Originally published October 2023
By Adam Stone
At Willingboro Public Schools in New Jersey, Assistant Principal Bobby Morgan expresses increasing concern about kids’ safety online. “On the heels of distance learning, our students’ screen times have increased astronomically,” he says. “Children are immersed in a world that they are ill-prepared for.”
Morgan and others in K–12 have good reason to worry. Some 72% of tweens and 85% of teens say they have experienced online bullying, according to the Internet-safety advocacy group Enough Is Enough. One in five teens say they’ve encountered predatory behaviours online and over 90% have encountered nudity or sexual content.
There’s much that can be done to help keep kids safe online. Parents and students can work together on this, and there’s a role for teachers and school administrators as well.
1. Prioritize critical thinking
Teachers and parents can help children to think critically as they navigate the digital wilds, Morgan says. “When we allow ourselves to be easily influenced by what we deem acceptable, we’ll have no resistance to disinformation,” he notes. “One practice we [can] go through with our children is pointing out the message they receive and asking them to reflect on it: ‘What is this ad trying to teach you? What does it want you to do?’”
2. Ignore random friend requests
“Who we share with is just as important as what we share,” says Shaun McAlmont, CEO and President at cybersecurity awareness training company NINJIO. To some kids, “it might feel good to get attention from strangers, but [they] never know what people are going to do with [their] pictures or words after they have access,” he advises.
“Not everyone has good intentions and it’s just better to keep your private life, private,” McAlmont adds. “If you don’t know them, they want something from you—like your data or even to steal your identity.”
3. Talk about bullying
Online bullying can take many forms. Whether via social media or text messages, “any form of harassment, especially verbal insults, can be extremely harmful to a child’s self-esteem and should be taken very seriously,” says Becky Ward, Education Experience Specialist at Tutor Doctor.
Teachers and parents can educate kids about what constitutes bullying, and help them build strategies for what to do when they encounter it. “Let your kids know that if they are being bullied, [they should] walk away and tell an adult as soon as possible,” Ward adds.
4. Beware of cell phones
Cell phones are potentially toxic, giving predators “immediate access to kids via simple apps like Snapchat, Instagram, and chat rooms. Many of these apps have location tracking. So, a predator can literally track a child,” says Kimberly King, educator and award-winning author of the upcoming book Body Safety for Young Children.
Teachers can talk about these risks and ban phones in the classroom. Parents can avoid purchasing a cell phone for their child until they are at least 13 years old.
5. Discuss trust
Kids should be taught to “think before [they] trust someone,” says McAlmont. “Not everyone is who they say they are online or even over text. The bad guys will try to trick [children] into making a mistake, so [kids shouldn’t] trust online messages or text messages from an unknown number unless [they] know who the person on the other end is.”
6. Validate “no”
In a potentially hostile online world, kids need to know how to draw a hard line. Teachers can help with this. “Children have to be trained to say the word ‘no’ without explanation while on digital devices, and [then] exit from any compromising conversation or situation,” says Charlene Doak-Gebauer, produce and co-director of the documentary film Vulnerable Innocence.
“An explanation will invite convincing arguments from a predator,” she adds. “Adults find this difficult at times [but] children have to be taught this.”
7. Teach body awareness
“Talk about body safety,” says King. “This is critical for all kids, starting in kindergarten. Establish rules and boundaries and teach kids about their body and body autonomy. Read kid-friendly books that help kids understand that nobody has the right to look at, touch, tickle, or play games with their body and they should not do the same with anybody else’s parts. This extends to the concept of online interactions.”
With this in mind…
8. … stop sharing pictures
“Parents, teachers, and children love taking pictures… and posting them online,” King says. “Predators find pictures of children and use them for disturbing purposes. They can screenshot your child’s photo, and then use AI to manipulate the image and create CSAM: child sexual abuse material. This can lead to blackmail and sextortion for tweens and teens that has resulted in a number of suicides.”
Teachers can tell kids not to share pictures online. In turn, if the teacher has to share photos of their students (class pictures, for instance) they can do so on a private, invitation-only page.
9. Invite parental involvement
Parents need to be part of the conversation, and teachers can look for opportunities to encourage their involvement. “Too often, adults are giving too much ownership to children for their safety online. Adults have to be actively involved in the journey of safe online activities of children,” notes Doak-Gebauer.
“It is difficult for Internet service providers, social media, and gaming platforms to provide completely safe environments for children,” she adds. “Filters and blocking provide some safety measures [but] when a child decides to chat with predators or peers, the issues of blocking may become irrelevant. It is important to have human intervention.”
10. Thoughtful online sharing
Teachers can help kids understand why it’s important to be careful about what kind of information they share online. “Some details about our lives aren’t appropriate to put online, like where we live, what we’re doing in that moment, or what’s making us mad,” McAlmont says. “It’s easy to overshare because we see so much being said online, [we] might feel like [we] always have to be saying something. But that’s not true, especially because it can be hard to take things off the Internet that [we] regret later.”
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Overall, teachers need to keep the dialog going.
“Open communication with kids about online safety is crucial. Once a child or teenager has access to the Internet, it’s like they can be exposed to the whole world at once,” says McAlmont. “They’ll need help navigating that, which means they need someone who they can always turn to with questions or to find help.”
For any age range, the messaging can be simple and consistent. Tell students not to believe everything they read online. Encourage them to “consider the source of the information [they]’re reading before [they] believe it. Maybe verify that information somewhere else, too,” he recommends.
Make sure kids are aware that when things look sketchy, they can and should talk to an adult. “If there’s something [they] see online that makes [them] feel uncomfortable or afraid, or [they] feel like someone is trying to take advantage of [them],” McAlmont says, kids should “talk to a trusted adult about it in real life. It might be tempting to ignore the problem or act like it isn’t happening, but it’s much easier to get help quickly before something small gets bigger.”
If a teacher can keep communication open, casual, and non-judgmental, “you can be the most important safety mechanism a young person learning to make their way in the world could have,” he adds.
- Use Unrelated Usernames: Teachers should advise kids to should never use their real name in their username when creating online accounts, says Charles Chow, head of marketing at Lumen Technologies Asia Pacific. “To stay safer, opt for unrelated usernames that cannot be traced back to your identity. Nothing is more important than protecting your real identity when online,” he notes.
- Phishing Training: Students’ online activities invite “phishing”: attempts by bad actors to manipulate people into disclosing sensitive information. “Whether it’s an email, SMS message, or in [a] video game, students must stay vigilant and pay attention for any warning signs,” advises Theo Zafirakos, CISO, Professional Services Lead for Terranova, part of Fortra’s cybersecurity portfolio. Students can be taught to “beware of unsolicited or unexpected messages, even if they appear to come from known contacts,” Zafirakos explains. “Don’t click on suspicious links. Never download suspicious attachments, and never send any money or divulge personal information.”
- Reduce Your Public Access: Social media applications allow users to edit their privacy controls. For younger users in particular, “instead of having open accounts that anyone can see and interact with, limit your scope to just friends,” Chow recommends. “Making your accounts private where possible will still allow you to use social media in the same way. The only difference is that strangers won’t be able to access your pages, photos, and personal information.”
- Avoid Geolocation: “Some social media sites use geolocation to add a rough location to your posts. Where possible, disable this feature,” Chow notes. “Malicious parties can use geolocation markers to trace where people live. Turn off geolocation settings on all of your apps to prevent tracking.”
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.