Balancing Kids’ Online Safety and Independence

March 21, 2023

Children are more active online than ever before. In fact, research shows that most children (91% of U.S. households) are active on social media and 70% of youth under 18 play video games. And while the internet can help foster creativity and independence in children, today’s digital threats like cyberbullying, malware, predators, identity theft and fraud can be dangerous for children and their families.

As parents, we are constantly balancing the need to support our child’s growth and autonomy with our desire to protect them. We know that it is important to be involved in our children’s digital lives, but at the same time, we don’t always have time to supervise their every interaction.  Since many children begin playing video games and using social media early on, it is crucial to have conversations with them about the risks that they may face.

Sometimes the threats are personal. For instance, the Cyberbullying Research Center reported in 2021 that nearly half of children ages 13-17 had dealt with cyberbullying.

Threats can also come from unknown cybercriminals taking advantage of kids. A Javelin Strategy & Research study found the personal information of 1.74 million children was leaked in data breaches in 2022, and those under seven were most likely to be victimized by identity theft and fraud.

The data is alarming, but a balance of open communication, judgment-free involvement and the right tools can help you empower your child to live their digital life safely and independently, while giving you more peace of mind. Here’s how:

1.  Set clear boundaries, and strive for ongoing, judgment-free conversation.

Start by setting clear rules for your family for when devices can be used, for how long, what can be shared vs. kept private, what platforms, games or apps they can use and what their privacy and location settings should be set to. Make sure they understand what’s at stake, and how they can help protect your entire family from criminals.

Depending on your child’s age, set these rules together. Ask them what they think is reasonable and why, and seek to compromise in order to build trust and foster an open dialogue in your home about their online activity and behavior.  Ask them what they think they need in order to stay connected, and explain how to unplug from technology when they begin to feel burnt out. 

Remember that as parents, we are role models and influence our children’s habits. Create clearly-defined boundaries, and adhere to them. Demonstrate that you can unplug, too.

Address how your child is presenting themselves online and why it is important to be inclusive while remaining alert and aware of potential dangerous situations like predators or cyberbullies. Encourage them to be good digital citizens and smart in their online interactions, coming to you with any questions or concerns - regardless the time of day, fear of getting in trouble or feelings of embarrassment.             

2.  Test the apps and games your kids use.

Gaming is wildly popular, and allows kids to develop problem-solving skills, improve their creativity and socialize in digital communities. But they can also expose children to serious threats and ill-intentioned individuals hiding behind their screen, disguised by a screen name. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), 3 in 5 young people (60%) ages 13-17 experienced harassment in online multiplayer games—representing nearly 14 million young gamers. FBI data estimates that there are 500,000 online predators active each day. Furthermore, a game or a mobile app is the most common way scammers target children, reported in 41% of cases, according to Javelin.

Playing a game together can make a big difference. Not only can this be a bonding experience for you and your child, but it can give you valuable insight into what and who your child might be exposed to through the game. It also gives you a firsthand perspective into how privacy and security settings dictate aspects of gameplay like duration, communications, content and transactions, allowing you to better personalize them for your family’s needs and child’s boundaries.

As you become more familiar with the platform, you’ll be able to help your child identify instances where you see red flags like cheating, fake accounts, trolls or cyberbullying. Talk through how they make you both feel and how to respond in a safe and healthy way. Discuss how sometimes anonymity leads people to act differently.

Consider placing gaming consoles and computers in a common area, where you can observe your children’s online behavior, which games they are playing and how they are interacting with others.

To further an ongoing dialogue, don’t give them your credit card or register a payment method for in-app or game purchases. Instead, encourage them to ask your permission every time. Scammers often try (and are successful more often than you’d expect) to trick kids into giving up their parents’ financial or other information, so require them to talk to you before sharing any personal information with another user - from credit card details and email addresses to your neighborhood or the school they attend. Encourage your children to use strong passwords or even passphrases, and make sure you have access to them.

Finally, once you’re confident your child understands the risks of being online and how to protect themselves, offer them some level of independence to further establish trust and empower them with the freedom to begin navigating their digital life on their own. 

FOSI has organized a number of great resources as part of its Safer Gaming Guide, like the (Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB) Ratings Guide that can help parents better understand a game and its settings.

3.  Get help to effectively balance safety and privacy.

While the industry is taking steps to create environments that are more positive, inclusive and safe for all ages, there remains a vital need and demand to address concerns around current and potential harms. For this reason, Aura continues to explore new features and capabilities that empower parents with enough information about their children’s online behavior and safety to afford them comfort in allowing their children a level of digital independence.

Tools like Aura can help parents strike that balance, keeping you in the loop without giving your child the impression that you’re hovering or invading their privacy. Aura helps parents block malicious sites, filter out inappropriate content and monitor screen time and signs of identity theft. Kidas, another innovator in kids online safety, integrates into over 220 popular PC games and Discord, using machine learning-powered software to send parents weekly reports on their child’s activity and same day alerts in case of a potentially unsafe situation. Aura and Kidas are collaborating to offer parents easy-to-use, low-maintenance children’s online safety tools that balance a child’s need for independence.

As always, no technology can replace important conversations with your children about practicing online safety. For more information, check out Aura’s The Digital Talk and FOSI’s Good Digital Parenting ToolKit.

Written by

Howard Clabo

Howard Clabo is Chief Brand and Communications Officer at Aura, a mission-driven technology company dedicated to creating a safer and more accessible internet for everyone. As CCO, Howard is responsible for communicating the power of digital wellness to improve consumers' security, while bettering the lives of those most vulnerable to online threats through education, engagement and other forms of support.  

Prior to joining Aura, Howard led communications for Fortune 500 companies including Hewlett-Packard, Applied Materials and FedEx. As SVP, Global Communications at Hewlett-Packard, Howard led communications in support of the largest corporate turnaround in history, the largest corporate separation, creating two $50 billion companies, and the subsequent spin-off and mergers of HPE's Enterprise Services and Software businesses, creating the world's second largest IT services company and sixth  largest software company. Howard is a father of two girls and holds an BA in Political Science from Tulane University.