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Keeping your kids safe online in the age of COVID: Usable tips for parents

April 20, 2020

10 Minute Read

As a parent, I’m concerned.

Not only am I worried about my family’s health in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, but I’m figuring out how to run a school out of my dining room, learning how to work with my spouse a few feet away from me at all times, and my cat needs ear drops twice a day.

Since I work at Thorn, I’m also acutely aware of the fact that children are spending way more time online—at least 50% more time on screens for ages 6-12—and now I’m hearing about Zoombombing, where nefarious users hack into Zoom sessions, including elementary school lessons, to share abusive content. I’m not used to hearing about child safety from the news — I usually hear it from my team first. But these days, we’re all in this together.

I know I need to have some really important and difficult conversations with my child about staying safe online right now. Parenting a child with both special needs and a proclivity for technology, I’m constantly striving to balance keeping their digital experience safe while adjusting to a sudden increase in our reliance on technology as a family.

I recognize that I sit in a privileged position in the grand scheme of things, being able to continue working remotely on a mission that I care deeply about. But regardless of where we are in the world or what our daily lives look like right now, parents the world over are facing the same dilemma as me: how do I keep my child safe online — not only right now, but in a future that is based in technology?

My colleagues at Thorn, and our partners in the child-safety community, have been developing and sharing resources that make both my day-to-day parental duties and those tough conversations a little less intimidating.

My hope is that these tips are approachable, pragmatic, and helpful, and in no way act as a source of stress for caregivers that already have a lot to balance.

Here’s how to start thinking about, talking about, and addressing online child safety with your kids in the age of COVID-19:

Ask your kids to teach you about their favorite apps

Cropped image of father and son in casual clothes using smartphones and smiling while sitting on couch at homeAdobe//georgerudy

For children that have their own devices, this is the perfect time to ask about the apps and games they use the most. But don’t stop there: take it a step further and let your kids actually show you how to download and use their favorite apps and games.

By letting your child become the teacher, it gives you a chance to hear directly from them how, when, and why they use these apps. You are invited into their world and see it through their eyes. And most importantly, you’ll see how the games work, where it’s easy to meet new people, which behaviors are risky and which aren’t, so you can help your child navigate their digital world.

This is critical information that takes guesswork out of the equation and also reveals where safety issues might arise. Now when you have conversations with your kids about online safety, you’ll be able to speak their language.

Participate in online trends with your kids

You’ve heard of TikTok, but have you completed the latest viral challenge?

Ask your kids about the viral challenges they’re seeing on TikTok and which one you can do together. That might mean acting a bit silly or feeling a little awkward at first, but it’s both great bonding time and an opportunity to learn more about the platform.

Again, let your kids lead the way here. It’s a chance for them to teach you something, which they don’t often get to do, and a fun way to spend time together while still allowing the kids to interact with technology.

Talk to your kids about sharing content

Times have changed, and just as many adults share suggestive pictures with their partners, sexting is also more common among youth. One recent survey found that as many as 40% of kids are exposed to a sext by the age of 14.

That means content sharing of nude or partially nude images isn’t just an issue that applies to teenagers, but something any child interacting with a device should be aware of.

As a parent, I know just how uncomfortable and awkward this conversation can be. Thankfully, has some excellent resources for caregivers on how to start the conversation. There’s also important information on what to do if your child has had an image of themself shared beyond the intended recipient without their consent, and the next steps to take.

Check out the Stop Sextortion site for more ideas to explain the risks of self-generated content.

Know the words “sextortion” and “grooming”

We’ll go into these in more depth in future posts, but sextortion and grooming are two important risks for you to know when keeping kids safe online.

Grooming refers to the tactics used by online predators to convince or coerce children into making and sharing sexually exploitative content. Grooming can take a variety of forms, but hinges on creating trust and leveraging vulnerabilities.

Sextortion refers to the coercion that can happen after that content is produced. For example, through grooming a child may be convinced to share a nude, partially nude, or sexually suggestive image of themself, which predators then use as leverage to coerce a child into further sexual exploitation. This could take the form of a predator pretending to be a child’s peer through text chat, gaining their trust and coercing them to share an image. Once that one image is shared, predators use it as leverage to coerce them into sharing more.

One easy way to get the conversation started? Tell younger kids that if they ever receive a message or interaction from someone they don’t know on any platform, from video games to social media or texts, to never respond and come straight to you.

We’re looking forward to diving into these topics and sharing directly from our team of experts over the coming months. Subscribe to our emails below and follow us on social media to be the first to see our future deep dives on these topics.

Become your kids’ safety net

kids in front of ipadAdobe// ulza

For older children in particular, but young ones as well, make sure they know you’re a safe person to come to, even if the thought of them sharing content makes you feel afraid or frustrated.

I think of how my parents always told us that if we were ever in a situation where people were drinking and we needed a ride home, to call them and they would pick us up no questions asked. This message was coupled with frank conversations about the risks of drinking, and about my parents expectations that I not be drinking, but I felt safe enough to ask for help when I needed it. I trusted that I had a safety net.

Make sure your kids know you’re a safety net. And also make sure they’re aware of resources like the Crisis Text Line, where kids can go if they don’t feel comfortable approaching adults.

Make sure classroom video meetings (and peer video chats) are secure

Schools are doing an exceptional job pivoting to remote learning, but with so much going on it can be easy to miss some key steps in keeping everything secure. And some companies have been caught off guard by the massive increase in users which have in turn exposed security flaws.

You can help by keeping an eye out for some basic security practices:

  • Ensure video chats are always private, and when possible, password protected.
  • Never reuse the same meeting ID or password.
  • Send video conference links just before the meeting starts.
  • Don’t share meeting links outside of private messages (like emails or texts, and make sure your email password and that of whoever you’re sending to is secure).
  • Designate someone to be the meeting supervisor, who will manage participants and watch for uninvited guests. For most conferencing apps this will default to whoever set up the meeting.
  • Ensure everyone has installed the most up-to-date version of the app. Zoom, for example, has recently been adding new security features every few days.

Make sure schools and your kids are using these basic security protocols for video chats—and talk to them if you find they aren’t. We’re all in this together, and shared knowledge can make the whole community safer.

Report abuse content and sextortion—and never share it

No matter where, when, or how it happens, if you or your kids come across CSAM, report it. If you’re not sure what constitutes CSAM, it is legally defined as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (a person less than 18 years old). This can include images, video, audio, and any other content type.

You should report it to whichever platform you find it on, and be sure to also report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC is the clearinghouse for all reports of CSAM, but they also field reports from online platforms. Cover all your bases in this case.

And remember: never share abuse content, even if you’re trying to report it. It’s actually illegal, no matter your intentions, and can keep the cycle of abuse going.

Use existing resources

  • NCMEC’s Netsmartz cartoon is a great way for young children to learn about staying safe online while also being entertained.
  • The Zero Abuse Project has compiled 25 tips for responding to child abuse during a pandemic.
  • Child Rescue Coalition has some additional tips for keeping Zoom meetings safe.
  • The Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children has compiled useful, evidence-based resources for positive parenting during a pandemic.
  • Common Sense Media can help to provide guidance for parents on apps, games, and websites.
  • The Family Online Safety Institute has developed resources for digital parenting.
  • And if anxiety is high and you or your kids just need to talk to someone, you can contact the Crisis Text Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As a remote organization, they are well equipped to connect you or your kids to resources, whether they need help with a potentially abusive situation or just feel anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Start the conversation wherever you’re most comfortable – but start it

Portrait of family taking a selfie together with mobile phone at home. Family and lifestyle concept.Adobe//Mego-studio

Online safety is an ongoing conversation that will likely change and grow as quickly as your kids. It’s not always easy to broach these topics, but starting wherever you are most comfortable and taking it in steps can help.

These conversations can happen more organically if you’re spending time with them on the apps they use and showing interest in learning about the virtual world in which all of our children are growing up.

Importantly, one instance in which you should react immediately is if you discover CSAM content or find that your child’s images have been shared without their consent. Reporting content as quickly as possible can help mitigate long-term harm. For more info on getting content removed, check out NCMEC’s guide.

The new normal

Parenting is really different today than it was a few months ago, and it’s going to be that way for a significant amount of time. We’re not always going to have all the answers, and just being here and learning more is a great first step.

We’re all in this together, and together we will be able to best defend our children from online sexual abuse. You are not only a part of a global ecosystem of parents and caregivers, but a community of people dedicated to eliminating child sexual abuse from the internet, which Thorn and our partners work toward every single day.

No matter what you’re doing, or how you’re doing it, thank you for being a defender of happiness and being willing to learn more.

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