Back to school: 12 online safety tips for students in the classroom
July 20, 2021 3 min read
Back to school in the COVID era. Why parents need to be vigilant in protecting their kids’ devices against phishing scams, malware, and cybercrime.
The back-to-school commercials are running on TV and radio. Teachers are finalizing their lesson plans. And kids are picking out their clothes for school.
But while back-to-school time is always busy, there’s one step that parents often forget: educating their school-age children on how to help stay safe online while back in school.
Students face plenty of online threats during the school year, everything from cyberbullying and sexting to phishing attempts and the theft of their laptops and smartphones.
Fortunately, you can decrease the odds that your children fall victim to online threats this school year by watching for the most common online dangers and taking the steps to protect your children against them.
Here’s a look at some of the most common online dangers your child might face this school year, and the strategies you can use to keep your children safe.
1. Update your security software
As always, the first step in keeping children's laptops and other devices safe from malware is to make sure these devices are protected by security software. This is the best tool to prevent your children from accidentally downloading malware or spyware on their computers.
If your school district provides your children with laptops or tablets, these devices will most likely have some antivirus protection already installed. But you should check to make sure.
Be especially vigilant, though, if your children are using their own or your devices when completing homework assignments after school. Make sure you've installed this important software on the devices in your home.
2. Turn on automatic security updates
Cybercriminals are constantly adjusting their malware and spyware attacks. Fortunately, so are the makers of security software. That’s why it’s important to turn on the automatic update feature on the antivirus software installed on any of the devices your children use during the school year.
Doing this will make sure that this software is updated with the latest protection. Updates often specifically protect devices against the most recently discovered viruses.
3. Turn on automatic updates for all apps and programs on your children’s devices
Hackers often directly target the apps and programs on laptops and other devices to infect these machines with viruses. To make sure they don’t hit the ones installed on your children’s devices, turn on automatic updates for all apps and programs on their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Children use plenty of apps and programs during the school day. These programs can be inviting targets for cybercriminals if they aren’t updated with the latest protection against malware and viruses.
The malware they use to infect computers can allow hackers to take over your children’s devices, spy on their online activity, and steal any information contained on them. That is why it’s so important to keep those apps and programs updated and protected.
4. Educate your kids about phishing
And adults aren’t the only ones who fall for these scams—so do teens and tweens. And children are more likely to fall for phishing scams when they’re increasing their time online, which for many might be during the school year.
In a typical phishing scam, con artists will send an email claiming to be from a bank, credit card provider, or service provider such as Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu. The email, which looks legitimate, might claim that these financial institutions or banks have detected unusual activity on the accounts of victims.
Or they might state that victims need to update their accounts to avoid having them closed. In most cases, the emails will include a link that victims must click.
Once victims click the links, they are taken to a website that also looks legitimate. This site might ask consumers to input their bank account information, credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers. If victims provide this information, the scammers behind the emails can use it to access their online bank accounts or credit cards.
Kids are more likely to fall for phishing scams that appear to come from video game providers or retailers. They might quickly provide their own or their parents’ credit card information, for example, to what they think is a video game company threatening to shut down their gaming accounts.
Parents should inform their children on how phishing scams work. And they should remind them to never respond to any email asking for personal or financial information. Instead, parents should instruct their children to show any such emails to them.
5. Watch for cyberbullying
Cyberbullying, in which adults or children use the internet to threaten others, is a real problem for school children.
Children are more at risk of cyberbullying when they are spending more time online, such as during the school year. It's important, then, for parents to talk with their children about online bullying, explaining to them that hateful comments delivered online are never OK. Parents should tell their children to come to them immediately if they are victimized by cyberbullying.
If you have evidence that your child has been the victim of cyberbullying, block any messages from the bully and tell your child not to communicate with the aggressor. Collect evidence of the bullying by taking screenshots of hostile messages or taunting photos. Record any harassing videos.
And if the bully goes to the same school as your child, contact the school or district office. If the bully is threatening to harm your children, report the cyberbullying to your police department.
6. Teach your children about strong passwords
The best way for your children to keep hackers from accessing their accounts at gaming and social media sites? Teach them the importance of strong passwords.
Hackers can crack simple passwords easily. Tell your children to use passwords that include a combination of lowercase and uppercase letters, symbols, and numbers. These complex passwords are far more difficult for hackers to crack.
Another option: Consider using a long passphrase that your child can remember, but others would find difficult to guess.
Don't let your children use the same passwords at multiple sites, either. If a cybercriminal cracks their password at Instagram, they can then access any other social media or gaming sites that your children protect with the same password.
You might not think that strong passwords are as important for your children if they don't have their own online credit card or bank accounts. But many children have their own accounts at online gaming sites. And you might have entered your credit card information on these sites so that your children can make in-game purchases.
If hackers steal your children's passwords, they can access these sites and the credit card information stored on them.
Remember, too, that some children might actually spend more time on their online gaming sites during the school year, when they're not as involved in summer traveling sports leagues or traveling on vacation with the family. There is more opportunity for hackers to use phishing attempts to trick these children into surrendering their passwords.
7. Consider limiting online gaming
Many teens spend long hours playing video games each day. This could interfere with their schoolwork, causing them to miss homework assignments and perform poorly on tests.
A poll conducted by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and published in early 2020 found that many 13- to 18-year-olds are spending hours each day playing video games. A total of 41 percent of parents said their teen boys play video games every day, while 20 percent of parents said their teen girls did the same.
The poll found that 37 percent of teen boys are likely to spend three or more hours gaming when they do play video games.
The survey found that 34 percent of parents said that gaming makes it harder for their children to complete their homework, while 31 percent said it interferes with their teens' extracurricular activities.
Parents may consider limiting the amount of time teens spend playing video games during the school year and take steps to encourage them to participate in other activities, such as spending time with friends or joining extracurricular activities at their schools.
8. Watch for online predators
As children spend more time online, whether during the school day or when at home working on essays, reports and other homework assignments, they are more at risk of encountering online predators.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that it received 37,800 reports of possible online enticement targeted at children during 2020. That's a jump from the about 19,100 reports the center received in 2019.
Online enticement is when adults use the internet to engage children in sexual conversations or try to convince them to send sexually explicit images of themselves. Some online predators try to befriend children over time with the goal of one day setting up an in-person meeting.
It’s a good idea for parents to speak with their children about the dangers of online predators and about how they operate. That includes explaining to children that some adults pretend to be children online to befriend them.
They should also tell their children that they can only chat online or game online with people whom they've already met in real life. Parents may want to set limits on the amount of time their children can spend online.
9. Have a conversation about sexting
When your kids return to school, they might start texting more frequently. This is natural: They are connecting again with friends they might not have seen during summer break.
Make sure, though, that your children aren’t engaging in sexting, sending sexual messages or photos to each other through text messages.
A risqué or nude photo could come back to haunt your children. Lewd photos or texts could be spread around their school to humiliate them. Others might use these photos or messages to blackmail your children.
It’s important, then, to tell your children to never send inappropriate texts describing sex acts or containing nude or semi-nude photos to others. Explain clearly to them how doing this could result in long-lasting or severe consequences.
10. Teach your kids to never leave their laptops and smartphones unattended
As they’re chatting with friends or hustling to their lockers, your children might leave their laptop or smartphone unattended. If they’re heading to the local pizza parlor after school with their friends, they might leave their smartphone by itself at a booth as they head to the counter to place their order.
These are all perfect opportunities for thieves to steal these devices. And once thieves get them? If they can log on—and they often can figure out how to do this—they can gain access to your child’s emails, files, and other personal information.
Make sure to remind your children to never leave their devices unattended, no matter how hectic their school day gets.
11. Make sure your children have lock screens on their phones
Criminals who steal your children’s phones can nab plenty of information. It’s important, then, to make sure your children’s phones are protected by lock screens. These screens require users to enter a password, code, or pattern before they can unlock a phone and access its features.
A lock screen won’t keep every thief out of your child’s phone. But they do increase the odds that someone who nabs your child’s phone won’t be able to access the messages, photos, and files contained on it.
12. Do your children's school-issued laptops use strong filtering software?
Children may be tempted to visit adult and other inappropriate websites. Make sure, then, that the laptops issued by your school district contain filtering software that will help prevent your children from accessing sites that contain pornography, racism, or violent messages.
And if you discover that the filtering software used by your school district is easily bypassed? Contact the district’s leaders to inform them of the problem.
Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.
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Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who covers tech, finance, and real estate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Fox Business.
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