School has started, but not all kids are back in their classrooms. Some districts have allowed students and their parents to choose between online school or in-person learning, and Salt Lake School District is still online only due to COVID-19 concerns. Regardless of your family’s situation, kids will be online and now is a good time to make sure that they are practicing safe online habits, because we know that scammers always try to exploit new situations. Don’t let your children be the entry point for scams and other malicious schemes that could affect them and your entire family.

If you’ve let your kids have relative freedom when it comes to their tech devices, you might start by explaining that you must work together to make sure they are safe online. New rules are not a reflection of mistrust, but a way to safeguard your family and build good lifelong habits. The key to success is consistent communication that flows both ways, along with teaching the fundamentals of online safety. Establish a time each day to review sites visited, social media posts and usage, along with any new services either of you have come across that might be useful for homework and hobbies.

The idea is to teach kids how to identify the common signs that indicate something is just not right, whether that’s within an email, a text, a post on social media or a suspicious website. The basics are really quite simple and are variations on a theme: Don’t talk to strangers. Strangers are not just people, but also links and unfamiliar websites. Kids should be taught to never hand over personally identifying information without asking a parent first. It’s easy to be tempted by a free offer or contest, but if it sounds too good to be true, it’s likely bad.

There are many tools you can put into place to automate some of these protective measures, but I don’t recommend strict parental controls. Why? Because you are missing out on great teaching opportunities, and when you’re not around, your kids won’t have the training to make good decisions for themselves. Instead, look for tools that will assist in their learning, protect them from much of the very worst stuff out there, and keep computer use in an open setting like the kitchen or family room.

Start by turning on safe browsing on both laptops and phones. For Google Chrome users, go to your settings and select Privacy and Security. You can then upgrade your security level to Enhanced, which is a step up from standard security. With Enhanced activated, the pages you visit will be sent to Google to check them against its threat database. You will also receive a notification if your passwords have been exposed in a data breach.

You might also consider switching to a more secure search engine like DuckDuckGo for both computers and phones. It combines data from hundreds of sources including Wolfram Alpha, Wikipedia and Bing, with its own web crawler, to surface the most relevant results. While Google does the same with more sources, DuckDuckGo does not store IP addresses or user information, which means you won’t see targeted advertising as you navigate from one site to another and your kids won’t be distracted by these types of ads. Further, it’s easy to block all ads on DuckDuckGo right within its settings. If you decide to stick with Google, you can turn off personalized ads or go a step further and install an app like AdBlocker Plus.

Don’t forget the hardware! Consider adding a webcam with a cover to a computer that’s used for video meetings. Not only will the quality of the feed be better than the built-in camera, but it will be easy to flip the cover over when you’re finished with classes and meetings. You can make the external webcam the default video device in any of the video programs now in use: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and others. Alternately, cover the built-in camera with a sticky note and close laptops when they’re not in use.

The best way to implement these security measures is to do it as a family — all for one and one for all. This way, you’ll avoid any resentment, cries of “no fair,” and everyone, even you, will have a safer internet experience.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past eight years. She has designed and manages several international websites and now runs the marketing for a global events company. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.

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