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One of the most important jobs parents have today is keeping their children safe online.
As moms and dads prepare to send their kids back to school soon, one critical item needs to be included on the checklist: checking out all online platforms their kids are using — and starting conversations early about cyber safety.
Kids and teens between the ages of 8-28 spend about 44.5 hours each week in front of digital screens, according to the nonprofit Center for Parenting Education.
This makes it crystal clear that parents need to be tuned in and very educated about what, exactly, their kids are doing during those hours.
Liz Repking, founder of Cyber Safety Consulting in Chicago, Illinois, started her company about 13 years ago. Her mission is to help parents protect their kids online; she now offers programs for kids, too.
Parents need to take the time to sit down and learn as much as they can about all of the different platforms their kids are active on, Repking told Fox News Digital in a recent phone interview.
“Most parents want a piece of software that will make this problem go away — but you cannot outsource parenting,” she said.
“Parents tend to think of all of these problems [with online predators] as technology problems — but these are actually parenting issues that involve technology.”
There are predators that “spend a lot of hours” attempting to groom children, warned Repking.
“These are actually parenting issues that involve technology.”
“It’s part of our human nature to want to not address things that make us uncomfortable,” she said.
Yet she called discussions and precautions to keep kids safe online “critical.”
Repking stressed that any child online is “really vulnerable.”
Repking shared that her own college-age daughter, a “perfectionist who did everything right,” was — as a child — tricked into conversation online with a 40-year-old predator.
The individual “posed as an 11-year-old girl that played soccer,” she said.
Kids “tend to believe what someone tells them,” Repking said.
It all starts when a child meets someone online, whether it’s through a gaming platform or a social media platform — or, on a communication app such as Google Hangout, explained Repking.
“It’s so easy to play on normal human nature of wanting to make friends, especially coming out of two years of a lot of isolation,” Repking said, referencing the COVID-19 lockdowns.
“This summer we’ve seen a great increase in what we call ‘sextortion,’ where young people are being targeted on gaming platforms, a relationship is built, and then the predator somehow asks for a picture of the child.”
Parents should always be asking, “Are there safety settings within that platform to protect my child?”
“It’s so easy to play on normal human nature of wanting to make friends, especially coming out of two years of a lot of isolation.”
Repking offered a key piece of information for parents: All platforms that allow direct messaging regardless of the friendship status are “really dangerous.” Why? Because a predator can contact a child through DMs (direct messaging).
“A lot of parents don’t even know that direct messaging is part of every social media app,” said Repking.
The problem with relying on settings and software to keep a child safe, said Repking, is that every single one of them “has a workaround.”
As soon as children figure out the workaround, they are “really, really vulnerable,” she added. “Now you have a parent that hasn’t educated the child on how to protect themselves and is not really paying attention — because they have confidence in the software.”
Start safety conversations early, advised Repking.
“It’s much easier to establish dialogue with the third- or fourth-grader than it is with a freshman in high school,” she said.
An open dialogue should always be non-threatening; “Kids feel really threatened around their technology,” she said.
“As parents,” she said, “we can work through the tone of our voice, body language and how we approach the topic, and make kids feel like we’re not constantly accusing them of doing something wrong when it comes to technology.”
“Children learn bad habits at elementary-school age. By the time kids reach high school, they’ve already formed their habits.”
Another good tool is the use of stories, said Repking.
She said she tells kids about her own daughter’s experience, and even several years later a child will remember her story.
“We all find stories interesting, but also it’s very easy for kids to engage in a dialogue when it’s about a third party, whether they know the third party or not.” She added, “There’s something in storytelling — it holds attention, and it’s relatable.”
Another person who is working to keep kids safe online is Ellen Sabin, owner of Watering Can Press in New York City.
She is helping families to engage children on healthy cyber security practices, or what she calls cyber hygiene, with her book, “The Super Smart Cyber Guide for Kids.”
The book combines education about cyber safety along with “conversation starters” and hands-on learning activities to help children learn the critical building blocks of online safety.
Children also “co-author” the book, putting their names on the cover along with Sabin’s — in order to “create agency” for young readers and allow them to “flex their own ideas,” Sabin said in a phone interview with Fox News Digital.
“My mission with Watering Can Press is to tackle topics that can often be difficult or preachy when presented to children, but are also really important to them, and to families and society,” she said.
“A mom at a public location could say in front of their child, ‘I just got an email and it’s really important, but I don’t want to connect [to the internet] here because it might not be a secure connection.'”
Noting that parents often “don’t have the language skills and tools at their fingertips to present the topic of cybersecurity,” Sabin hopes her book, geared to ages 6-11, is a way to “positively engage” with youngsters.
“Many research areas show that children learn bad habits at elementary-school age,” she said.
“By the time kids reach high school, they’ve already formed their habits.”
“Cyber security is a topic where, frankly, parents often know much less — and practice cyber hygiene much less — than they should themselves,” said Sabin.
Sabin defines cyber hygiene as “practicing the habits of smart cybersecurity.”
“The whole family needs to learn how to practice smart cyber hygiene, together,” she emphasized.
Positive engagement with youngsters at an early age is key, said Sabin, echoing Repking.
“There’s a difference between tracking your child and holding their hand and learning with them about ways to practice smart habits,” she noted.
“We as a society and a country need the next generation of cyber citizens to keep up with cyber security.”
When is the best time to start conversations about safe online behavior?
Before children even have devices of their own, said Sabin.
“When a child starts watching their parents on devices, that’s the moment to start teaching these lessons,” she said, adding that “some of what we as adults do [online] are not best practices.”
Sabin offered a simple scenario rich in education.
“A mom at an airport or other public location could say in front of their child, ‘I just got an email and it’s really important, but I don’t want to connect [to the internet] here because it might not be a secure connection. It’s really, really important that I think about that.”
Real-world scenarios shared by parents can help with a child’s future cyber-bullying vulnerability, too.
“If a child sees a parent posting on social media, that parent could say out loud, ‘I really need to be careful about this, because so many people are going to see it.’”
Sabin hopes her book “will inspire children to have a lifetime of good habits and well-honed skills so that they become confident, safe and thoughtful cyber citizens.”
Having founded her publishing company in 2006, Sabin offers many other titles for kids “as a vehicle to share topics with families, communities and thought leaders that I think can help grow kids with character.”
Sabin said that beyond families sharing her cyber security book, many companies are sharing the books with their employees.
They’re doing so as a way to “recognize that we’re all connected — using it not only as a way to protect their own corporate security, but also to bring conversations into the home and help create thoughtful cyber practices throughout their families.”
She also said, “We as a society and a country need the next generation of cyber citizens to keep up with cyber security. Companies and countries need to interest and engage the next generation of cyber experts.”
Once kids start thinking about the importance of online safety, they will be watching to see how your behavior reflects these values.
She added, “Getting them hooked and excited is the best way to do it.”
Here are a few more tips from Sabin on creating healthy best practices to stay safe online:
Explain the abstract
For children, concepts like cyber criminals, hackers, private information and the vast idea of internet dangers are abstract concepts.
Explain these in age-appropriate ways to help your child make sense of the dangers. For example, kids may understand that a thief can break into a house through a window to steal something.
Explain that hackers break in through the internet to steal information.
Lead by example
Once kids start thinking about the importance of online safety, they will be watching to see how your behavior reflects these values. Make sure you are being thoughtful and responsible in your actions, advise experts.
Additional safety measures to teach your children as they grow include installing virus protection, enabling multi-factor authentication, using password managers and raising awareness about phishing scams.
Help kids help themselves
Once children have identified the rewards of being part of the online world and the risks they want to avoid, they can come up with ways to help protect and care for themselves.
Can they keep their privacy by deciding not to share certain information?
Can they create strong passwords? Can they appreciate the need to be kind online? Maybe they can learn ways to avoid scams and ways to care for their devices.
Letting kids come up with their own plan increases their investment in the activities and makes them more fun, suggest the experts.