Ways to keep your teen safe online
Teens spend a lot of time online – both studying and socializing. Do you know whether they’re safe? What are they doing? Who they’re talking to? What can you do as a parent to make sure your teen does not fall victim to fake news, leaving a digital footprint they’ll regret later in life, becoming addicted to gaming or get bullied or sexually abused?
In some ways, online safety is a bit like crossing the road. It’s potentially fraught with danger and there’s no failsafe solution; but with sensible strategies and common sense, it’s possible to navigate the dangers safely.
1. Be practical
Phones and laptops are powerful tools - more powerful than the computers that sent man to the moon! Make sure your teen has reliable software installed to protect against online attacks and security threats. We store a lot of information online and identify theft is just one of many reasons hackers might try and access our technology. Bitdefender, McAfee, Norton, PC Protec, Scanguard and Total AV are well-regarded companies providing online security.
Don’t forget the hardware either! Phones, laptops and tablets have become increasingly portable. This means they’re easier to steal. Remind your teen not to leave their technology lying around – for example, on the table should they take a rest break in a café or other public space. They’re probably used to slipping a phone into their pocket, but they may be tempted to leave their laptop on the table – it’s a hassle to pack up and it also protects their seat!
We recommend investing in a “laptop lock”, which is made of cut-resistant cable and can be secured around something fixed (such as the table or chairs). They’ll need to check compatibility with their laptop’s lockslots, and there’s options on Amazon (such as this one for Dell or universal ones).
They should make sure their screen is password protected and not leave applications running without the screen lock activated if they are away from the device (even, or especially, when at school!).
Your teen should be very careful when accessing public WiFi. Online security and protective settings can all be breached when using public WiFi systems. We recommend tuning into their own network hotspots or the Government safe-certified sites (noted as “friendly” with RDI symbols – image below) when accessing and using personal information, such as online banking.
3. Time online
It doesn’t necessarily follow that the more time they spend online the greater the risk. A teen that spends a lot of the day researching online and browsing social media may be less at risk than one who spends an hour or two each day checking out different social media apps and trying to increase their followers. Don’t get caught up battling with them about how much time they spend on their devices, instead focus on understanding what they’re doing online and whether or not they know the risks associated with the activities they enjoy – and how to take appropriate precautions.
4. Keep talking
Your teen won’t want to give you details about what they’re doing online, but you should have a general idea of the types of things they’re doing (which social media apps they use, whether they game, if they’re using buying/selling apps etc). If you’re able to be open and non-judgemental in conversations about how they spend their time, they’re more likely to come to you and chat if something makes them feel uncomfortable. This includes discussing challenging subjects such as sexting, pornography and cyber bulling.
Of course, recommending “open” conversations might be easier said than done. Try using TV, films and soaps to explore difficult topics; it takes the pressure off by allowing the conversation to be about someone else and not them. To give some examples, in recent years online sex picture leaks, skin bleaching and teenage pregnancy have all featured in Coronation Street; sexual identity in This is Us; self-harming and male rape in Hollyoaks.
Don’t forget, challenging though this is, if you’re not having the conversations it doesn’t mean nothing’s happening.
5. Deleting doesn’t always means it’s gone forever
It’s vital for teenagers to understand that short-term thoughtlessness can have long-term consequences. Make sure they’re aware that delete doesn’t always mean delete. Their online history could last much longer than they expect, even if they’ve deleted the post or, indeed, the entire app. For example, phone apps can track former users long after they’ve deleted their accounts. Your teen should avoid posting things they would not like a future partner or employer to see – whether that’s about themselves or someone else.
6. Restrict access to people they know
Where possible, make sure your teen has set up their security settings so only those connected to them can see their posts. For example, TikTok and Instagram automatically make new accounts public, but these can be updated to private accounts. If they make their accounts private it means the photos and other content they post is only visible to people they approve and not anyone (as in the default settings). They will need to be sensible about who they approve though!
Make sure their web browser protects against unsafe websites and if they do take part in chat rooms, make sure they stay in public chat rooms and not switch to private areas.
For more information about setting parental controls, see ThinkYouKnow.
7. Online exploitation
It’s easier to be harsh and cruel behind a screen than it is face to face and, worse still, online bullying can go on 24/7 so there’s no respite. Similarly, online communications can feel removed from ones that take place face-to-face, so it’s easier to be lured into behaviours that wouldn’t happen without the “protection” of being behind a screen. There’s also the illusion that new online friends can be trusted, when in reality they know little (if anything) about them.
Teach your teen to respect themselves online by not doing things they would not usually do in a face-to-face situation – whether that’s making hurtful comments or sending inappropriate images. They should not be on the receiving end of these things either.
ChildLine’s app Zipit might be a helpful tool to help them think of alternative things to say if they find their friends pushing them to do things they don’t feel comfortable with, and to help them recognize inappropriate requests from an online community.
8. Not everything is as it seems
Do make sure your teen is aware that things aren’t always as they appear online. There’s no verification process ahead of publication. In the main, people can post anything they want. This makes it easy to present a point of view or opinion as if it is factual information. It also enables emotive and reactive comments to be shared immediately without thought for their impact or whether the original source is correct. Not everything they read is true, even on places that look “official”.
If they’re keen on social media and want to expand their followers online, they might reach out to lots of people they don’t know. Or if they’re gaming, they might be susceptible to praise from other players. Teach them to be mindful of boundaries if they’re going to engage with people they don’t know, especially if that’s outside public spaces. It may feel safe to them because they’re not physically changing location, but they should understand there is a difference. If they find themselves in these situations, it’s worth ensuring they can trust your reaction to be measured and supportive. If they think you’ll get cross and take away their technology, they’re unlikely to confide in you.
9. Great resources for parents
There are some great resources to help parents stay in touch with what their teens are doing online and understand the issues they need to addresss. Our favourites are:
Childnet - Advice for parents covering key topics, downloadable resources and how to have conversations;
Common Sense Media - Reviews and information for parents about games, apps, TV shows and websites;
Internet Matters - Help on using parental controls and privacy settings so that you can control what your child sees;
NetAware – Enter the name of the apps and games and find guidance on what it does, how young people use it and overall safety ratings;
ThinkYouKnow – Information on how to use parental controls effectively;
UK Safer Internet Centre - Advice for parents covering key topics, downloadable resources and how to have conversations.
10. Reporting concerns
If you or your teen are worried about online sexual abuse or the way they are being communicated with online, you can report it to Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) which is a national crime agency.
The internet is an amazing, life-transforming resource. This blog is not meant to make you lose sight of how useful and fabulous it is! In keeping with our opening road analogy, like driving, it can be empowering and liberating. Conversely, without the right advice and training, there is the potential for danger. We want to raise your awareness on positive, constructive actions you can take to increase online safety for your teen so you can both maximise the benefits of being online and minimise any concerns.
Find out what more you can do at home to help your teen create lifelong healthy habits and help them study more successfully in: The Parents' Guide to Study and Exam revision - GCSEs and The Parents' Guide to Study and Exam revision - sixth form