Now is the time to teach kids how to stay safe online

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Magura)

Parents across the country were plunged into a whole new world of childcare when the Covid-19 pandemic hit earlier this year. The resulting lockdown required adults and children to work and learn from home, causing huge changes in our digital behaviour that, understandably, caught families off guard. With one in three (35%) UK parents reporting their family’s tech habits have permanently changed, the challenges for parents that prevailed in the peak of UK national lockdown, such as finding a work-life balance and managing their kids’ technology use, are likely to make a return over winter as outdoor play becomes more challenging.

A study from NortonLifeLock called Pandemic Parenting has found that many UK parents had neither the time nor the technology to give kids safe access to online learning at the peak of UK lockdown this spring. Two thirds (70%) of British parents whose children were at home during the lockdown say their child’s school assumed that tech for online studying would be available at home. But online-connected laptops and tablets were not readily available for all household members, with two in five UK parents (45%) having to buy a new device for their child.

Worse still, with many facing a squeeze on household income or financial uncertainty, purchasing new devices was just not an option for some UK parents. More than a third (34%) said they could not afford to buy their child the technology required for online education – more than in Germany, France and Italy – with hard pressed parents also less likely to have the time to supervise their kids’ online behaviour.

About the author

Steve Wilson is UK & Ireland Director at NortonLifeLock

But while sufficient access to tech devices was a problem for many, the tech itself formed a crucial part of enabling many parents to work, do household chores or just take a few precious moments for themselves. Eight in ten British parents working from home (79%) used tech to distract their child whilst they were busy, while almost half (47%) allowed their child online time to get a break.

In trying to strike a balance between work and family life, it’s clear that British parents had to make some tough decisions. Half described re-arranging their working pattern to look after their child (50%), while even more resorted to taking calls with their kids onscreen (61%) and others worked late into the night to make up time whilst their children were asleep (49%).

However, with so many balls in the air, keeping track of exactly what children were doing online proved much harder – more than half of British parents admitted to this. And this has led to both safety and cybersecurity concerns ranging from device hacking and location tracking, to fear of online predators. What’s more, most parents in the UK feel concerned about their child’s exposure to online risks such as grooming, cyber-bulling and downloading unvetted apps, while three quarters (74%) reported experiencing an issue in the past.

As more regions across the UK face Tier 3 lockdowns and as we now approach the winter months, some mums and dads might be looking down the barrel of another challenging period – one where kids can’t go outside and play, and in turn look to online devices for entertainment. For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to have some clear rules around device use – ones that allow all members of the family to establish healthy screen time habits.

Establish, and stick to, house rules and guidelines

These can include setting limits to screen time, the type of content a child accesses online, through their mobiles and other devices, or the appropriate tone of language to use online. Many of these rules can be reinforced with family-focused Cyber Safety technology. Rules should vary depending on your children’s age, maturity and understanding of the risks they could face online.

Encourage your children to go online in communal living spaces

It will help put your mind at ease about what they are doing. You don’t want to be constantly looking over their shoulder but equally you don’t want them hiding away. In a communal space, you’ll be able to observe if they become distressed, and they’ll know they can come to you if they are confused, frightened or concerned.

Make sure they know, no question is a stupid question

Talk about mobile use, gaming, and experiences online. Kids will be curious but will also get embarrassed or scared by some online experiences. Make sure you maintain an open and ongoing conversation with your children about what they see, learn and experience online. 

Encourage kids to think before they click

Whether they're looking at online video sites, receiving an unknown link in an email or even browsing the web, remind your child not to click on links that may take them to dangerous or inappropriate sites. Clicking unknown links is a common way people get viruses or reveal private and valuable information about themselves.

Place controls on harmful or adult content

From websites to apps, games and online communities, your kids have access to a lot of content that can affect them both positively and negatively. Using smart family security and parental control features, as well as the built-in security settings in your browsers, can help the whole family stay safer online.

Discuss the risks of posting and sharing private information

Encourage your children to think about the videos, photographs and information they share through mobiles, especially on social media. Whilst trading their personal information for a game might seem like a good deal today, they might regret it when they are older.

Disable pre-filled payment details

Inadvertent purchases by your kids can be challenging to find and recoup. Ensure your apps and devices ask for extra details to authorise payments and check your balances regularly to ensure you catch any unfamiliar looking payments.

Child proof shared devices

Some kids might have their own devices, but many will share with the family, or with siblings of different ages. Safeguard your kids from content that might not be age appropriate, and from inadvertent purchases by using kids’ versions of mainstream apps, deleting cached login details, closing browser windows, and deleting page history.

Use a robust and trusted security software solution

Family-focused solutions help households explore the connected world more safely. This gives parents peace of mind and lets kids grow in confidence and independence, without compromising their online safety.

And finally, be a good role model

Children are likely to imitate their parents' and adult's behaviour, so lead by example. Set your own healthy practices around screen time and online safety.

Steve Wilson is UK & Ireland Director at NortonLifeLock