How to Talk to Your Child About Internet Safety and Cybersecurity: A Parent's Guide

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

When talking to your child about internet safety, knowing where to begin is tough.

Children of all ages are now spending an increasing amount of time online. In the U.S, children ages 8-12 spend 4-6 hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend about 9 hours a day, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

In an age of social media, mobile games, and even online schoolwork, it’s more crucial than ever to have a structured approach to internet safety for your family.


Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Internet Safety

When it comes to having a conversation about internet safety, here are some ways you can make sure it’s a productive conversation that sets the stage for privacy and security.


Equip Yourself

Before you can talk to your kids about internet safety, you need to learn the basics of web threats, phishing, social networking, and other online dangers, and how to stay safe online. You should familiarize yourself with the many different areas of internet safety before talking to your kids about it.


For example, you should learn about privacy and security settings so that you can teach your child how to configure them properly across online games, apps, and platforms. Knowing to restrict some features at the start, such as location tracking, will be helpful in the long run.


Get Started Early

If your child is using a computer or a tablet, that means it’s already time to start a conversation with them on the dangers they might face and not understand. And, if they’ve been online for years, it’s never too late to start the conversation.


Stay Engaged

Since it will take a while to effectively practice internet safety, having regular conversations will help your child build a solid foundation. Also, technology changes quickly, so stay up to date on ways to manage privacy. Discuss what you’ve learned with your family so you can all share what you know about privacy.


Be Honest

Being open with your kids about the threats they face online can ensure that they take internet safety seriously. The Federal Trade Commission recommends familiarizing your kids with the following types of risks:

  • Inappropriate conduct: While the internet may feel anonymous, you must remind your kids that they will still be held accountable for their actions.
  • Inappropriate contact: People online may have bad intentions, including bullies, predators, hackers, and scammers.
  • Inappropriate content: People post harmful content on the internet, including violence, hate speech, and pornography.


Listen to Their Perspective

When you have conversations, make sure you’re open to your kid’s feelings and listen to what they have to say. If you can’t answer all their questions, be honest and find a solution together. And, if they want to buy a new app or participate in a challenge, do the research together so that they can see the risks for themselves. Ask questions like “What is the app supposed to do?” and “What could happen if we do something in the wrong way?” to determine if your child is ready to engage responsibly.


Encourage Them to Be Skeptical

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. However, misinformation is widespread on the internet and can look very legitimate. Show your child how to find reputable websites and encourage them to think critically online.

A mother teaching her child about internet safety and cybersecurity.

Use Analogies

Understanding the abstract concepts of computer viruses and password sharing can be challenging. Instead, explain the importance of cybersecurity through analogies. For example, you can explain that giving someone the password to your Instagram account is like giving them a key to your home. Allowing an app to track your location is like allowing someone to follow you around in a car. Talking to a stranger online can be just as dangerous as talking to a stranger in public. Tying digital activities to real-world situations can help children understand the seriousness of digital privacy and security.


Establish Some Ground Rules

Involve your child in creating the rules around internet safety. This establishes trust and helps them take better ownership of their safety online. Adjust as necessary so that the rules are relevant to your child’s age as well as the technological environment. Being flexible and staying realistic can help keep the conversation productive. For example, instead of limiting screen time, which may be difficult for teens who need the internet for homework, consider creating guidelines about using the internet for specific purposes.


Balance Rules With Independence

Your child needs some freedom and privacy regarding internet safety so they can learn and become responsible digital citizens. So, along with being honest and understanding when having conversations, you should empower them to do their own research and report inappropriate behavior.


Be a Good Role Model

Children learn from their parents. So, if you set rules, such as no screen time during dinner, make sure you follow the rules yourself. Then, your child will emulate your behavior and understand the importance of following those rules.


Internet Safety Tips to Share With Your Children

These best practices can help the whole family stay safe online.


Password Security

Make sure everyone in the family is changing their passwords frequently and that their passwords are not easy to guess or predictable, such as “1234” or a birthday. Instead, create strong passwords that are different across accounts.


Personal Information

Everyone in the family should avoid sharing personal information. The more personal information is shared, the easier it is for someone to hack into your accounts, steal your identity, access your data, or commit other crimes like stalking. The National Cybersecurity Alliance recommends telling your kids that personal information has value, like money, so they must be selective about the information they share with apps and websites.


In general, you should tell your children not to post images or messages identifying locations or addresses. For example, before posting a photo or video online, your child should make sure there aren’t any personal details in the post, such as where they live, go to school, or hang out.

A mother teacher her daughter about cybersecurity.

Don’t Talk to Strangers

While this is a general safety tip for kids in the real world, it also applies to online behavior. Warn your child that they should be suspicious about receiving messages from strangers.


When in Doubt, Don’t Click on It

Tell your children that emails and texts with random links or attachments can be harmful to their devices, so they shouldn’t click on anything from an unknown source.


Practice the Golden Rule

When posting and interacting with other people online, instruct your child to treat others how they would like to be treated. Remind them that what you post online stays online, and they should think twice before posting anything that they wouldn’t want you or future employers to see.


Use Secure Wi-Fi

Hotspots and public wireless networks aren’t secure. When your child logs onto that coffee shop’s free Wi-Fi, there’s a chance that anyone can see what they are doing on their laptop or smartphone while connected to it. If anyone in your family uses public Wi-Fi frequently, you should consider using a virtual private network (VPN), which provides a more secure Wi-Fi connection.


Use Parental Controls and Antivirus Software

Parental controls are usually built into devices and apps, allowing parents to configure their child’s online experience with certain limits or preferences. They typically can restrict content, turn off in-app purchasing, limit screen time or website access, send or receive content with approved contacts online, and enhance user privacy.


You can also install security or antivirus software on your computers to prevent spyware or viruses.


Update Your Software Regularly

On all the computers, smartwatches, cellphones, and tablets your family uses, updating the operating systems regularly so that you have the most up-to-date security fixes is an easy way to help everyone stay safe online. Having updates install automatically can make your devices less vulnerable to attacks.


Build a Family Foundation of Cybersecurity

As a parent, your goal shouldn’t be to micromanage everything your child does online. That would be impossible. Instead, you can provide your child with the knowledge and tools they need to stay safe online. USF’s Cybersecurity Course for 7th-12th Grade Students delivers vital cybersecurity concepts in an engaging format designed for students and their families. You and your child will learn critical cyber hygiene practices, from how to create stronger passwords to identifying malware.


Learn More