The 9 Easiest Ways For Strangers To Access Your Kids Online, According To An Expert

by Kelly Mullen-McWilliams

As the internet becomes an increasingly large part of our social lives, benefits and opportunities abound. (I speak as someone whose job is conducted almost entirely over wireless networks.) However, parents can't afford to ignore the darker sides of digital experience. So knowing the easiest ways for strangers to access your kids online means you can better protect your kids and teens from the threats of this brave new world.

Teaching your children to manage their online presence safely is a life lesson in the 21st century — one just as important as riding a bike or learning to drive. In decades past, parents tried to constantly monitor their children's activities through software or password sharing. (Remember how annoying, and ineffective that technique was?) Today it makes more sense to view the internet as an extension of your child's daily life. That means you should keep it age appropriate, but allow some freedom, too. Between Instagram and Facebook, you don't have time to monitor your child's every move, and it's probably not healthy for them if you do.

"In a way, millennials have the advantage of teaching their kids [about cybersecurity and safety] at a much younger age," explains Michael Kaiser, the Executive Director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), in an interview with Romper. Knowing the most common ways strangers target children through mobile devices and computers will help you choose safety solutions that work best for your family.


Through Networks Truly Meant For Adults

Facebook, like a host of social media networks, requires users to be at least 13 to set up an account. Nevertheless, The Atlantic reported a study showing that a quarter of U.S. kids 12 and under who participated in the study had used the site. Rather frighteningly, a significant number of those children were 10 years of age or younger.

The trouble is that Facebook wasn't designed for such young users. When kids rush willy nilly onto Facebook and Instagram, they're apt to fall into all kinds of traps. Kids using adult networks are vulnerable to solicitations, scams, and bullying; their privacy is also at risk. According to Kaiser, apps specifically designed for kids employ safeguards, like a moderator on the lookout for troubling communications, or an approval process users must undergo before joining. Grown-up networks, on the other hand, are "wide open."

National Public Radio (NPR) compiled a list of 10 safe social networking sites for kids. If your preteen is agitating for an account, help them choose from monitored creative communities like Franktown Rocks, YourSphere (which blocks adults), or Scuttlepad, which NPR described as a "social network with training wheels."


Through Social Media Accounts You Don't Know About — & May Never Have Even Heard Of

Do you have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube? I'm guessing you've heard of them, at least. But what about Pinterest, Tumbler, Kik, Yik Yak, and Vine?

An NCSA study of kids aged 13 to 17 found that 60 percent of teens had created online accounts without their parent's knowledge; 30 percent of teens said parents were either "not aware at all" or "not very aware" of their online activities.

The urge to track your child's every virtual move is strong, but actually doing so quickly proves impossible. There are just too many social media platforms, with more hitting the market each year. Of course, you should know exactly what sites your younger kids are using. When it comes to adolescents, however, perfect monitoring isn't just impossible — it might actually damage the bonds of trust. Instead of tracking, Kaiser advises teaching teenagers to navigate the online world confidently and securely.

"Teenagers are trying to create their own life, and that’s part of their adolescent development," Kaiser says. "If you try to track everything, you’re going to spend all your time tracking and very little time teaching."

While you can't predict what your child is going to see on a 10-block walk to their friend's house — or strictly enforce the route they take — Kaiser maintains that you can prepare them for scenarios they might encounter on the way. When kids go online, the same ideal applies. Kaiser suggests asking, "What happens if someone starts emailing you and wants to meet you in person? What if someone sends you harassing emails or texts or asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, like send pictures? Start to have those discussions about what’s OK and not OK the same way you would for events in the physical world."


Through Xbox Live, Minecraft, & Online Gaming

Virtual game systems like Xbox Live allow kids — and their parents, if they can find time — to play games like "Guitar Hero" with friends and family living halfway across the country. But online gaming has a dark side too. According to Norton by Symantec, millions of people across 26 countries are plugged into Xbox Live, a fact that could leave your kids vulnerable to harassment and predators.

Don't ban Minecraft or other online multiplayer games just yet, though. Kids love them, and with games, you have a great opportunity to teach children the rules of safe conduct. Norton offers five safety rules for Xbox Live that you can apply across these platforms, from managing parental controls to hitting the mute button to discourage bullying.


Through The "Internet Of Things"

Here's one millenial parents might not have had to reckon with much — yet. The Internet Of Things, or IoT. According to Michael Kaiser of the NCSA, IoT toys weren't around when millenials were kids. So if you're going to buy one for your child, you should understand how they work.

"Connected toys are an Internet of Things device that collect and gather data about the user of the toy," Kaiser tells Romper. "So if parents are going to buy a toy that connects to the internet — and this could be anything from a Barbie to a gaming system — they’re going to want to make sure they do their research and understand what information is collected. Will there be software patches to install to make them more secure over time? What happens when the child ages out of the toy and they want to cancel their account? Is that data destroyed or is it shared in any way?"

Parents can now buy toy dinosaurs that answer a child's questions, electric toothbrushes that send data to a mobile app, and electronic magnets kids can assemble into robots.

The Washington Post recently reported that through such toys, strangers can potentially glean your address, download a child's photograph, or steal valuable information. Parents should be especially leery of toys that connect directly to the internet via wifi, have GPS capabilities, contain a recording device or microphone, connect to a mobile app, or store personal information.

Of course, these types of toys are breeding like tribbles, and many, like the Cognitoys Dino, are super exciting and educational. If these toys are the future, it's better to learn to manage them than try to avoid them. (Because really, you can't. Hi, Alexa!) Additionally, there are some security measures already in place for little ones. Kaiser explains:

"If the toy is directed at someone under 13 and it’s connected to the internet, it’s going to be subject to COPPA, which is the Child Online Privacy Protection Act, so there are some safeguards. But still, these are things you need to know. You have a device in your home, interacting with your child, and collecting data. You just want to be eyes wide open about that."


Through Oversharing

Kids overshare online because they don't know any better. According to Peter Brust, Federal Bureau of Investigations special agent in charge, Counterintelligence and Cyber Divisions, Los Angeles FBI field office, who offered his advice on keeping kids safe to the Public Broadcast Station (PBS), online predators target sites where "vulnerable" children may be located — chatrooms about pet loss or loneliness or mourning, for instance. It's crucial that kids learn not to share private information like addresses and phone numbers in conversations or on their profiles.

The FBI urged parents to check their children's profiles for oversharing. Many social networking sites ask kids to share hobbies, favorite songs, and the schools they attend with the world, but sharing too much can be dangerous. Predators can use that seemingly harmless information to win a child's trust.

Nor are parents exempt from the temptation to overshare. "There have been discussions about too much 'sharenting,'" Kaiser tells Romper. According to The Atlantic, uploading pictures of your toddler to Facebook raises questions about a child's right to privacy, as well as security issues. Kaiser advises young families to set ground rules that apply to everyone early on. For instance, you might decide that it's against the house rules to post photos of the family vacation while you're away. Parents might promise not to post photos of children without their permission, while kids can promise not to post where parents work or where they go to school. "And say why," emphasizes Kaiser. "Explain that where you go to school is only relevant [to family and friends]."


Through Kik

One instant messaging app in particular has developed a bad reputation when it comes to child exploitation. According to Forbes, Kik is worth $1 billion dollars — and its child predator problem is so large, it's worth warning your children about. So far, the company hasn't been able to solve its "rampant" child exploitation issues, and a whopping 57 percent of Kik's users are between the ages of 13 and 24.


Through The Pressure To Add Friends & Followers

Kids are competitive, and the number of "likes" they get on Facebook or Instagram can really matter to them — as do the number of friends or followers they're able to accumulate. Combine this fact with the purposefully addictive design of much social media, and your child might be looping strangers into their private world with the click of a button, just to win a numbers game.

In the online world, people can pretend to be much younger than they are, and reach across distances to access your child. Children are trusting, and eager to call everyone they know — virtually or actually — a friend, according to Kaiser. Discuss what makes a real friend with your child, and make sure their profiles on social media sites are set to private. Also teach them to un-friend strangers, should they make an unwelcome appearance.


Through The Family Computer

How secure is your data?

For Kaiser, new parents have a golden opportunity to make sure they're doing everything they can for their own cybersecurity. October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, so it's a great time to visit NCSA's site, Stay Safe Online, to learn more about protecting your own privacy.

"The responsibility isn’t just to protect your own information, but to protect your children's — much of which might be stored on your own laptop or tablet," Kaiser explains. He goes on to note that parents should think about how they're storing photos of their children, and how they're protecting all their accounts. His advice? When devices or sites you use offer stronger authentication measures — like the iPhone's fingerprint authentication — take advantage.

"Five years ago, everything was about a login and a password. A finger swipe on your phone is an example of a different way of proving you have access to a device. All the major email providers . . . all provide stronger authentication in different forms. So look into some of those techniques, especially when it comes to the family pictures, your children’s school records, or even health records," says Kaiser.

Learning how to turn on strong authentication, and how to craft an airtight password, can protect your children's data from strangers. Also, be sure to back up those precious photos. While most millennials can find their childhood memories on physical film, "99 percent of our kids' memories will be digital," notes Kaiser. "You don’t want to lose those memories if your computer dies."


Ultimately, Through Communication Break Downs

One of the easiest ways for predators or scammers to access kids is through a parent-child communication breakdown, so you want to make sure your kids feel comfortable coming to you when something happens. Disturbingly, the NCSA study showed that only 32 percent of teenagers 13 to 17 felt compelled to report upsetting online incidents to their parents. When they did get into trouble, 40 percent of teens turned to peers, not caregivers.

It's crucial to engage your child in calm, sensitive conversations about their internet use, but be careful not to turn technology into a battlefield. Ask your child to teach you how to play that new cell phone game, or give you a tour of their favorite app, in a friendly way that respects their interests and desires. If your child feels supported and not hounded by you, they'll be more likely to bring problems to your attention.

Kaiser advises giving kids a developmentally appropriate amount of freedom, and drawing bright lines around potentially dangerous situations: This is what you do if a friend threatens to hurt themselves or others; if a stranger asks for your email; if a box appears suddenly appears on the screen reading, click here!

“Teaching competency, teaching values about personal information, teaching children to seek help, and establishing some parameters . . . is really important," according to Kaiser.

The web can broaden a child's world in a thousand powerful ways. Teaching your child to navigate that world safely and securely is a valuable, lifelong gift parents are in a perfect position to give, and you can't start discussions about safety and privacy too early. Consider holding a family meeting tonight, and remember to check in regularly about your child or teenager's internet use. They probably won't share everything with you — some things are private, especially if they're older — but if you play it right, they'll share what matters.

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