As a parent in the 21st century it is getting increasingly difficult to keep your children safe online.
They want to have access to all the latest games, movies and TV shows their “friends are all watching”. Many parents like the idea of their child having a mobile phone, should they ever get stuck somewhere or need to call you for help.
But every device comes with risk. You’re effectively connecting your child to the world wide web – and giving potential ‘bad actors’ direct access to your child too.
So how do you keep them connected but also safe?
With three kids of our own, we’ve done lots of research, reading and trial and error in this area so thought we’d share the benefit of our experience.
Location, location, location
One of the first things to think about is: Where do your kids go online?
Do they have a laptop or computer in their room? Are they allowed time alone playing on their phone? Even many console games these days have live connections to the web and ‘chat’ functions for them to chat (usually innocently) with other players or collaborate in games etc.
Our advice on this: keep it public.
If the console or computer is tucked into the corner of a ‘public’ room (like the lounge or dining room) – or somewhere you, as a parent/guardian, could legitimately walk past at any moment – it can change the dynamic of how your kids will use it.
Even a passing sibling can help kids keep in mind how they’re using the device, who they’re talking to and what they’re saying.
Yes, kids need their privacy too and balancing privacy and safety is one of the most difficult parts as a parent so find a good balance for you and your child(ren).
‘Fire for Kids’
One of our favourite ways for our kids to have ‘device time’ is on the Kindle with Amazon Kids+ (formerly known as ‘Fire for Kids’) which we got for them.
The devices start from around £99 – with higher prices for larger screen sizes:
There are good deals available if you want more than one tablet (ours share one device between them. As we tell them: “We’re not made of money!”).
Pro tip: the device + headphones packages are well-worth it. If you thought the Peppa Pig theme tune was annoying before… wait until you hear it 30 times an hour via games and apps!
There are some great perks too – like the two year no quibble guarantee. They come with a chunky rubber ‘bumper’ to protect them but even if your kids drop it in the toilet, during that first two years Amazon will replace it for you no questions asked.
Handy, if you have clumsy kids!
Back on the topic of safety
Why ‘Fire for Kids’ is great for kids online safety
- It’s populated with pre-checked, age appropriate content
- Each child can have their own log-in – so you can set age and usage limits for each child individually
- You can set ‘educational’ targets – effectively “The games only unlock once you’ve done 15 minutes of reading” etc.
- You can download content for them to watch later e.g to entertain the kids on long car journeys
Our kids love using it and it helps teach them responsibility too. It’s ‘their’ device, so they’d better look after it (we didn’t tell them about the two year guarantee!).
You can also set time limits and vary them by day – giving say 1 hour of playing time on a weekday and longer at weekends etc. The device gives them time warnings (10 minutes left, 5 minutes etc.) and then it just shuts off with an “All done for today!” message.
Honestly, this bit is a God send. The number of arguments we have with the kids over TV or games consoles etc. The “Just two more minutes!” or pleas for “Just let me finish this level!” can go on forever but with the Fire it’s just off. It wasn’t big bad Mummy/Daddy taking it away – it’s just off, that’s the way it is.
Character search (and get a free trial)
Another great feature is the search. Kids can search for particular shows or games their friends recommend but they can also search by ‘character’. So if your kids are devoted fans of Paw Patrol or Thomas the Tank Engine or whatever – they can search by that character and all the games, TV shows, videos, books and more related to that character will pop-up for them to choose from.
There are handy overrides too – so if there’s something you think is OK for your kids but isn’t available to them in their pre-set age bracket, you can download it on your log-in and make it available to them.
Already got a Kindle? You can activate ‘Kids+’ on that to give it a go: get a free 1 month trial with our promo link to try it for yourself.
Google family Link
Our older child recently got his first mobile phone. I say “got” we gave it to him.
He spends more time on his own now and sometimes walks back from a friend’s house or clubs/sports teams by himself, so it felt like a good time for him.
Like most parents we worried this would completely destroy his appetite for almost anything else but – thus far – it hasn’t (check out our post on encouraging kids to read if you’re struggling in this area).
After a lot of research we decided to install Google’s Family Link.
This, effectively, pairs his device with mine and from there you can lock down (or open up) certain functions, apps or other areas as you see fit.
Why we like Google Family Link
- It allows us to see what he’s using his phone for
- We can approve or reject any new apps he wants to download
- We can find his phone if he ever loses it
- We can set daily time limits
- We can set hours during which it won’t work (e.g. very early or very late at night)
- We can also lock the device remotely.
For us it was more about the ‘idea’ of having those things. There’s no real replacement for teaching kids responsibility but also him knowing we can see these things helps to keep him focused and have that thought of “Would I want my parents to see this?” and to question himself: “If not, why not? Should I be doing it?”
Broadband provider’s Parental controls
Beyond devices – most broadband providers (certainly those in the UK) have some in-built parental controls and or family safety settings.
Like lots of people in Britain we’re with British Telecom. You can find out more about BT’s parental controls here or Virgin Media’s here. If you’re with another provider, let us know in the comments at the end of this post and we’ll research their parental controls for you too!
Many of these will depend on your home broadband set-up but for many of them you can vary the controls by device or log-in, so if the grown-ups want to watch scary movies or… other content, you can and provided you keep your log-in details secret from your kids, they’ll have a quite different experience and access.
Netflix, Amazon Prime – parental controls
Streaming services like Netflix also have family settings and log-in controls, so they’re also worth checking out if your kids have unfettered (or just under-supervised (and who can be everywhere at once, eh parents?)) access to TVs and screens.
Most games or apps have a PEGI rating in the app stores.
Whilst these are a good ballpark guide, in our experience they’re not all that helpful.
Always check-out a game or app yourself. Often a Google search for “Is [x game] safe for kids?” will bring back some answers to key questions you may have.
Some games with a low PEGI age rating are, in our opinion, really quite violent or gory but – seemingly – OK for quite young kids to play. It’s quite a sobering moment when you hear your little cherubs yelling “Yeah! Kill him! KILL HIM!” at the top of their lungs!
Most app stores will have details about the game too. A key one is ‘chat functionality’. Depending on your child you may not want them chatting to other, unknown players in games they’re playing so it’s worth checking if games you’re happy with them playing also have chat functionality.
That’s why we like Google Family Link (above) as it allows us to check any apps before they’re installed and see their PEGI rating and what functions the game has.
Teach good habits
At the end of the day there is only so much settings, security and parent modes can help protect your kids.
What will really help keep them safe is awareness, responsibility and understanding. And knowing that, if they have a problem, they can talk to you about it (without fear of getting in loads of trouble or losing access to their games etc.).
As adults we can often forget how plain naïve kids can be. They see a pop-up banner that says they’ve won a competition and… they believe it!
We’ve all seen how convincing some internet scams can be and how easily seemingly smart people are duped.
Now wipe away the couple of decades of cynicism and scepticism you’ve built up and imagine yourself as a ten-year-old who sees something pop up on their phone, which knows which city/town they’re in and tells them they’ve won that much sought after game!
Are they going to tap on the “Claim your prize!” button?
You bet they are!
We need to talk to our kids about this sort of stuff. The “If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not true.” and, if it might be and they’re not sure, to come and talk to you.
Using an Online persona
They need to understand the difference between real friends and online friends.
That’s not to invalidate online friends – lots of people meet friends for life online, even life partners – but just as with real-time friends there are things to consider and motivations to question.
Often a good visual analogy can help. Hang a towel between you – just from your hands is fine (or sit each side of an closed door) and talk. Change your voices, do squeaky and silly or deep and daft etc.
Now explain how a screen can be like that too. How people can and do pretend to be other people online. Sometimes innocently, sometimes not so much.
Help them understand that no-one online needs to know personal information about them – like their name or loved one’s name, even their pet. No-one needs to know where they live, even to the city. And details like which school they go to should be kept secret.
You can help them conjure an online persona of their own if they like. Our eldest chose to be ‘Dave’ online (no, we’re not sure why either!) but that helps him to remember that ‘Dave’ doesn’t tell people where he lives, how old he is or what school he goes to. ‘Dave’ is just a ninja today, or an army chief or centre-forward for FC Barcelona etc.
Most schools teach basic internet safety too these days, so it’s worth checking with your kids school about advice they may have and what they’re teaching your kids. Often the schools are more ahead on these things than lots of parents.
Model good behaviour
Lastly, though this bit is often the hardest: try to show what good behaviour looks like.
Model how to use your phone or device. And when.
If you have a “not at the dinner table” rule for phones or tablets, that needs to apply to the grown-ups too.
Try to enforce some non-screen time before bed. Yes there are blue-light and ‘night modes’ which are supposed to dampen the stimulus effect which can wreck sleep patterns and again, try to model this yourself.
We all justify it to ourselves (‘I’m working, not playing’ or ‘It’s different for me – I’m responsible’) – but kids don’t see what you’re doing, they just see you doing it.
There’s loads more reading you can do in this area.
The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) has some great advice around online safety and the BBC’s iWonder pages have some thought-provoking ideas and links to further reading too.
There are lots of books you can read to help educate yourself on this too – some recommended ones below.
Some of them you can read with your kids – cautionary tales to help them understand some of these topics (like online trolls) and some to help you, as a parent make the right call for you and your family.
Last update on 2021-09-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API