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Back to School: Keep Your Teens Safe With These 5 Digital Security Tips

Back to school is the perfect time to remind your teens about online safety.

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Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated Aug 2, 2022
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Aug 2, 2022

Teens holding smart phones

It’s a fact of life: Tour kids get older every year. They’ll be bugging you to teach them how to drive before you know it. Scary, right? Still, you want them to develop some independence. Otherwise, they might never leave home. So, you make sure they know how to survive in the world. You teach them how to save money; you help them develop healthy eating habits; you show them how to be cyber-secure in a rapidly changing world.

As you gear up for another school year, now is the perfect time to talk about online safety. Whether you’ve got a tween champing at the bit to get to high school or an 18-year-old heading off to college, you’ve got a great excuse to go over the basics of digital security and remind them that the internet can be just as dangerous as the highway.

Of course, it’s not easy teaching kids anything, especially about the digital world. After all, they probably know more about their electronic devices than you do. You can do it, though, and we’re here to help. We’ve come up with a simple list of five security habits that can keep your kids safe no matter what comes up. Let’s get right into it.

Five Digital Security Habits to Teach Your Teens

The digital world can be complicated. If you don’t work in IT, you may not know what a virtual server is or how to tell the difference between a brute-force and man-in-the-middle attack. That’s OK. You don’t need to. The five habits listed below involve simple concepts. They’re easy for you to teach and easy for your kids to grasp.

1. Keep Track of Your Devices

Hackers don’t have to create complicated malware programs or spend weeks trying to come up with the perfect scams if you’re just going to leave your phone lying around anywhere. They can access all your personal data just by picking it up and scrolling through your texts.

We get it: Kids aren’t great at keeping up with their stuff. Talk to them about it, though. Explain why it’s so important to hang onto their devices. Superglue those devices to their hands if you have to (OK, not really). And make sure they’ve turned on all their devices’ locator options so they can track down their phones when they inevitably lose them.

2. Protect Your Passwords

We’re sure you’ll get through to your kids about keeping track of their devices. After all, your kids aren’t like the others. They listen to you when you have important things to say. But, just in case they should forget, it helps if all their devices are protected with passwords. Here are a few tips you can pass along about making sure these passwords are actually doing their jobs:

  • Create strong passwords. Passwords should have at least eight characters and use a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters. In addition, you should avoid common words, curse words, and words related to your biography. All of these make your passwords easier to hack.
  • Avoid reusing passwords across multiple accounts. Yes, it’s hard to keep up with all those passwords. That’s why it’s a good idea to consider investing in a password manager.
  • Update passwords regularly. The more often passwords change, the more difficult it is for someone to crack them.
  • Never share your passwords with anyone. You can never tell when someone might betray you, especially if that someone is a 15-year-old.

3. Use Secure Networks

Your teen leads an active life. One minute they’re at the gym, the next they’re at the corner convenience store, the next they’re at the park. If they’re logging on to public Wi-Fi networks in all those locations, they’re at risk. Anyone on a public Wi-Fi network with you can potentially see what you’re up to. The way to avoid this risk is to install a virtual private network, or VPN, on all your devices.

A VPN routes your internet connection through a secure server. It also issues you an anonymous IP address so you can’t be tracked and no one knows what you’re up to online. The best VPNs let you install software on multiple devices, so no matter how many laptops, tablets, and phones your family owns, you can cover them all with one account.

4. Be Careful What You Click!

Make sure your teen understands that danger lurks around every corner on the internet. Links don’t always go where you expect them to. Downloading a file can expose you to all sorts of nasty malware. Certain apps and sites are more likely to attract predators. Your kids should get into the habit of researching anything and everything before they click on it.

This often means Googling sites before they click and looking for user reviews on apps and software before they download them. As a bonus, though, this will help them develop critical-thinking skills. You never know: It could even boost their SAT scores.

Of course, it never hurts to have a backup plan, especially when teens are involved. Consider installing strong antivirus software on all their devices to help ensure malware can’t get through, no matter what your kids click on.

5. Limit Social Media Posts

Asking your teen to avoid social media is like asking a fish to avoid water. They live through their online identities, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn a little common sense about what they post. Here are a few tips you should (ever so gently) remind them about.

  • Never post personal information online. What we post isn’t seen by just our friends and family. When others know personal details about our lives, they can take advantage of those details. If predators know where you live, they know how to find you. If a home invader knows you’re going on vacation, they know when to strike. You can’t keep your teen from posting at all, but you can help them think about what they should and shouldn’t post.
  • Things posted online never really go away. Remind your kids that they can’t take their posts back. Once something is out there on the internet, it’s out there forever. If they have any doubts about how they might feel about a post tomorrow, next month, or even next year, they shouldn’t post it.
  • Use your privacy controls. Social media always comes with privacy controls, but they can’t do you any good if you don’t actually use them. Work with your teen to identify which privacy controls are available on all of their social media apps, and show them how to use them effectively.
  • Be good digital citizens. Going online doesn’t just mean making sure you protect yourself. It also means not making other people’s online lives miserable. Make sure your teen understands that what they do and say online has just as large an impact as what they do and say in real life.

Beyond Good Habits: What Else Can You Do to Keep Your Kids Safe Online?

Teaching your kids good habits will help them be better digital citizens for the rest of their lives. They’re kids, though, and they’re going to make mistakes. So, what else can you do to make sure they’re safe?

  • Talk about online security. Don’t expect your kids to figure out how to stay safe online all by themselves. Talk with them about online security regularly. Remind them of the dangers. Remind them of what they can do to avoid those dangers.
  • Set ground rules. Don’t be afraid to set limits on your child’s internet use. They aren’t always great at making good decisions (remember that haircut they got last spring?). If you give them a set of clear boundaries about how they use the web, you can ensure they make the right choices, whether they want to or not.
  • Connect with your kids online. OK, your teen won’t like it when you try to friend them on Instagram, but make them accept your request anyway. If you’re connected to them online, you’ll have a better idea of what their digital selves are up to.
  • Keep devices in a central location. Try creating a charging hub at a central location in your home. That will allow you to check your kids’ devices every once in a while to ensure they’re actually practicing all those good habits you’ve been teaching them.
  • Use parental controls. Your teen may rant and rave about privacy when you turn on the parental controls on their devices. But they’re kids, and it’s your job to protect them.

The Bottom Line

August might be the only time of year your kids are actually looking forward to going to school. They’ve got new outfits to show off and stories to tell about their summer adventures. They’re actually excited about what they might learn this year. They’re full of energy.

Use all of that energy to your advantage. When they’re excited about learning new things, they’re more receptive to what you have to teach them. Take the time over the next several weeks to talk with your kids about their online behaviors, and instill in them some good habits.

Will you get through to them completely? Of course not. It takes time to instill positive behaviors in kids. You’ve got to start somewhere, though, right? So you might as well start now.