flag image

Kids and Cyber Safety

Online security concerns for children

March 2014

Ever asked your kid to help you download an app on your smartphone or set up a Twitter account? It seems like children are born computer experts, but there is still a great deal they don't often know – like how to protect themselves from cyber criminals.

"The only way parents can protect their children online is to use basically the same methods they use to protect their children offline," states Lois Ann Scheidt, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University (Bloomington), who studies digital communication and social networking amongst adolescents. "I often tell parents that if they wouldn't drop their child off in the center of their state's capital city, and then drive away and leave them on their own, then they shouldn't be leaving their children online without parental supervision."

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), one of the most important safeguards kids should learn is how to protect their personal information – including name, address, school name, telephone number, photo, social security number, and usernames and passwords. This information should never be given to anyone, even friends. Parents can help their kids develop strong email passwords, which should include upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols.

Even without knowing personal information, hackers can still find their way into your home computer through seemingly benign websites. The FTC warns kids to "watch out for free stuff," such as free games or ring tones where malware may be hiding. Before downloading anything, double-check the source and scan it with security software.

While parents may fear that children may be specifically targeted by cyber-criminals seeking to steal personal information, Scheidt says there is no research that shows that children are targeted over adults. "Criminals looking to steal credit card information are more likely to target adults who have access to greater financial resources. However, young people can still have their accounts hacked by inadvertently releasing personal information."

There are some red flags parents can watch for to detect malicious websites. Some websites may mirror the appearance of a well-known, safe site, but can be distinguished by a slightly different web address. In general, .org and .edu websites are considered reputable. The best way for parents to determine if children are using "safe" websites is to actively monitor their child while they are online – this means sitting with them, watching their interactions with other users, talking about things they see other users do, and knowing who the other users are, advises Scheidt.

It's important for parents to teach children how to recognize accurate, "good" information and to weed out the bad information. Young computer users can be impressionable and accept inaccurate information simply because they found it online, without recognizing the authenticity of the source. Scheidt says, "The boundaries of the internet are far different than the boundaries of the local library or a single book that a child may bring home for their homework. The internet is a vast space full of good and bad information, to a far greater extent than the number of bad people online."

The solution, Scheidt says, is vigilance. Knowing what kids are doing online and talking openly on the subject will help them see the dangers present, as well as provide them the confidence to grow and learn as internet users.


PBS Kids Webonauts Internet Academy

Interactive game that teaches key issues of web safety


Department of Homeland Security

Stop. Think. Connect.


United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team

Unique risks associated with children



Internet Safety


Tags: Featured Article, Featured Article, In This Issue, Parenting, Tweens & Teens

Comments ()
Childrens museum
St. Francis
Race for a Cure