing cyberbullying incidents can lead to poor performance in school and even self-harm. Cyberbullies themselves can be held liable for civil or criminal charges, depending on the circumstances. That’s why it is extremely important to be aware of your child’s online activities so that cyberbullying and online harassment can be prevented or stopped early enough before any long-term damage to either party occurs.

The Dangers of Digital Peer Pressure

There are plenty of places on the Internet where children should not venture. However, it’s not always easy to keep them away from violent or sexually explicit content online. Some content even encourages kids to do dangerous stunts to “fit in” or gain popularity among their peers. For example, in 2013, a fad called “The Cinnamon Challenge” began making the rounds via shared videos that showed people attempting to swallow a spoonful of dry ground cinnamon. This resulted in participants coughing and choking as they accidentally inhaled the spice. Doctors issued warnings about the stunt highlighting the fact that it could cause permanent respiratory problems, pneumonia, collapsed lungs, asphyxiation, and even death. It didn’t stop many children and teens from trying it, though, in order to amuse their friends. Although software is available to help parents block some inappropriate content, it certainly can’t block everything, especially videos like “The Cinnamon Challenge” that are shared within popular social media platforms. That’s why it is crucial to educate your children about the dangers they may face online and make sure they feel comfortable talking to you if they encounter anything questionable while surfing the net.

Strangers with (Virtual) Candy

Lastly, you never know who could be contacting your child online, either through games, chatrooms, or social media websites. A study done by Cox Communications in conjunction with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children revealed that 69% of teens regularly receive messages from strangers online and nearly the same amount have admitted to posting photos and videos of themselves as well as personal information, including where they live. A majority of teens surveyed don’t think that these online activities are unsafe and they do not worry about others misusing their online content and information.

The only way to bring these startling statistics down is through education and parental involvement. Talk to your kids about the dangers of revealing too much personal information and talking to or meeting strangers from the Internet. Know what websites your children visit and what applications they have on their mobile devices. If there’s a website you don’t recognize in your child’s browsing history or an app or program you’ve never seen, go online and do some research on it. For instance, there are a number of websites and apps solely designed for connecting strangers in chatrooms. Some websites promote the use of webcams, which allow users to engage in video and voice chat. This opens up the door for all kinds of dangerous online behavior, as many adults who use these sites often ask children of all ages to undress in front of the camera and engage them in inappropriate conversations.

The following is a list of online resources to help educate parents on the threats that their children could face online. Please share this information with your friends and family to help make the Internet a safer and more enjoyable experience for everyone.

  • A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety – A report published by the FBI that outlines various online threats and provides parents with signs to look for if they think their child may be at risk.
  • Protect Kids Online – Published by OnGuardOnline.gov, this website covers a number of topics from protecting your child’s identity to starting conversations with your children and teens about Internet safety.
  • Child Identity Theft Indicators – The Identity Theft Resource Center provides a fact sheet for parents that includes potential indicators of child ID theft and prevention recommendations.
  • Internet Safety Pledge – NetSmartz.org, a website developed by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, provides a wealth of information about protecting your children online and encourages the use of safety pledges to open the door to communication between parents and children.
  • Online Safety – Kids.gov provides a safe place for kids to play and learn about safe Internet practices and includes quizzes and games to keep them entertained while learning.
  • Internet Safety Tips for Kids and Teens – The National Children’s Advocacy Center speaks directly to children and teenagers with this list of safety tips.
  • Securing Your Kids – SANS Institute provides tips, a video presentation, and a printable handout designed to help parents protect their kids online.
  • Random Stranger Chat Rooms – This blog post provides a list of currently available websites designed to enable users to chat with strangers. Keep in mind, lists like these can change and new sites are developed every day, so do your own research from time to time to keep up with trends.
  • The Parents’ Checklist – This is a comprehensive list of modern chat and text lingo designed to help parents understand what your children may actually be saying when communicating with friends or strangers.

Protecting children on and off the web is every parent’s top priority so, when you sit down and talk to your kids about staying safe on Halloween this year, make sure to carve out time to have a conversation about Internet safety as well.