The State of Online Safety for Kids

There’s no doubt that the resources of our digital age are valuable. They provide us with new development opportunities and help us to build meaningful connections with a diverse range of global communities. The past couple of decades have seen our adoption of tech grow, and as such we are seeing the first generations of digital natives. Kids are surrounded by technology from an early age and are more comfortable with its use. They continue to use it in creative ways, not least of which is organizing themselves for ecological and political activism.

That’s not to say that there aren’t significant challenges. We have become cognizant of the various dangers the online environment presents. We must do what we can to protect children from the potential for harm. But we also need to go further; preparing them to be aware of the issues, and giving them tools to navigate the more treacherous waters.

Restricting Content

Particularly when it comes to younger children, there’s a need to reduce the risk of exposure to harmful or unsuitable content. There are certain regulations and legislation in place designed to protect them. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has been in place since April 2000 and requires operators of websites aimed at children to obtain parental consent for those under the age of 13. But, let’s face it, it can be too easy for kids to wander off into areas not designed for them, and potentially interact with those who don’t have their best interests in mind. This is where technology can be utilized to provide a safety net.

As so much of kids’ internet use today is via mobile devices, developers have created apps that keep them safe both on the home computer and using their phone or tablet. For the most part, these apps allow parents to set filters on the type of content that’s accessible from the device. They’ve also become more nuanced in recent years, allowing parents to select the types of content to restrict, rather than completely blocking social media platforms. They also include functions that limit the amount of time children spend online. Some, including Net Nanny and Norton Family, go further than this and use the GPS tracking on the device to let your kids’ location at any given time.

That said, using location tracking and restrictions can certainly feel like an overreach. After all, our kids are learning, and we want to encourage their curiosity. We want to help them use the tools of our digital age to explore. Therefore it can be equally useful today to empower kids to prepare their devices in ways that keep them safe from potential harm. Have them turn off geolocation on apps that advertise where they are. Keep SafeSearch filters on when using Google.

Protection from Predators

Predators abusing our children is among any parents’ worst nightmares. There is relatively little specific legislation or regulation that is designed explicitly to ensure children aren’t exposed to potential abusers. Rather, agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have invested in providing parents with guidance to prevent them from coming into contact with danger. The Safe Online Surfing Program is designed to educate kids from grades 3 to 8 and helps to teach them to recognize and report threats.

Schools are already awash with measures intended to keep children safe through various scenarios — and with varying efficacy. Information Technology (IT) personnel in public schools are in place to effect often heavy-handed measures including firewalls to ensure students don’t access websites that are verboten. However, this ignores the kids’ own devices. This is why it is so important for parents to take responsibility for having open conversations with kids about the risks they face.

We must also address the full range of abusive behavior. Perhaps chief among these for kids is the threat of cyberbullying. Data suggests that around 36% of children have been bullied online. There are also varying levels of bullying that affect different age groups. While schools often have policies in place to discipline abusers, educators and parents need to work together to help kids to recognize how bullying behavior manifests and harms. This is key not just as a way for kids to protect themselves, but also to understand how their own actions may be destructive.

Developing Habits

What has become clear is that online safety for kids in our current environment should not be reliant upon legislation or heavy-handed regulation. These should be tools to support their activities, rather than to restrict their movements. A far more practical and sustainable approach is putting effort into giving kids the knowledge and skills they need to develop safer online habits.

The COVID-19 pandemic actually provides us with a tool through which to do this. Remote schooling is likely to be a feature of our landscape for some time, and as such, provides opportunities for parents and teachers to give guidance on their usage. Taking them to a cafe or library to do some of their schooling provides opportunities to show them how to work while on public networks. Explain how to recognize unencrypted sites, and how sharing private information via these sources can be accessed by unscrupulous users.

Perhaps the most important online safety habit to instill in kids today is a culture of openness. If kids feel their internet activities need to be kept secret, or that they’ll be punished for exploring, this can make it more difficult for them to speak up when they face problems from abusers or cyberbullies. Parents and educators should aim to be open about their own internet use, and their mistakes. We have to be honest about just how challenging the online world can be, and how we work together to make it better.


Kids are using the internet more than at any other time in its history. As a result, parents and educators need to be cognizant of the tools and resources that are in place to help keep kids safe. However, we must remember that it’s more effective and practical to empower kids with the knowledge to also keep themselves safe.

Beau Peters is a freelance writer based out of Portland, OR. He has a particular interest in covering workers' rights, social justice, and workplace issues and solutions. Read other articles by Beau.