There’s no getting away from technology in the modern world. With smartphones, social media, and the internet permeating our day-to-day lives, it’s more important than ever that parents know how to protect their kids from harmful online content.

Granted, it's difficult to know where to draw the line on giving kids freedom and protecting them from unsavoury content. Fortunately, there’s an array of services that make it possible to monitor your child’s online activity and ensure they aren’t exposed to online threats.

The Proliferation of Harmful Content Online

There's no escaping the fact that our children will grow up with the internet. In fact, many young kids are considerably more tech-savvy than their parents. Even so, they may not know how to process the harmful content they encounter online. That's why parents need to understand the dangers lurking on the internet and protect their children accordingly. From misinformation to sexual content, there has been an increase in harmful narratives on digital platforms that calls for a framework that regulates harm online. In a study of online safety, 25% of parents surveyed stated that their children experienced cyberbullying. This is up by 9% compared to the 16% recorded in 2019.

Most parents know that their children can come across a range of problematic content online. Singapore ranks 4th in cyber-bullying in the Australasia region, yet of the 315 Singaporean parents surveyed, an estimated 1 out of 5 Singaporean parents did not address these safety concerns, worse than worse than the Asia-Pacific average of 14 per cent. Meanwhile, just 20% are confident that their child would speak to them about online threats and about 60% have ever spoken to their children about online safety at all. Despite these troubling statistics, children undoubtedly benefit from using the internet to learn and relax.

1. Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can happen to anyone, but teens and young children who are active on social media are especially at risk. With about 1 in 9 adolescents falling victim to cyberbullying, and close to 50% of children in the age group of 8 to 12 years old being affected by it, cyberbullying is a major cause for concern. Especially in a world where anyone can create an anonymous social media account to target their victims, potentially without repercussions. With studies showing how those who act negatively online don’t consider their actions to be particularly harmful, parents must remain vigilant against their child being cyberbullied by both their peers and strangers alike. Hence, it is pivotal to understand that cyberbullying can occur via social media, online gaming platforms, and any other communication medium.

2. Online predators

Unfortunately, there’s a possibility that children will encounter anonymous predators online. More parents have reported that their children have been approached by strangers on the internet, and 1 in 3 parents surveyed reported the unwanted attention their kids received online. With these offenders known to use social media and gaming platforms to befriend children, keeping tabs on who your kids are chatting with is incredibly important.

About 12% of the 38,000 children aged between 8 to 12 polled in a global study have chatted online with strangers and even met up with them. As these strangers might attempt to lead your children into compromising situations or even attempt to meet them in person, the best way to avoid these outcomes is to foster open and honest communication with your kids. This way, you can establish a trusting relationship that ensures your children don’t hide information they don’t want you to know.

3. Scams and sharing of private information

Every internet user must remain alert about online scams and phishing attacks, but children can be particularly susceptible to misleading links and interactions. This brings about a range of concerns, including giving away private information and downloading malware that might leave the entire household helpless. For instance, children might hand out their parents’ banking information or allow hackers to monitor their internet access inadvertently. Irrespective of age, people struggle to deal with online attacks, but children must be taught that not all interactions are genuine. With about 85% of children in Singapore owning social media accounts, the idea of these kids creating profiles with personal emails, faking their age to register for an account, posting pictures in their school uniforms, and communicating with strangers, it's clear to see that the amount of cyber risks they’re exposed to daily is high.

YouTube’s Helpful but Imperfect Solution

YouTube is one of the main platforms kids spend their time on online. Countless creators produce content around favourite topics like toys and gaming. However, the platform also hosts millions of videos (and ads) that simply aren’t suitable for children. The Toy Freaks channel controversy, for one, was one shut down by YouTube for violating its policies by depicting kids in videos vomiting and in pain. These concerns have been raised to YouTube for years, but the discussion came to a head in 2020 with a major policy change taking place in response to the U.S. law, COPPA or the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

In the past, YouTube treated children’s entertainment just like everything else on the platform. However, with the rise of concerns surrounding the type of content available on this platform, more effort is being put into limiting the number of channels on YouTube Kids and data collection on videos meant only for kids. In addition, YouTube also agreed to enact significant policy changes that saw any content aimed at children on the platform banned from accessing targeted advertising.

Following these changes, content creators are asked to flag their own videos as ‘made for kids’. However, this means that their channels now rely on contextual ads that are based solely on the content on the page instead of the more lucrative personalised ads. Meanwhile, videos flagged as kid-friendly have the comment feature automatically turned off, and can no longer ask viewers to subscribe to channels. In fact, those who fail to label content correctly could be hit with a $42,530 fine per violation.

Besides these stricter punishments, the platform also placed more focus on YouTube Kids – first launched in 2015. The platform features curated content, robust parental controls and the ability to filter videos according to the age of one's children. But YouTube Kids isn't perfect, and controversies like ElsaGate have proven how creators can abuse YouTube's algorithms with violent and sexualised content.

Despite the platform constantly having to identify and patch gaps, YouTube Kids is still a suitable alternative for children who shouldn’t be exposed to harmful online content. Ultimately, the best way to protect your kids is by monitoring their activity and establishing clear communication.

Tips for Protecting Your Kids Online

Other than adjusting the settings on platforms like YouTube Kids, here are some other ways parents can protect their children online.

1. Set boundaries on screen time

While your child will likely need online access at school and at home, set boundaries on how much screen time they have. Work together with your child, and set aside some dedicated screen-free time every day that's meant to encourage your child to partake in social activities like sports or music.

2. Keep tabs on their online traffic

Although you want to have 100% trust that your children are fine, it's good practice to check in on them every now and again. Ask them if they've seen anything that might be of concern online, reassure them that discussions will be open and non-judgmental. Do not go through their browsing history secretly, or install applications that allow you to track their online habits without their consent, as that might stop them from openly raising concerns with you in the future.

3. Block websites and services

Making use of parental controls is another way to protect your children from most types of harmful online content. Many popular online services, including Netflix, YouTube and Facebook Messenger, offer various settings that allow you to monitor your children’s activity or control what they see. For a more comprehensive and easily customisable solution, you can also make the most of M1’s dedicated cyber security service - Cyber Guardian.

4. Educate kids on online behaviour

It is said that it takes a whole family to be safe online - as such, parents need to educate themselves and their kids as well. Beyond setting rules, it is crucial that parents focus on informing kids on the necessary skills required to protect themselves when surfing the net. Through the creation of a respectful environment, let your children know that they’ll always have your support and that they can come to you for help. From there, use educational resources such as stories of the likes of Kasper, Sky, and the Green Bear that cover concepts of cybersecurity such as the risks of giving out passwords to strangers.

Sign-up for Cyber Guardian with M1

If you’re looking to protect your kids online, Cyber Guardian makes it easy to monitor their activity and block harmful content. Parents have the ability to prevent access to specific websites and limit browsing time, and there are helpful predefined categories for teens and children. You can also use Cyber Guardian’s online portal to create custom filters and monitor activity reports on the go. Sign-up today and keep your kids protected from potentially harmful online content and cyber threats 24/7.