This is how to keep children safe online

Keeping safe online: What children are doing online has more bearing on their wellbeing than how much time they spend online.

Critical thinking protects children against many cyberthreats and keeps them safe online. Image: Pexels

Anna Maria Collard
Senior Vice-President, Content Strategy, KnowBe4, Inc.
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

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  • What children are doing online has more bearing on their wellbeing than how much time they spend online.
  • Parents, educators and children should be made aware of the emerging risks to become better equipped and confident in protecting themselves.
  • Critical thinking protects children against many cyberthreats, such as social engineering, contact risks and misinformation.

A Common Sense Media study revealed that the average screen time for kids between eight and 12 years was five hours a day, and for teens it was well over seven hours in 2019. Unsurprisingly, according to this recent study, much younger kids got increasingly exposed to screens during the global lockdowns.

Concerned adults worry about children’s excessive screen time or that online risks outweigh the benefits. The temptation for these parents is therefore to focus more on restricting internet use than on enabling their children to participate online in a safe manner.

Have you read?

While the impact of screen time on children is still being debated, the UNICEF’s Growing up in a connected world report suggests that what children are doing online has more bearing on their wellbeing than how much time they spend online and that children who are more active online are also better at managing online risks.

So rather than hindering children’s internet use, adults should learn how to effectively facilitate the online experience. But faced with the complex and fast evolving technologies, many parents do not feel sufficiently confident to guide their often more tech-savvy children.

It is important to keep in mind that risk does not always lead to harm. Children exposed to online risks may not suffer harm if they have the knowledge and resilience to cope with the experience.

Online risks for children

The OECD Typology of Risks provides a practical examination of emerging risks that parents, educators and children should be made aware of. Simplified, these are:

  • Content Risks: which include hateful, harmful or illegal content as well as disinformation.
  • Conduct Risks: these refer to children’s own conduct which can make them vulnerable, i.e. in the case of sexting or cyberbullying.
  • Contact Risks: which include online predators, sex trafficking and cyber grooming, and have been identified as a growing concern across OECD countries.
  • Consumer Risks: such as inappropriate marketing messages as well as online fraud.
  • Privacy Risks: many children do not yet understand the privacy disclosures they encounter, nor the value of their personal information. Parents’ desires to overshare (“sharenting”) can also create privacy and security concerns.
  • Advanced Technologies Risks: the use of AI-based technologies, Internet of Things (IoT) and extended virtual reality (XR) pose further risks. The immersive virtual worlds within the Metaverse come with new and exacerbated threats, many of which are not well understood yet.

Tips for parents

Just like teaching children about safety in the offline world, we need to talk about online risks. A family agreement is a great way to start the conversation about these risks and how to behave as well as setting healthy boundaries for screen time.

Parental control tools help to block explicit or disturbing content and apps on kids’ devices. Before applying these, it is important to discuss the reasoning behind it and agree on rules that respect kids’ privacy.

One of the most common modus operandi used by cybercriminals, scammers and child predators alike is social engineering. This refers to triggering a victim’s emotions to suppress their critical thinking. Protecting against social engineering requires children (and adults) to not share too much personal information and to apply extra vigilance when something triggers an emotion.

Explain to children that when any message makes them feel anxious (“there has been a security incident”), rushed (“this is going to expire soon”), flattered (“I love your profile picture”), or triggers fear of missing out (FOMO), alarm bells should go off.

Critical thinking and a healthy dose of scepticism are key tools in spotting social engineering scams, online fraud, misinformation and grooming requests.

There are great online resources for both parents and educators providing further guidance:

Educators and policy-makers

Policymakers need to ensure that cybersecurity awareness and critical thinking becomes a necessary life skill and gets incorporated into public school across subject curriculums to equip children against online risks.


How is the Forum tackling global cybersecurity challenges?

For example, as is the case in Finland, in math kids can be taught about how easy it is to lie with statistics, in art how images can be manipulated, and in history propaganda campaigns can be linked to today’s fake news and misinformation. Being able to approach information critically – not cynically – should be the objective here.

This does not mean that the responsibility can be placed squarely on the shoulders of children. Governments should be holding technology and content providers responsible to protect vulnerable groups. Both the public and private sectors should collaborate internationally with relevant working groups such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety to tackle harmful content and take coordinated action to reduce the risk of online harm. Governments should enforce necessary legal and policy frameworks.

Jessica Lahey explains in her book “Gift of Failure”, that overprotective parents create kids who are anxious, risk averse and not equipped to fend for themselves.

By applying a lens of “autonomy-supportive parenting” to the online world, we educate kids about the risks, but at the same time, give them the space to explore and allow them to fail or succeed based on the effects of their own decisions.

This means that rather than trying to restrict every possible internet risk, parents and educators should focus on creating awareness and fostering critical thinking, mindfulness and self-control. These are crucial prerequisites to navigate effectively not just in the digital, but in the offline world as well.

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