22 Online Safety For Family Tips & Best Practices

Michael Gargiulo - CEO, VPN.com

By: Michael Gargiulo, CEO at VPN.com

Updated: 5:00 PM ET Tue, October 5th 2021

For modern children, Internet usage isn’t a luxury–it’s a requirement for online classes, Zoom events and Facetime chats with family members. Teenagers use the Internet more than ever, and elderly adults go online to connect with their family members. Unfortunately, everyone on the Internet is vulnerable to exploitation. To keep your loved ones safe online, follow this guide to learn about Internet safety for family.

What Are Some Common Online Threats?

Threats are everywhere, and a single misclick could lead to trouble. It’s impossible to keep track of every single online threat, but you can stay on top of the most common issues. Here’s what you and your family members need to watch out for:

  • Cyberbullying. This is most common with children, but it can happen to anyone at any age. Cyberbullying can take the form of harassment, threats and insults through texts and social media. Sometimes, dozens of people will dogpile on the same person. They could also leak personal photos or information to embarrass the target.
  • Viruses and malware. People don’t talk about viruses as much as they did in the 90s, but they still exist. Clicking the wrong link could download a virus or malware onto your computer. You could also get spyware, which spies on your online activities, or ransomware, which steals your information and makes you pay to get it back.
  • Shock content. Online trolls post shock content just to upset people. This could include real-life violence, snuff videos, pornographic content, pictures of dead bodies and other unsettling materials.
  • Extremist content. This often takes the form of groups and websites that encourage increasingly violent and destructive behavior. These groups have a cultlike mentality that might require multiple inventions to get your child to leave.
  • Online scams. Scammers pose as an individual or organization to get your personal information or drain your bank account. Some scams are so believable that they can fool just about anyone.
  • “Catfishes.” A catfish is someone who pretends to be another person online. Some people pretend to be celebrities, while others simply pretend to be anyone but themselves. These people might use fake pictures and personal information to fool their targets.

Tips For Keeping Your Family Safe Online

Even if they seem to be fairly tech-savvy, everyone can benefit from learning about online safety. Kids’ online safety is particularly important because they’re more likely to believe everything that they see on the Internet. However, children, teenagers, adults and elderly relatives all have something to learn about safely browsing the Internet. Start with Internet safety for kids, then use these tips for everyone in your extended family.

Advice For Young Children

1. Use parental controls

We’ve all heard the stories about children racking up thousands of dollars on in-app purchases on their parents’ credit card. However, giving your child free rein over their device isn’t just frustrating–it can actually be dangerous. Your child could view shocking content, talk to people who aren’t family members or give out personal information. If you don’t know who they’re talking to, they could also be victims of cyberbullying.

Fortunately, many devices and apps come with parental controls that give your child a safer experience. Depending on the device, you might be able to prevent in-app purchases, block certain websites, filter out harmful content, restrict their searches and more. You could also limit your child’s in-game actions so they can’t make friends with strangers or send private messages.

Streaming services like YouTube and Netflix frequently have parental controls or “Kids” versions. This makes your child much less likely to stumble on adult content and provides child-friendly content instead. You might also be able to access their viewing history to ensure that they’re watching age-appropriate media.

2. Know the signs of predatory behavior.

Predators often tell your child not to tell anyone about them. As a result, it can be hard to discern if your child is talking to a predator online. Observe how often your child uses the Internet, and take note if they start spending much more time online than usual. Predators often encourage their victims to talk to them at night, claiming that it gives them more privacy. You might also notice that your child appears to be more guarded and reluctant to show you what they’re doing online.

Unexpected phone calls and gifts from strangers in the mail could indicate that your child has an online predator. The situation is particularly suspicious if your child doesn’t want to tell you what’s going on. In a worst-case scenario, they could try to meet up with the individual–even leaving at night so you won’t notice until they’re already gone. Since children often think that someone’s “just being nice,” they don’t realize that the individual is preying on them.

Your child might claim that they’re just talking to family and friends, but pay attention to their online interactions. Review the device history to learn more about the people that your child talks to. You don’t have to read every single text, but look out for unfamiliar names and people who seem to be much older than your child.

3. Encourage them to talk to you.

Most children don’t tell their parents when they’re dealing with an online predator. Even if they feel uncomfortable, they might feel like it’s their job to act “mature” and deal with the issue themselves. Older children in particular assume that they’re old enough to handle sketchy people online. Who wants to run to their parents and “tattle” to Mom or Dad?

When your child starts using the Internet, encourage them to talk to you any time they feel uncomfortable. Point out that they’re not obligated to talk to anyone that pressures them or treats them badly. They don’t even have to talk to people who are nice–if they’re not interested, they don’t owe anyone any interactions. Emphasize the fact that they don’t have to deal with the issue alone. No matter is too small for them to talk about, and you’d rather know about an issue before it becomes a bigger problem.

This also applies to threats smaller than online predators. Encourage your child to ask questions when they use the Internet. Should they open this email? Is this link safe to click on? Does this attachment have a virus? Even the most basic questions aren’t out of bounds. Your child’s safety is much more important than the feeling that they ask too many “stupid” questions.

4. Limit their time online.

Ultimately, the best way to prevent trouble online is to keep your child offline in the first place. However, it’s almost impossible to keep your child offline in today’s world. Even if you limit recreational use, they’ll still need to log on for online classes and school projects. It’s important for your children to learn how to use the Internet because they’ll be using these skills for the rest of their lives.

You might not be able to separate the Internet from your child’s life entirely, but limit their time online. Try not to limit their time too much or make the Internet seem like a scary, horrifying place–that just creates a “forbidden fruit” effect that makes them want to sneak online when you’re not looking. However, you could set aside an hour or two a day when your child is allowed to use the Internet. After that, they need to find a more productive way to spend their time.

As they get older, you could give your child more freedom with the time that they spend online. Just remind them that it’s important to have real experiences and spend time with their friends in person. Social media can be a great way to stay in touch with friends, but they can also lose hours a day to mindless scrolling.

5. Talk to them about cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying can happen to anyone, even teenagers and adults. However, young children are more susceptible to cyberbullying. Sometimes, the bullying comes from people online that they’ve never met in person. Other times, the bullying comes from people that they know at school, which makes it even worse because they can’t just block them and forget about it.

You probably know that it’s not your child’s responsibility to react “correctly” to cyberbullying. However, they can take steps to reduce the effect that it has on their lives. These steps could include the following:

  • Blocking the people that bully them instead of engaging. If your child tries to fight back, it usually gives the bullies even more fuel. They won’t know what to do if your child simply blocks them and ends the cycle.
  • Telling you about the cyberbullying and showing you the messages that they received. An adult could take extra steps like reporting the issue to the school principal. Some parents have even filed lawsuits in extreme cases.
  • Removing these people from social media or not adding them in the first place. Your child doesn’t owe anyone their time or interactions regardless of outside pressures.
  • Keeping a record of the messages–not so they can read them over and over, but so you have proof to bring to the school administration.
  • Limiting the personal information that they share online. Cyberbullies use this information to tease your child about what goes on in their life. In most cases, the best solution is to make their social media accounts private.

These actions might not stop the bullies right away, but they can keep the situation from escalating. From there, you can figure out how to deal with the situation.

6. Make sure they stay focused during their online classes.

An increasing number of children have switched to online classes instead of in-person learning. If you work from home or have other responsibilities, you probably don’t have time to watch your child every second of the day. However, check in periodically to make sure that they’re focused on their studies. Once they’re logged in, your child could easily browse the Internet when you’re not looking. This makes them more susceptible to online threats–partially because no one is supervising them, and partially because they’re probably too young to know what they’re doing.

7. Teach them how to use the Internet in the first place.

You could follow every tip on the list, but if you don’t teach your child how to use the Internet in the first place, they could stumble upon some questionable websites. Start by teaching your child how to connect to the Internet, search for content and find safe websites to browse. When your child has clear instructions on how to use the Internet, they’re more likely to stick to these instructions instead of veer off to another path.

This gives you the perfect opportunity to incorporate online safety into your lesson. If you talk to your child about safety without showing them how to use the Internet, they might feel like you’re giving them a lecture. Making it part of their lesson ingrains it in their minds so they use the Internet safely without even thinking about it.

Advice For Teenagers

1. Remind your child to set boundaries.

In the social media age, many teenagers feel pressured to post pictures of themselves on Instagram. Some teenagers use Instagram to model or show off their talents with the hope of making money on the side. They could gain a large online following and earn sponsorships, but large followings usually have a few predators. Complete strangers could message your child and convince them that they want to be friends, then gradually desensitize them to abusive, predatory behavior.

Many predators start by showering your child with praise and claiming to worship the ground that they walk on. If your child likes the praise, they start talking to the predator and build a relationship. Over time, the predator pushes your child to compromise their boundaries by giving them personal information, agreeing to meet in person or sending them sexually charged images. They might use this information later to blackmail your child.

Be careful not to victim blame–if someone targets your child, it’s never your child’s fault. However, you could talk to your child about setting boundaries and avoiding people that make them uncomfortable. They have no obligation to “be nice” or interact with anyone. Your child can block, report or stop talking to someone any time, and they don’t need to give a reason.

2. Teach your child critical thinking skills.

Teenagers are savvier than young children, but they could still expose themselves to extremist content and dangerous online groups. On a lesser scale, they could expose themselves to false information that negatively impacts their lives. Teach your child how to think critically by asking themselves questions about the media that they consume. They could ask themselves questions like the following:

  • What’s the source for this information?
  • Is this a news report or a post from a personal blog?
  • Does the content insert personal opinions to push an agenda?
  • Did multiple sources post this news, or can you only find it on one website?
  • Have neutral fact-checkers approved this content?
  • Is this real news or just text slapped on top of an image?
  • Does the poster gain something by sharing this content?
  • Who shared this content in the first place?
  • Is the content creator known for having a bias?
  • Did you assume the content is true just because it aligns with your beliefs?
  • Is the content trying to provoke a reaction?

Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in an echo chamber, particularly if most of their friends share the same beliefs. However, learning these skills encourages them to think critically instead of believing everything that they see online.

3. Tell them to limit the personal information that they share.

Social media culture encourages teenagers and young adults to share everything online. Their full name, location, friends, hobbies, jobs, universities and hundreds of pictures of themselves–it all appears on TikTok or Instagram. Some social media influencers make hundreds of dollars each month by gaining a following. As they share modeling, dancing or makeup shots, companies sponsor their work in exchange for product reviews. This encourages influencers to share even more personal information on a more frequent basis.

Even if your child doesn’t want to be an influencer, they feel the pressure to share their entire lives on Instagram. They might not want to listen, but talk to your child about limiting the personal information that they share. People who prey on teenagers and young adults browse social media all day, looking for their next target. Some of these people don’t even fit the stereotype of a predator–they might be close to your child’s age and have similar life experiences. This lulls them into a false sense of safety.

Advise your child to keep their social media private and only allow friends and family members to follow them. If they insist on having a public account, encourage them to stick to the basics and use a private account for more intimate updates. Tell them to monitor who follows their private account so strangers can’t peek into their personal lives.

4. Talk to them about email safety.

Spam emails might be less common than they were in the 90s, but when your child signs up for an email account, they need to learn about email safety. This applies to personal email accounts as well as work and school accounts. If you have a work email address, your employer has probably told you not to click on links from unknown senders.

The same applies to your child. Tell them not to click on links or attachments unless they know who sent the email–the wrong link could unleash a virus on their device. Since some scammers disguise themselves as legitimate businesses or government organizations, show them how to recognize spam mail. For example, the IRS isn’t going to ask them to send money in the form of Amazon gift cards. These tips can help your child recognize scams in other forms like phone calls and text messages.

5. Tell them to limit the information that they share in real life.

Sharing information goes both ways. Your child shouldn’t share too much information online, but they also shouldn’t give away too much information in real life. If they have a trusted friend, they could give them their social media handles or invite them to follow their private account. However, they shouldn’t give out social media information to complete strangers. This might seem like an easy way to gain followers, but it could invite people with bad intentions to learn about their private lives.

For example, your child could go on a first date with someone that they haven’t met before. During the date, they let the individual follow their private social media accounts. Later on, they learn that the individual has a history of stalking other people. This means that they’ve potentially put themselves and their friends at risk.

Your child could still attract stalkers online, but people that they’ve met in person can be even more dangerous–this individual knows that they live in the region and could talk to their friends to learn more about them. For these reasons, your child should never give out social media handles to strangers, especially their private accounts.

6. Remind them to never share their current location online.

When your child goes to an event, restaurant or tourist destination, they might share pictures online to celebrate the good time that they had. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if they’re posting pictures from a region that they don’t live in. Still, your child should never share their current location online. Even if they’re in a crowded area or attending a huge, sold-out concert, they should never post pictures or tag their location until they’ve left the event.

If a stalker sees your child’s current location online, they’ll know exactly where to go. Similarly, if your child shares their location on a regular basis, the stalker might be able to figure out a pattern or determine where your child lives. Worse still, they could learn where your child works or goes to school. Remind your child to avoid posting their location as much as possible–and if they do, don’t post themselves repeatedly going to the same place.

7. Warn them about Internet “rabbit holes.”

Every day, teenagers and adults fall prey to online “rabbit holes” that lead them to a world of extremist content. These groups and websites typically start off with moderate content that seems reasonable. As your child gets involved with the online community, the groups and websites gradually become more extreme until they start advocating hatred and violence. By that point, your child is already indoctrinated in their beliefs. Once your child gets in, it’s incredibly different to get them out.

It’s hard to keep track of what your child does online. However, you might notice changes in their behavior that suggests that they’re part of a toxic community. Your child might voice extremist beliefs or suddenly swing in the opposite direction of what they believed originally. They might take “all or nothing” stances on everything. Worse yet, they might start espousing racist, sexist, homophobic and generally hateful ideals.

Unfortunately, extremist groups often tell their victims that anyone who disagrees or defies them is an enemy who “doesn’t get it.” The best thing you can do is try to prevent this behavior before it starts. Talk to your child about not believing everything that they read and thinking critically about the content that they consume. They should ask themselves if the content appears to be pushing an agenda or has an “all or nothing” standpoint. If the group doesn’t allow anyone to disagree with them, they’ve created a toxic echo chamber.

Additionally, teach your child about the critical thinking skills in tip #2. This could help them avoid falling into the trap of extremist behavior. Plus, they’ll be able to use those skills to analyze real-world news and events.

8. Give them advice about meeting strangers in person.

In the world of online dating, meeting strangers in person is practically inevitable. Your child could also make friends with people and decide one day to meet them in person. This can be a great way to build meaningful connections, but your child’s friend could easily be pretending to be a completely different individual. Give your child these safety tips when they meet an online friend for the first time:

  • Always meet in a public location like a park, cafe or restaurant. Never go straight to the other person’s house.
  • Let other people know that you’re meeting this person, and ask them to text you periodically. If you don’t text back, it could be an indicator that something went wrong.
  • If you follow the person to a second location, make sure it’s still in a public place.
  • Avoid giving the individual personal information that you haven’t already divulged. They might seem trustworthy, but you never know what they could do with this knowledge.
  • Make sure the person sends you multiple pictures of themselves and talks to you on the phone so you know who to look for. If they’re reluctant to do this, don’t meet up with them in person.
  • Use the pictures that they gave you to ensure that you’re interacting with the right person. Don’t engage with them if they lied no matter what they say. Instead, just leave the situation.
  • If possible, ask the other person if you can bring a friend along. It’s not necessarily suspicious if they politely decline, but be wary if they react badly to the idea.
  • Tell them that they can call you any time if they get into an uncomfortable situation. If you’re not available, they should find a friend or another relative who can pick them up.

With these tips in mind, your child can safely interact with their real friends and avoid people who may have been lying to them.

Advice For Infants

1. Don’t share too much information online.

Your newborn won’t be using the Internet, but you will–and online safety is essential even when your child is still in infancy. Some parents post extensive information about their children online and even open social media accounts for them. This might seem like a good way to keep your family updated and create a “scrapbook” that your child can view when they’re older. However, oversharing on the Internet could actually compromise your child’s safety.

When you post pictures of your child on a regular basis, you could be letting strangers know that you have an infant in your house. You’re also showing them what the child looks like, giving them your child’s full name, sharing information about your location, telling them where your child goes to school and giving them even more sensitive data if you’re not careful. Plenty of predators could use this knowledge to target your child or another family member.

On a less serious note, you could embarrass your child later in life. When they’re old enough to understand social media, they might be humiliated because you shared embarrassing stories and pictures on the Internet. It might not seem important to you, but it matters to them. Plus, this could give cyberbullies more fuel for their taunts.

You can share occasional pictures or updates, but limit your posts about your infant child. At most, share a few pictures on a private account. Never post pictures of your child’s face or reveal their name on a public account, especially if you have a lot of followers.

2. Take advantage of temporary post features.

Many social media accounts like Facebook and Instagram allow you to share “stories”: posts that disappear in 24 hours. You could use this feature to share pictures and updates without having a permanent record of your infant online. Keep in mind that it’s not foolproof–predators can still screenshot your stories and keep them on their hard drive. For this reason, you should stick to sharing stories on private accounts and limit their use on public accounts.

However, you can use stories to share quick updates that won’t remain on your account permanently. This could also keep your child from being embarrassed later in life since people (ideally) won’t be able to look up the pictures later. Just avoid sharing sensitive data in your posts.

3. Never share your current location.

This advice applies to teenagers and young adults, but it also applies to parents. It might seem unthinkable, but baby kidnappers exist–and they’ll have even more of a chance if they know exactly where you are. Many kidnappings are spur-of-the-moment decisions, but there’s no need to increase the risk by giving someone the opportunity to follow you and the baby around.

Advice For Elderly Adults

1. Remind them to use strong passwords.

Elderly adults tend to use the Internet for more “adult” activities like sending emails, saving family photos, keeping in touch with friends and accessing their bank accounts. Since they didn’t grow up using the Internet, they’re not as tech-savvy as younger adults. They might not be aware of hackers and other malicious activities. As a result, they use weak passwords that could give someone access to every account that they have.

Remind the elderly adults in your lives to use strong passwords that are difficult to guess. They also need to use a different password for every account so that if one account gets compromised, they won’t lose access to the others. Strong passwords are especially important for bank accounts that contain vital information.

2. Educate them about online scams.

Elderly adults can have trouble separating fact from fiction on the Internet. If they haven’t used the Internet very long, they might not realize that people can easily lie or pretend to be someone else. As a result, they’re more susceptible to online scams. For example, if someone sends them an email asking them to wire them money, they might actually think that the scammer needs their money.

Talk to the elderly adults in your lives about online scams that prey on people who don’t know better. These scams could include:

  • Scammers pretending to be authorities from the IRS or another government agency claiming that the target owes them money.
  • Fake login pages that scammers use to steal usernames and passwords.
  • Suspicious links that lead to sketchy websites or ransomware attacks that force the target to pay money to get their information back.
  • Fake marketplaces that steal the target’s credit card information, then disappear.
  • Shady job offers that require a large up-front investment, often with the promise of working from home and “setting your own schedule.”
  • Scammers pretending to be friends, family members or even complete strangers asking for money.
  • Emails claiming that the target won a prize or received a refund and need to enter personal information to claim it.

Tell your relative to talk to you if they’re unsure about an email or message. You can review the message and advise them on how to proceed.

3. Talk to them about phone scams.

Smartphones have made phone scams more common than ever. Sometimes, they take the form of calls or messages that tell your relative that they’ve won a prize, received a refund, ordered a package or taken out a personal loan. Before they respond or click on any links, tell your relative to ask themselves if they’ve taken any actions that would result in these messages. For example, if they haven’t ordered a package recently, the message is probably fake.

Many scams take the form of text messages with links attached. They make similar promises as regular phone scams. Tell your relative to never click links in attachments from an unknown number. These scams often misspell the target’s name or get other information wrong, which is another red flag. Additionally, point out that major organizations like the IRS will never contact your relative through text messages.

Note that your loved one’s identity might have been compromised, leading to mysterious calls about purchases and personal loans. Follow up on this to see if there’s an actual reason behind the calls and text messages. It’s not always a scam–some people might genuinely think that your loved one made those financial decisions.

4. Install a firewall on their device.

Elderly people can easily stumble upon viruses, malware and spyware without realizing it. Install a firewall on their device that can prevent malware attacks and quarantine viruses that might come in contact with their system. Firewalls can also perform routine scams to ensure that everything is working properly. Plus, some firewalls offer safety tips, webcam protection, data “shredding,” virus alerts and other tools that help your loved one stay safe online.

You can try out free versions of firewalls by downloading them online. However, most firewalls require a subscription to activate the rest of the features. This might seem like an extra expense, but it could be worth the cost if it keeps your loved one safe. A bad virus might force you to take their device to the repair shop anyway, which could easily cost hundreds of dollars.

The Final Word

Anyone can fall prey to online dangers–including you. However, children, teenagers and elderly adults are more likely to encounter dangers online. They don’t have enough experience to avoid scams, shady characters and questionable content. A single mistake could expose your child to online bullying or cause an elderly parent to lose everything in their bank account. Younger generations are more tech-savvy than ever, but they still need advice to keep them safe on social media.

Fortunately, it’s never too early to instill safe Internet practices in your family members. When you teach them how to be safe from the beginning, you might not have to clean up their messes later. Make sure to model the same behavior when you use the Internet so your family knows that you’re committed to Internet safety. Use these tips to keep your family safe, and you’ll enjoy the benefits of using the Internet with minimal drawbacks.

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