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Internet Safety Tips: How to Keep Kids Safe Online

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Dec 14, 2023
A Teen Uses a Smartphone.

Internet Safety Tips: How to Keep Kids Safe Online

Children are spending a tremendous amount of time in front of screens. According to a 2021 report by Common Sense Media (a nonprofit organization focused on media and children), the time children spend looking at their screens each day, on average, is:

  • Tweens (8 to 12 years of age): 5 hours and 33 minutes
  • Teens (13 to 18 years of age): 8 hours and 39 minutes

The report noted that children do a variety of things online, such as view videos, use social media, browse websites, watch television, and play video games.

When children spend this much time anywhere, ensuring their safety is critical. But interacting with the world online poses several unique dangers. Adults in childrens’ and teens’ lives should know about the risks associated with online activity, as well as internet safety tips for protecting these young people from the dangers they face.

Exploring the Landscape: The Dangers of the Internet for Kids

While the web can be a positive and educational space for children, the dangers of the internet are all too real. The examples outlined below illustrate how young people can be at risk.

Communicating Online Can Be Unsafe

When young people interact with others online, or even when they are exposed to inappropriate content, a number of dangerous scenarios are possible. The United Nations notes that going online places children at risk of:

  • Sexual abuse and exploitation. Child sex offenders can use the internet to make contact with children, encourage them to commit crimes, and share inappropriate imagery with them.
  • Cyberbullying. Using social media or instant messaging can subject young people to the risk of cyberbullying and other types of peer-to-peer violence.
  • Exposure to hate speech and violent content. Certain content can incite children and teens to harm themselves, and it can subject them to the recruitment efforts of extremist groups.

Spending Time Online Can Impair Kids’ Health

Spending too much time on the web also can compromise the health of children. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Children website notes that, when children overuse digital media, their health can suffer. For example, too much time online can increase the risk for:

  • Obesity. Children who overuse digital media are less likely to take part in physical activity and healthy play, which can make them more likely to become obese.
  • Poor sleep. Overstimulation from screens can cause children to fall asleep later, experience disruptions in their sleep, and get less sleep.
  • Delays in development. When very young children have too much exposure to digital media, they have less interaction with people, which can result in delayed development.

Online activity also can take a toll on children’s mental health. For example, an advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General outlined how social media can contribute to young people’s developing:

  • Anxiety
  • Dissatisfaction with their bodies
  • Depression
  • Disordered eating
  • Low self-esteem

Going Online Can Subject Minors to Invasion of Their Privacy

Internet safety tips are often discussed in terms of privacy, because children are particularly vulnerable to violations of their privacy while they are online. In a report evaluating hundreds of the most popular apps and online services for children, Common Sense Media noted a number of weaknesses related to children’s privacy. For example:

  • Roughly 66% of the apps and online services had privacy policies that specified they could track children for the purposes of advertising.
  • About 40% of the apps and online services sent targeted ads to children based on the personal information the children provided.
  • The companies that offer the apps and online services that children use are increasingly selling children’s information to third parties.

Ironically, parents also can unknowingly place their children’s privacy at risk by posting too much information about them online. Mental health website Verywell Mind explains that when parents share too much information about their children online, a practice known as “sharenting,” it can expose the children to privacy risks such as identity theft. Sharenting also can lead to friction between children and parents if the children would prefer that their parents not share information about them online.

Adults can benefit by learning about relevant rules that can protect children when they are online. Businesses are required to abide by a range of laws and regulations that have been instituted to protect children’s privacy rights. The following are some prominent examples.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act

The U.S. Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 1998 with the goal of giving parents control over the information that businesses can collect online from children under the age of 13. COPPA requires the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue regulations regarding children’s online privacy. These regulations provide a number of tips for online safety that adults can familiarize themselves with.

The FTC’s COPPA regulations apply to:

  • Operators of commercial websites and online services that are specifically created for children under age 13 and that use, collect, or disclose children’s personal information
  • Operators of general audience websites or online services that use, collect, or disclose the information of children under 13
  • Websites or online services that collect personal information directly from users of other websites or online services that are created for children

The FTC’s regulations specify a number of important requirements designed to protect children’s information and privacy. For example, the regulations require covered operators to:

  • Maintain the confidentiality, security, and integrity of children’s information
  • Retain children’s personal information for only as long as is necessary and then delete that information
  • Post privacy policies that describe their practices for the personal information they collect from children
  • Not place conditions on children’s participation in an activity on their providing more information than is necessary to take part in that activity
  • Provide parents with:
    • Direct notice before the operators collect personal information from children online
    • The option of consenting to the collection and internal use of children’s personal information, while also prohibiting operators from sharing that information with others
    • Access to their children’s personal information so that they can review it and request its deletion
    • The chance to block the use or online collection of children’s personal information

Violations of the FTC’s regulations can subject covered operators to civil penalties of up to $50,120 per violation.

State Laws Regarding Children’s Online Privacy

Individuals seeking guidance for internet safety also can benefit from becoming familiar with relevant laws passed at the state level. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that some states have passed laws specifically protecting children’s privacy online. For example:

  • The state of California has passed a law that:
    • Enables minors to remove or request the removal of online information
    • Prohibits operators of websites and other online services created for minors from marketing to minors certain products or services that minors are not legally permitted to buy
    • Prohibits the marketing or advertising of certain products based on a minor’s personal information
  • The state of Delaware has passed a law that:
    • Prohibits operators of websites or online services created for children from marketing or advertising products such as alcohol, pornography, tobacco, or firearms
    • Prohibits disclosing a child’s personally identifiable information if operators know that the information will be used for the purpose of marketing or advertising products such as alcohol, pornography, tobacco, or firearms

In addition, PBS NewsHour has reported on a first-of-its-kind law passed in Utah that requires children younger than 18 to obtain parental consent before using social media platforms. The law also:

  • Requires social media platforms to give parents access to children’s posts and messages
  • Establishes a social media curfew for children younger than 18

The Associated Press reported that the state of Arkansas subsequently passed a similar law. The Arkansas law requires minors to obtain parental permission prior to creating a social media account. It also requires social media companies to use third-party vendors to verify the ages of new users.

Finally, in a report on state laws aimed at protecting children online, Bloomberg Law noted that states such as Colorado, Connecticut, Utah, and Virginia have passed general privacy laws that incorporate the requirements of COPPA. In some cases, those laws even go further to protect information that COPPA does not cover.

Keeping Kids Safe Online: The Websites and Apps Kids Use Most

Knowing where children are going on the internet can help keep kids safe online. Adults who are looking for advice for maintaining safety online need to become knowledgeable about the apps and online services that children use most often. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the top six social media tools that teenagers used in 2022 were:

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Snapchat
  • TikTok
  • Twitter
  • YouTube

Unfortunately, each of those services has been involved in high-profile cases related to users’ personal information and privacy. For example:

  • Facebook and Instagram. In 2023, privacy regulators in Europe imposed a $414 million fine on Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) for relying on a user’s agreement with terms of service to indicate that the user had approved receiving personalized ads on Facebook and Instagram. Meta planned to appeal that fine.

    In 2019, Facebook agreed to pay a $5 billion penalty to settle a case in which the FTC alleged that Facebook deceived users about their ability to control how their personal information would be shared. The FTC also ordered Facebook to implement a privacy compliance system that applied to Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

  • Snapchat. In 2022, Snapchat agreed to a $35 million settlement in a lawsuit that accused the company of violating Illinois’s law regarding biometric privacy by collecting and storing biometric information without users’ informed consent.

    Additionally, in 2014, Snapchat agreed to settle a case in which the FTC alleged that Snapchat deceived users regarding the amount of personal information the company collected, as well as the security measures it used to protect that information. The settlement required Snapchat to implement a privacy program that would be monitored by an independent professional for 20 years.

  • TikTok. In 2021, TikTok agreed to a $92 million settlement in a class action lawsuit that accused the company of collecting users’ personal information without consent and sharing it with third parties.

    Two years earlier, in 2019, Inc. (which was the former name of TikTok) agreed to pay a $5.7 million penalty to settle a case in which the FTC alleged that the company violated COPPA requirements by illegally collecting children’s personal information.

  • Twitter. In 2022, Twitter paid a $150 million penalty to settle the FTC’s allegations that Twitter had allowed advertisers to use account security data (users’ phone numbers and email addresses) for the purposes of targeted advertising.

    In 2020, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission fined Twitter nearly $550,000 for failing to promptly disclose a data breach.

  • YouTube. In 2022, France’s government imposed a $163 million fine on Google and its subsidiary YouTube for not implementing a sufficient way for users to refuse all cookies.

    And in 2019, Google and YouTube agreed to pay a $170 million penalty to settle allegations from the FTC and the attorney general of New York that YouTube illegally collected personal information from children without their parents’ consent, which was deemed a violation of COPPA.

Staying Abreast of COPPA Violations

One important tip for internet safety is to stay up to date on known COPPA violations. Adults have a few options for doing that. For example:

Taking Action: Internet Safety Tips for Kids

To protect young people from the dangers of the internet, parents, guardians, educators, and other adults in children’s lives can consider the following internet safety tips for kids.

Be a Good Role Model

Children learn from watching adults in action, so it’s helpful for adults to model the behavior they want children to follow. For example, parents can adhere to the same rules they set for their kids in areas such as:

  • Prohibiting the use of screens during meals
  • Spending time doing activities that don’t involve screens
  • Limiting time on social media

The Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital offers additional specific advice for being a good online role model.

Talk to Kids About Online Safety

Making a point to talk to children about internet safety tips also is important. Specifically:

  • It’s helpful to talk to young people regularly (not just once). This can keep communication channels open so that children feel comfortable telling adults about anything questionable that is happening online.
  • Discussing some of the differences between safe and unsafe websites can be beneficial. For example, adults and children can discuss warning signs such as unusual pop-ups, the risks associated with clicking on suspicious links, and the difference between http and https. Websites with URLs starting with http don’t encrypt data and are relatively less secure than websites with URLs starting with https that do encrypt data.
  • Talking about specific online habits is also key. For example, it’s important to discuss:
    • Never communicating with strangers on social media
    • Avoiding posting location information or even where a child goes to school
    • Taking time to think about information before posting it
    • The adequacy of the specific privacy settings on children’s social media accounts

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency offers a comprehensive booklet on talking with children about being online.

Learn About and Use Parental Controls

Parents should know about and use the parental controls available on the technology their children use. Parents have a range of options. For example, parental controls are available to:

  • Block access to websites
  • Filter web content
  • Monitor children’s devices and online activity
  • Track the location of children’s devices

ConnectSafely, a nonprofit organization focusing on online safety, offers a parental controls guide with detailed advice.

Establish Limits for Time Spent Online

Parents can take a number of actions to limit the time their children spend online. For instance, they can:

  • Create limits on the amount of time children spend online each day
  • Set curfews for when children’s online activity must stop
  • Encourage children to have playtime and participate in activities away from screens
  • Establish “no-screen” times (for example, during meals or on particular days or evenings)
  • Prohibit entertainment via screens during homework hours
  • Use apps that limit the amount of time children can use their devices

The National Library of Medicine offers specific screen time guidelines for children. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Children website offers detailed advice for developing a family media use plan.

Examine the Apps That Kids Want to Use

Another way parents can help keep their kids safe online is by reviewing the specific apps their children want to use before they download them. When examining the apps, parents can:

  • Look at the app’s permissions to determine, for example, whether they ask for location information
  • Read the ratings and reviews for an app, and research whether the app developers have any history of privacy violations
  • Read the app’s privacy policies and terms of service
  • Research the parental controls an app offers

Common Sense Media offers detailed reviews and recommendations for thousands of apps aimed at young people.

Take Advantage of Other Resources for Keeping Kids Safe Online

Adults who want to explore other resources that provide safety tips for the internet can review:

Ensuring That Children Can Thrive in a Safe Online Environment

Following guidance for internet safety to protect children online is one of the most important things adults can do. Ensuring that technology remains a positive and educational force in children’s lives can help them establish healthy and safe practices for navigating in our increasingly digital world.

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