It’s been proven that children have an innate sense of right and wrong, even as early as infancy. Toddlers instinctively turn away from or “punish” puppets that take more than their share or don’t play by the rules, and every parent is familiar with the typical playtime arguing among young children as they sort out what is fair and what is unacceptable. Even children’s media, from Dora the Explorer to Hansel and Gretel to Scooby Doo is all about identifying criminals and evildoers and then making sure they can no longer hurt others.
This means that, as a parent, the best time to start talking to children about online safety is during the pre-K and early elementary school years, when children are already hardwired to watch for potential threats and avoid people who don’t play by the rules. This is the time to teach children about how to identify unscrupulous websites and social media followers, and about how to protect themselves from people who might want to steal their personal data.
This might seem like a bit too much information to give a child who is still learning how to master bike riding and slumber parties, but there’s a very good reason for teaching online safety early: young kids are still interested in learning rules and dispensing justice. Wait until your children are teenagers, and you’re working against the teenager’s developmental instincts to test rules and boundaries rather than follow them.
How do you teach your children how to protect themselves online, especially from a very young age? Here are a few tips to help you get started:
“Stranger Danger” includes internet strangers
Young kids are taught very early about Stranger Danger and the importance of telling another adult if a stranger approaches them. Likewise, children are taught about how to identify people who do not have their best interests in mind.
Your job as a parent is to expand the concept of Stranger Danger to include the internet. Teach children that they should only accept social media friendships from people they know. Teach children that there are certain online behaviors about which they should notify an adult. This includes anyone who asks them to reveal their full name and address online, as well as other common online predator behaviors.
Internet security programs help keep kids safe
Dora has Map, Captain America has his shield, and computers have internet security programs. Make sure you have an updated, firewalled security program on your computer at all times, and explain to your kids that if they ever see a warning about an unsafe site or link, it’s the computer trying to protect them from something dangerous. The team at Trend Micro notes that many security threats come take the form of shared links via online messaging or email; teach your kids that they should only click on links sent by people they know and trust, and if the computer sends them a warning about a link being dangerous, they should tell an adult right away.
Play online games that reinforce internet security lessons
Just like children’s stories and media reinforce important safety lessons, there are plenty of online games to help reinforce key internet security issues. The Adventures of the Three Cyberpigs, for example, teaches children how to avoid spam and marketers who want to steal their personal information. Here’s a list of online games designed to help young children understand internet security; start by playing a few yourself, and then introduce them to your children.
Teaching your kids about online security, especially from a very young age, is essential to prepare them for the bigger world ahead. Use these tips to get started, and share additional teaching tips in the comments.