Much of the internet is a fabulous resource for kids, whether it's Wikipedia for helping with homework, online games, social networks, videos, music and more. However, there is an equal - or greater - number of websites that you wouldn’t want them going anywhere near.

One of the greatest challenges facing parents these days is how to ensure that their children remain safe online. With so many kids now having tablets, smartphones, or PCs of their own, it’s increasingly difficult to know what content they access and who they’re meeting on the web.

A study by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford University revealed that of 515 interviewed 12- to 15-year-old children, 14 percent had had a 'negative' online experience , 8 percent had been contacted by strangers, almost 4 percent had seen someone pretend to be them online, 2 percent has seen sexual content that made them feel uncomfortable, and three percent had seen something that scared them.

A huge majority (90 percent) of the children's parents either did not know what parental filters were or they were not using them, and the children of those who were using them were at risk of viewing the wrong sort of information. Filters could be returning damaging false-positives that could make them more vulnerable or ill-informed than before they read the information. 

The OII suggests that rather than parental filters, which it says should be turned off as early as possible, we need to properly educate children. Future research into keeping kids safe online should "look carefully at the long-term value of filters and see whether they protect young people at a wider range of ages".

At the end of the day, whether you choose to go down the route of parental controls or better education without the rose-tinted glasses is really up to you.

We’ll explain what are the dangers online and point out ways you can protect your kids from them. Much of our advice is common sense, but in addition there are some settings you can make to limit the content and apps available on a phone, tablet or PC. Here's a brief rundown:

  1. Set ground rules for using screens
  2. Explain the dangers online
  3. Change settings for YouTube and Facebook
  4. Consider parental control or monitoring software

We've got more advice on How much screen time is healthy for kids and when is an appropriate time to buy your child a phone

Set some rules

Kids these days are digital natives. They've grown up with the internet and have no concept of what life was like without it. They’re completely at home with technology: using a trackpad or touchscreen to navigate is as much a life skill as learning to read and write.

In fact, children tend to learn to use a touchscreen way before they can read or write, using colours, images and symbols instead of words to navigate around apps and websites in order to get to a video or game they like.

Whatever the age of your kids, it’s important to keep them safe when browsing websites, using social networking services such as Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok, plus when chatting with friends using instant messaging programs.

Although your children may know more about using a laptop, tablet and the internet than you do, it’s your responsibility to ensure they're protected from the parts of the web that present a danger to them. The dangers (see below) may sound bad, but the good news is that you can prevent most of them happening without too much time, effort or money.

Common sense plays a bigger part than you might think. For a start, we’d recommend not allowing children to use a device - laptop, tablet or phone - in their own room. Asking them to use it in a communal area should discourage most inappropriate activities as it will be obvious what they’re up to even if you only glance in their direction.

The most important thing to do is to talk to each child and explain (in a way appropriate to their age) the dangers that the internet could pose to them, and why they can’t use their devices in their room.

Also, encourage them to tell you whenever they see anything that makes them uncomfortable or upsets them, or simply isn’t what they expected. You can delete inappropriate websites from your browser's history, and add the site's address to a parental control filter list (we'll come to this in a minute).

Also encourage them to tell you if they receive any threatening or frightening messages or emails - you can add the sender's address to most email programs' blocked list.

You should also make it plain what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable online. That’s something only you can decide, but you can’t expect your kids to know they’re doing something wrong if you haven’t set any boundaries.

You might, for example, tell your child that they're not allowed to download apps or files without your permission first, nor share a file with anyone without your consent. You could also set rules about whether they can use any instant messaging services, tell them not to reply to unsolicited emails or sign up for free accounts without you first checking that it's ok.

What are the dangers of the internet?

While much of the media focus tends to revolve around the problems children can encounter on social media sites such as Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram (all of which require account holders to be at least thirteen years old) recent research from security experts Kaspersky labs has found that online gaming is now a real source of concern.

In a study of 11-16 yr olds, Kaspersky discovered that 38 percent of children had encountered people pretending to be someone else on gaming platforms, while 23 percent had been asked personal or suspicious personal questions while online.

Perhaps the most worrying statistic though was that 20 percent of the children interviewed said that they trusted the gaming platform so much that they would see no problem meeting contacts from it in real life.

This is compounded by the fact that nearly a third of the children in the study said that their parents had no idea who they talked to when they played games online.

Setting boundaries

In the end, you are still the parent, and thus remain in charge. If you feel your child is ignoring warnings, or actively seeking out the wrong sites, then you can remove their internet privileges, or move them back into the centre of the house where you can observe their behaviour.

Parental control apps, such as Qustodio and those found on our Best parental control software roundup, allow you to set up content filters, block particular apps and websites, monitor SMS and social media communications, and set time limits for when a device can be used. 

While this does give you the reassurance on knowing what your child is up to online, we feel it would be best to tell them in advance that you are using these techniques. It could be quite damaging to the trust of a child to find out that you were secretly spying on their every conversation.

Again, and we really can’t stress this strongly enough, talk to your children rather than rely on a software solution. With all that being said, here are some ways in which you can use settings and applications to help you protect your young family.

How to make YouTube and Facebook safer for kids

Facebook

Two of the most popular websites for kids are YouTube and Facebook. Facebook is something of a mixed bag when it comes to content. There are no obvious filters that can restrict explicit content, although the friends you follow obviously have a great effect on the kind of material that appears in your newsfeed.

You can block individual users and apps in the settings options, but that’s about the extent of your controls. It’s worth remembering that the minimum age requirement of a Facebook account is 13 years old, so it’s not really intended to be entirely child-friendly. Many of the family security software packages available, including the aforementioned Qustodio, often include social media features. So, if your child is a regular Facebook user then it would be worth investigating some of these.

To see if your concerns are warranted, read Is Facebook safe for kids?

YouTube

YouTube is another huge draw for younger users, especially due to the huge amount of music videos on the site.

Google offers the YouTube Kids app for Android and another for iPhone / iPad. This is free and should certainly be used instead of the main YouTube app. It has a simpler interface and uses algorithms to filter search results to videos suitable for kids.

how to keep kids safe online

It isn't perfect of course, and has been prone to weird attacks in the past where unsuitable videos have been posted, but it's far safer than handing over a phone or tablet and allowing them to use the full YouTube app. You can turn search on if you like, or turn it off and let them use the interface to discover new videos. Unfortunately, this version of YouTube isn't available in a web browser, only via the iOS and Android apps. 

Google does provide a Restricted Mode option on the full YouTube site, and once applied it covers any instance of YouTube that logs in with the same account. To enable it, go to your PC and navigate to the YouTube site. Click your account icon in the top right corner, then select Settings from the drop-down menu.

how to keep kids safe online

Scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on the Restricted Mode: box. Here you’ll see an explanation of how it works, and the limitations it applies. Click the On option then Save and your child's searches should now be a bit tamer than they might have been before. 

how to keep kids safe online

Again, it’s not foolproof, but it will at least limit the amount of unsuitable material that might otherwise get through.

Netflix

You can create a kids profile in Netflix, and also set a PIN along with a restriction level for content of a certain maturity level. That's good, but even better is the features where Netflix allows you to block specific TV shows and films: you just type in the name and add it to your own block list. Here's how to set up parental controls in Netflix.

how to keep kids safe online

Microsoft Family Security in Windows 10

Back in Windows 8 Microsoft introduced family security settings. These allowed parents to create children’s accounts, restrict the type of content they could access, as well as set time limits for when the young ones could use the devices. These still exist in Windows 10 and offer a good starting point for securing your PC.

Follow our How to set up parental controls in Windows tutorial for a step-by-step guide to securing your PC. 

Don't share too much

It’s all well and good changing the settings on devices, installing security software, and battening down the hatches on routers, but it can all be for nought if you then go and plaster pictures of your child all over Facebook.

In a recent study conducted by Nominet, the UK’s internet infrastructure specialists, is was revealed that, on average, parents share nearly 1500 pictures of their child by the time the little one reaches its fifth birthday.

This becomes more of an issue when it was also discovered that 85% of parents hadn’t checked their privacy settings in over a year, while only 10% were even confident of knowing how to do so.

When pictures are shared online it’s possible that they are not private, and even if they are there is of course the real chance that they could be reposted and shared by friends whose privacy settings might not be as rigid as your own. 

Once an image is online there is little chance that it ever truly disappears, so bear in mind that your child’s image becomes essentially public the moment you post it to social media. It might not seem a big issue now, but it’s worth remembering before you press Send.

Ways to make the internet safe

While there exists many tweaks and features within browsers and software that can make your internet access more secure, one almost fool proof step you can take is to actually go to the source itself – the router. That little box with all the flashing lights is your gateway to the web, and it’s actually possible to use special apps such as Family Shield by OpenDNS to directly filter all the content that emanates from its glowing heart.

We have a guide showing you how to install Family Shield, but before you rush over there it’s worth noting that this is a unilateral setting – meaning there is very little in the way of granular adjustments. You choose from either High, Moderate, or Low filters, but this applies to everybody on the network, not just your children.

There are ways around this, as seen in the guide, but they can be somewhat complicated. It’s not just Family Shield that suffers from this broad-brush approach. Many Internet Service Providers, such as Sky, BT, and Virgin, offer family security filters, but once again these are blanket apps across all content, reducing the internet to a children’s version for everyone.

We have seen improvement recently though, with offerings such as Sky’s Broadband Shield allowing you to set time limits, so access is opened up after a watershed time when the kids are in bed. Obviously the advantage of this approach is that all devices connecting to your home Wi-Fi will have the same restrictions, so you don’t need to go around setting up each tablet or PC. Remember though, this doesn’t apply to 3G or 4G signals on mobile phones, or any other Wi-Fi connections that are in range and don’t have passwords.  

Parental control software

If the nuclear approach of router-based solutions feels too restrictive or cumbersome, then you can work on an individual device level. Parental Control software allows you to set a wide range of restrictions and safety features on your child's phone or tablet, and even monitor their movements when they're out and about. The choice is plentiful in this area, so check out our Best parental control software roundup for the pick of the current crop. 

Parental controls in Android

Android also has some built-in parental control options, details of which you'll find in How to use Android parental controls

Parental controls on an iPhone and iPad

As with Android, Apple has some safety features baked into the operating system. Our colleagues over at Macworld have put together a detailed breakdown of what they are and how to use them, which you'll find in How to set up parental controls on iPad & iPhone

Conclusion

The job of a parent has been made a little more challenging by the internet, of that there is no doubt. While we’ve gathered together as much helpful information as possible in this feature, and there are some fine tools available, in truth none of them are a guarantee that your child will be safe online. That’s not to say that they won’t help, but as we stated at the beginning, they must only be used in conjunction with your own presence and on going engagement with your children to be fully effective.

Combining many of the features together though, will at least limit the potential of unsavoury material appearing before their young eyes. But, remember to take time out to talk with your young ones about how they use the web, what they like, and what their friends are into. It could just be the very best way to protect them.

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