The coronavirus pandemic has suddenly shifted most aspects of our lives to the digital realm, creating a breeding ground for online predators and cyberbullies. In light of the sudden closures of schools across the country and students spending more and more time online, the FBI issued a warning about the potential of increased activity of online predators and sexual exploitation of children. Some localities are already starting to see a rise in incidents.
In addition to adults seeking to exploit kids online, cyberbullying among peers is on the rise since the quarantine began, too. The FBI is also investigating incidents of harassment and racist activity online, even in classroom Zoom meetings, including hackers yelling profanity, releasing private information like teachers’ addresses, and displaying racist imagery during video calls.
We urgently need the big tech companies to make their platforms and products safer for kids. In the meantime, it’s more important than ever for parents to be vigilant and informed about the dangers their children face online.
Learn these 8 tips for online safety and share them with your family to increase awareness and start building safe and positive online habits. To start, the four tips below can help protect your family from the rise of cyberbullying in this increasingly digital world:
- Understand cyberbullying. According to Common Sense Media, “Cyberbullying is the use of digital-communication tools (such as the Internet and cell phones) to make another person feel angry, sad, or scared, usually again and again.” If these behaviors are intentional and recurring, you may have a case of cyberbullying on your hands.
- Talk to your kids about tech. Technology was already a huge part of kids’ lives before the outbreak, but now it is their only lifeline to the world outside their homes. As more aspects of our daily lives are moving online, it’s more important than ever to keep an open dialogue with children about how they use the internet. The Cyberbullying Research Center has a helpful list of questions to ask kids about tech use to get the conversation started.
- Look for the warning signs. If your child is evasive about their online activities, often hiding their screen from you, or otherwise acts out of the ordinary in regards to their devices, it’s possible they could be involved in cyberbullying. If you notice warning signs, it may be time to step up your monitoring of their online behavior.
- Be a good role model. Kids imitate those around them—use this to your advantage! Just as parents can model good behaviors for their kids in the real world, they can do the same online. Constantly reinforce concepts of empathy, resilience, and self-esteem in your own actions, both on- and offline. Keep your own posts uplifting and positive when you can, rather than posting mean-spirited or inflammatory content. Avoid bickering in comments on social media, or criticizing others. These behaviors may eventually be reflected in your own child’s online presence.
Even more disturbing than cyberbullying for most parents is the prospect of online predators targeting their children. The following four strategies can help your family stay safe online:
- No devices in the bedroom. This is one of the biggest moves you can make to keep predators away from your kids. If devices are only used in shared spaces in the home, the likelihood of an attempted video chat, photo or text response to an inappropriate request, or visit to an adult website is far lower.
- With internet access comes responsibility. Make sure your children understand the various dangers and privileges of internet access. Sexual predators, hackers, and scammers are all pitfalls of being online. Kids should understand (on an age-appropriate level) what can happen if they aren’t careful online. They should also understand how important and special it is to have access to the internet, especially now that most families are stuck in their homes for the foreseeable future.
- Check their privacy settings. Carly Yoost, founder of the Child Rescue Coalition, explained to Good Morning America that parents can step up internet security in their homes by making sure all of their social media accounts are private with location tracking turned off. Her pro tip for iPhone families? “Make sure you set your camera to never allow your child’s location to be seen. To do this, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services (ON) > Camera set to NEVER.” Note that turning off location settings for the camera or social media accounts won’t affect any other features, such as Find My iPhone.
Along those same lines, as your kids video chat with friends, teachers, and classmates, make sure their connections are private. Links to video chats should never be shared publicly (like on social media), and the meeting itself should be set to private. In response to complaints about the security of their platform, Zoom released useful tips for keeping chat groups safe—and keeping unwanted guests out. Also, ensure that all video chat software is fully updated, to take advantage of the newest security features that have been released.
- Make it official. Consider writing up a family tech code of conduct. This strategy can be customized to the ages and online hobbies of your kids, but the general idea is to have some hard rules regarding internet and device use that they have agreed to. Of course kids aren’t always inclined to follow the rules, but having a written list to reference can help solidify and reinforce good online behaviors. Consider some rules like, “No private messages with strangers,” or, “Never send personal pictures to anyone online.” Whatever works best for your family.
If your child does become the victim of a predator online, contact local law enforcement, then reach out to your local FBI field office or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov. Provide as much detail as possible; be ready with the standard information authorities will ask for to help them start a successful investigation.
Thankfully, there are organizations and institutions working to protect children from predators on the internet. UNICEF, the children’s welfare agency of the United Nations), is working directly with governments to have problematic sites blocked, and using artificial intelligence to screen content.
Tech companies are the first and most critical line of defense against cyber crime, but there’s much you can do at home to protect your kids, too. Equipping yourself with lots of knowledge and strategies will prepare you for the worst, while modeling good behaviors and communicating with your kids will foster an environment of openness and trust at home.
Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.
For ongoing updates on coronavirus-related issues and questions that impact children and families, please find additional resources here.