Keeping kids safe online: 20 tips from a digital dad

We are in a race to keep pace with our digital children who don’t know a pre-internet world. With all the potential risks, how do we guide, protect, instruct and parent?

Digital natives:  Of course kids can’t be monitored 100 per cent of the time; but did parents ever manage that? Photograph: Thinkstock

Digital natives: Of course kids can’t be monitored 100 per cent of the time; but did parents ever manage that? Photograph: Thinkstock


In 1986, the film Short Circuit introduced the possibility that a kid could control a robot and make friends. I recall my delight hearing “Number 5 is alive”: the robot was freed from the big bad corporation and taken home by the child.

The scene was set. I was certain technology would be intelligent and enjoyed soon by ordinary kids like me at home. Little did I know that the number 5 would predict the number of kids I would eventually have, and the number of challenges I would face daily as their digital dad, to keep them safe in a rapidly broadening tech landscape.

In the almost 30 years since Short Circuit I’ve been obsessed with the internet, gadgets and technology as an entrepreneur, academic and now data analyst. But as things get more exciting for young early adopters, they become ever more challenging for parents.

Our generation has its head in the tech sand most of the time. We still see the internet as having an air of mystique, of wealth and geek. We are mostly interested in the money made by digital boffins who invent and build things we don’t understand, while our kids take it for granted, soaking up all they need to know, leaving us far behind.

We are in a race to keep pace with our digital progeny. While our parents just had to worry about their kids offline, today we have to learn skills to monitor and keep our little darlings safe in an abstract, alien, electric world.

I’ve gone from being ahead of the game as an enthusiastic geek and early adopter to playing catch-up. Our children are digital natives, having never experienced a non-digital world. They need social and technical skills to communicate digitally and keep up with their peers, so they absorb new languages and techniques with the ease complete concentration can afford.

The differentiator for children no longer comes from whether or not they are online or have a device – smartphones, tablets, laptops and hotspots are everywhere – but rather, what social network they use or what secret place is the newest must-know space to attend .

Computers are binary, with no grey areas. If your kids know how to log into a site and clear their history, or they have a secret password and you don’t, you’re sunk.

Without that knowledge, it’s like your kids disappearing from home in the real world: you can’t find out where they go, who they meet, what they do, what they say or what is said to them. Most parents wouldn’t even spot if their kid was missing online.

Members-only spaces

The internet is not the message, but is the conduit for other media, such as Twitter, TV and newspapers, and networks like Facebook, Instagram and thousands of other members-only spaces. This is where the messages lie, on these well-known sites and networks and others you’ve never heard of, where just being there is the message kids communicate to their peers.

How do we catch up? How do we guide, protect, instruct and parent? Some techniques here might help parents guide their kids safely in digital spaces as they do in the real world, leaving kids enough space to explore, grow and develop as we did and they should.

For context, my kids are lucky to belong to our local Coderdojo in Dún Laoghaire and are addicted to Minecraft. We are predominantly an Apple household, but also have PCs, laptops, tablet and Android devices.

Coderdojo is testament to the amazing generosity of parents to mentor the next generation: they learn how to write code and programme existing software. So, they are even further ahead of digital dads like me. Online they use Instagram and stay in touch with friends via Skype, Twitter and Facebook. And then there’s Minecraft.

Minecraft is like a computerised Lego, where players create their own three-dimensional simulated world where they mine raw materials, farm, build houses, towns and cities, find jewels, hide treasure, fight creepers and giant spiders, re-spawn and escape arch nemeses.

On the whole it’s a good thing, but it’s more than just a game, and way too big not to be taken seriously. Earth’s area is 500 million square kilometres; Minecraft worlds cover over four billion sq kilometres, or eight earths. It has 100 million players, with almost one million playing at a time. Jack Septiceye, an Irish Minecraft video blogger, has more than 5 million subscribers, with 1.8 billion views.

Minecraft is immersive, but it is also incredibly creative, social and fun. Kids develop understanding of the digital world and how it works through experience, trial and error. It’s a safe space, a playpen for programming, interaction and digital skills. The impetus to make the game work and create a world means computers and computing, programming and the coding required, are a means rather than an end.

Of course kids can’t be monitored 100 per cent of the time; but did parents ever manage that? In the digital world there is far more scope to monitor than when I was young – if you know what you’re doing.

All we can really do is provide imperfect walls, our guidance and education. Most importantly we can provide open conversations for them, with parents who are unshockable, even if we are very shocked indeed, and draw on our own experience with discussion and anecdotes about what it all means, what’s important, what isn’t, what’s safe and where dangers lie.

What steps can you take to help keep your kids safe? These tips for digital parenting are first steps, as the issues you’ll meet as a digital parent are myriad, requiring different approaches and attitudes. You’ll probably need to upskill, or at least talk to someone in the know who’s thinking of the kids and parenting, rather than selling you software or hardware.

1 Open discussions
Don’t be prissy If language or themes are on traditional media, the cat is out of the bag and you might lose respect. Online behaviour and attitudes are polarised, from extremely high moral attitudes and manners where people vie to take the offence at the merest slight, to frightening vice, gore, horror, debauchery and creepiness. But most online content is informative, funny and appropriate, so middling attitudes work best.

That said, clamp down hard on what you feel is inappropriate. Let them know where the line is and what you’d think (and do) if they cross it. There is nothing to be gained by sounding old fashioned and out of touch. Kids need to know that you expect good behaviour.

2 Keep control of the modem
This ends all discussion and debate, so protect it. Taking a digital holiday is also a good idea (for you too!). Limit hours, access and switch off at night. We aim for free-range children and lots of outdoor play when we can – which provides some balance.

3 Confiscate devices when necessary
Even for a few hours. This provides super leverage for the completion of homework, household chores and good manners. But don’t overuse it. Hours quickly become a currency which can lose their effect or result in unrealistic and unuseful periods of confiscation. Kids need tech for homework these days, so it can be like confiscating their schoolbooks.

4 No private passwords
Email? Skype? Whatsapp? Snapchat? If kids are using them, parents must have the passwords. Any secret spaces result in zero use of any device; secret spaces allows them to wander the dangerous digital safari alone.

5 No clearing of histories
To review progeny activity online you need to see it. So, histories must not be cleared and no “private” browsers either. I’ve found reviewing these strangely reassuring, seeing the innocent spaces my kids frequent. I have yet to be shocked. Minecraft videos are a regular, alongside homework and occasionally the pop star du jour.

6 Use devices in public spaces
Open doors, lights on, sitting room or kitchen for the younger ones. No secrecy, no worries.

7 Single login (for Apple households)
Apple single device login and a single iTunes account saves a fortune but also means I know what has been downloaded immediately – and that I can delete it from all devices should the need arise.

8 No private phones
This is a difficult one for tweens I know, but every cheap smartphone is a mini-computer, so the same rules apply as with laptop or tablet. If you permit a private device there is little point in doing anything else for the child’s safety. An occasional audit or discussion is required as they have moved beyond your safety cordon and are at risk.

9 Regular reviews of online activities
It’s great to have rules, but you need audits too, at least weekly. Set yourself a reminder to do a sweep regularly.

10 No devices before homework and study (unless it genuinely includes internet research, which it often does)
Ideally, use of devices should be a reward. If they become the norm, too much screen time can lead to addiction and not enough exercise.

11 Don’t overreact
If you spot something shocking, understand it may have been visited accidentally, may not have been understood – or may have been understood and dismissed by the child as inappropriate. Did I understand the humour I saw when I was a child? I missed loads of hidden meanings but laughed anyway. All kids do.

12 Worrying patterns of behaviour
A pattern rather than a once-off transgression is what could indicate a real problem – regular visits to dodgy spaces or material on purpose. Other signs include hiding surfing tracks, too much time online or mood changes. All are a concern and need to be addressed immediately. At the same time, remember that by the time you spot something, it may have been going on for some time. It’s not easy, so use your best judgment.

13 Watch your hotspots
Apart from the cost, kids will see hotspots available on their devices, and if they know the passwords, they’ll use them. It’s easy to find the passwords too, so make sure you have bluetooth turned off when it’s time to shut down.

14 Listen to what they say
Kids will invariably say what’s on their mind, sometimes by accident. If they are discussing something with siblings or with you which is random, unusual or inappropriate, it may indicate they’re getting information they are struggling to understand, and the internet is likely the culprit. Open your ears and you may pick up something you missed in your most recent online audit.

15 Watch out for several accounts
I have several emails to avoid spam and dodgy marketing. Kids, too, can set up other accounts to avoid prying parental eyes. Not easy to spot, but accounts with no activity for some time, despite recent use of an app or site, may indicate alternative identities which have not been shared.

16 Same rules online as offline
Don’t share private information with strangers. Be civil and friendly. Don’t take part in internet fights with trolls. Don’t say things on the screen you wouldn’t say face to face. Don’t join any mobs.

17 The internet never forgets
If it’s online, assume it’s permanent, but don’t freak kids out. Most communications get lost among a billion other messages, but it’s a good place to start.

18 Let them know what you’re doing and why
Rules should be fair and transparent. If you’re installing security programmes such as CyberSitter or Netnanny, let them know.

19 Boundaries mean freedoms
Once you know they are safe, and they know you know, everyone can relax and have some fun. Trust comes from knowing boundaries are there, so trust will grow too.

20 Practise what you preach
I don’t, but I should. Let them know it’s not easy being a digital dad or mum, but you love them and are on their side and have the same standards. If cutting down on screen time is for them, it’s for everyone. Manners and appropriate behaviour online is for the whole family. Become a one-policy-fits-all family.

After all that I could be perceived as not trusting my kids, which couldn’t be further from the truth. By and large, the kids are okay, if we parents do our job. I realised this last night watching Ferris Bueller‘s Day Off on Netflix on the Apple TV.

I said it was a “must-watch” but couldn’t have guessed at the wriggling delight as they rooted for Ferris to fool his parents and outfox the inept headmaster Ed Rooney. Ferris used a mannequin, pulleys and answer-phone recordings, his home computer – cutting-edge tech at the time – and favours from friends and family, to have the best day ever. And I realised most parents are just like Mr and Mr. Bueller, and I’m cast as Rooney. Somebody has to be the bad guy.

Ferris was only taking a (ninth) day off, while our issues are daily. I try to remember my little Ferrises are the heroes in my book. And, as Ferris puts it: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Emmet Kelly is a blogger, digital researcher and data analyst, and father of five boys