Children using a tablet.
Mike Kemp—Getty Images/Blend Images RM
By John Patrick Pullen
June 30, 2015

For kids, summertime is a brief window of freedom they yearn for all school year long. Parents, meanwhile, look at it a little differently. Sure, pool parties, camping trips and sleepovers are full of laughter and fun, but they also provide parents with lots to worry about.

But that’s just offline — the Internet, where parents have even less of a view into their children’s activity, can be a troublesome hotspot in the warm school-less months. These five tips can help keep your children safe online in the summertime, even though they really ought to be outside playing anyway.

1. Have a conversation about using the Internet. This might seem like a no-brainer to some, but in today’s busy world, parents should be careful not to leave anything unsaid. Specifically, be sure to cover what kind of information kids shouldn’t share online, like their real names, where they live, or other identifying information.

“We try to get parents to start these conversations and lessons early,” says Ju’Riese Colon, the executive director of external affairs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. For parents who don’t know where to begin these conversations, the center has a program called NetSmartz that’s designed to help kids ages five to 18 stay safe online, whether that’s on a smartphone, in a chat room, or while gaming.

2. Figure out what your kids’ devices can do. Almost everyone knows smartphones can take photos and videos, and computers can do, well, almost anything, but parents are often surprised what other devices can do.

“If you’re going to put it in your children’s hands, get to know it a little bit, get to know its abilities, whether it’s a gaming device, a cellphone, something that streams music, or an e-book reader,” says Colon. For instance, parents who aren’t very tech-savvy may not know that Kindles can surf the web, or that Xbox One gaming consoles support Skype video chatting.

In fact, gaming consoles have progressed a long way from the Nintendos of our youth. “Almost every game allows you to interact with others,” says Colon. This is problematic because it’s providing a new forum for people to reach children. Colon doesn’t necessarily think parents should ban their kids from online multiplayer games, but she does recommend making sure the online conversations in those games — whether they involve voice or text chats — stick to the topic at hand. So, if you’re on a co-operative mission, strategize around how to capture that flag. If the talk extents beyond that into real-world information, children should say “game over.”

3. Follow your kids online. Gaining independence is part of growing up, which is why parents have such a difficult time with their kids hanging out unsupervised with friends. But just as you wouldn’t send your children outside without knowing where they are, you shouldn’t send them out into the virtual world unmonitored either, says Colon. For instance, parents should create accounts on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social networks their kids want to use, and supervise their activity on those forums.

But before doing that, check to see if your children — at their particular ages — should even be on these sites. For instance, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube require that users be at least 13 years old. WhatsApp requires its users to be 16; Vine allows users who are 17 and older.

4. Know who your kids are connecting with. In addition to joining the same social networks as your child, it’s a smart plan to friend their friends, too. While some might find this to be the kind of thing a helicopter parent would do, it’s really just responsible parenting to know what your kids talk about on- or off-line. Of course boys will be boys and girls will be girls, but it’s important that they learn among peers, not amidst strangers.

That’s why it’s important to follow the accounts that follow your child. To begin with, if they are strangers or people posting inappropriate content, you can see what your child sees and tell him or her to block them. Or, if they are your kids’ friends, you can have talks about whether what they’re posting online is appropriate and about what’s happening in their world in general.

5. Set some limits. Everything is great in moderation — especially the Internet. But that doesn’t just mean parents should limit the time their kids spend on the web. Parents should also communicate where children can and cannot visit.

It’s impossible to keep track of every app or site that’s appealing to teens or kids, says Colon, so she recommends getting some help. One place to start is with your Internet Service Provider — they may have parental tools and filters designed to keep some of the more prurient online content out of your home. Secondly, look to the device your child is using to access the web. Linking app stores to your credit card (and not giving the password or card number to your little one) will ensure they need your permission before they can install new apps. The Parental Controls preference on Macs and Windows computers can also keep children on the straight and narrow, as well.

Parents reading this who feel like there’s a lack of quick tricks and shortcuts to keeping their kids safe online may be overlooking the common thread throughout these five tips: communication. The biggest key to keeping your children safe online isn’t walling off the Internet or crippling their computers (though a little bit of that can help), it’s helping them understand how big the world is, and which places within it are safe to roam.

“They’re inquisitive — that’s what children are, and that’s what makes them so wonderful,” says Colon. “But at the same time, we need to guide them in the direction in which they need to go.” And that’s never more true than in the summertime — even if the best place for them is outside.

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