Children present unique security risks when they use a computer—not only do you have to keep them safe, you have to protect the data on your computer.
By taking some simple steps, you can dramatically reduce the threats.
What unique risks are associated with children?
When a child is using your computer, normal safeguards and security
practices may not be sufficient. Children present additional challenges
because of their natural characteristics: innocence, curiosity, desire for
independence, and fear of punishment. You need to consider these
characteristics when determining how to protect your data and the child.
You may think that because the child is only playing a game, or researching
a term paper, or typing a homework assignment, he or she can't cause any
harm. But what if, when saving her paper, the child deletes a necessary
program file? Or what if she unintentionally visits a malicious web page
that infects your computer with a virus? These are just two possible
scenarios. Mistakes happen, but the child may not realize what she's done or
may not tell you what happened because she's afraid of getting punished.
Online predators present another significant threat, particularly to
children. Because the nature of the internet is so anonymous, it is easy for
people to misrepresent themselves and manipulate or trick other users (see
Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks for some examples). Adults
often fall victim to these ploys, and children, who are usually much more
open and trusting, are even easier targets. Another growing problem is
cyberbullying. These threats are even greater if a child has access to email
or instant messaging programs, visits chat rooms, and/or uses social
What can you do?
* Be involved - Consider activities you can work on together, whether it
be playing a game, researching a topic you had been talking about (e.g.,
family vacation spots, a particular hobby, a historical figure), or
putting together a family newsletter. This will allow you to supervise
your child's online activities while teaching her good computer habits.
* Keep your computer in an open area - If your computer is in a
high-traffic area, you will be able to easily monitor the computer
activity. Not only does this accessibility deter a child from doing
something she knows she's not allowed to do, it also gives you the
opportunity to intervene if you notice a behavior that could have
* Set rules and warn about dangers - Make sure your child knows the
boundaries of what she is allowed to do on the computer. These
boundaries should be appropriate for the child's age, knowledge, and
maturity, but they may include rules about how long she is allowed to be
on the computer, what sites she is allowed to visit, what software
programs she can use, and what tasks or activities she is allowed to do.
You should also talk to children about the dangers of the internet so
that they recognize suspicious behavior or activity. Discuss the risks
of sharing certain types of information (e.g., that they're home alone)
and the benefits to only communicating and sharing information with
people they know (see Using Instant Messaging and Chat Rooms Safely,
Staying Safe on Social Network Sites, and the document Socializing
Securely: Using Social Networking Services for more information). The
goal isn't to scare them, it's to make them more aware. Make sure to
include the topic of cyberbullying in these discussions (see Dealing
with Cyberbullies for more information).
* Monitor computer activity - Be aware of what your child is doing on the
computer, including which websites she is visiting. If she is using
email, instant messaging, or chat rooms, try to get a sense of who she
is corresponding with and whether she actually knows them.
* Keep lines of communication open - Let your child know that she can
approach you with any questions or concerns about behaviors or problems
she may have encountered on the computer.
* Consider partitioning your computer into separate accounts - Most
operating systems give you the option of creating a different user
account for each user. If you're worried that your child may
accidentally access, modify, and/or delete your files, you can give her
a separate account and decrease the amount of access and number of
privileges she has.
If you don't have separate accounts, you need to be especially careful
about your security settings. In addition to limiting functionality
within your browser (see Evaluating Your Web Browser's Security Settings
for more information), avoid letting your browser remember passwords and
other personal information (see Browsing Safely: Understanding Active
Content and Cookies). Also, it is always important to keep your virus
definitions up to date (see Understanding Anti-Virus Software).
* Consider implementing parental controls - You may be able to set some
parental controls within your browser. For example, Internet Explorer
allows you to restrict or allow certain websites to be viewed on your
computer, and you can protect these settings with a password. To find
those options, click Tools on your menu bar, select Internet Options,
choose the Content tab, and click the Enable... button under Content
There are other resources you can use to control and/or monitor your
child's online activity. Some ISPs offer services designed to protect
children online. Contact your ISP to see if any of these services are
available. There are also special software programs you can install on
your computer. Different programs offer different features and
capabilities, so you can find one that best suits your needs.
The following websites offer additional information about protecting
* GetNetWise - http://kids.getnetwise.org/
* StaySafeOnline - http://www.staysafeonline.org/
Authors: Mindi McDowell, Allen Householder
Note: This tip was previously published and is being
re-distributed to increase awareness.
This document can also be found at