How to Teach Children to Safely Navigate Online

Jennifer A. Kurtz, MBA


"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle

Or, as Phillippa Lally found in her 2009 study, "With repetition of a behavior in a consistent context [18 to 254 days], automaticity increases following an asymptotic curve which can be modelled at the individual level." i More simply, practice!

Children should be safe online but, just as in the physical world, the cyber world does not come with guarantees or easy formulas. Rather than relying on laws like COPPAii and CIPAiii to "child-proof the Internet," we parents, grandparents, and educators should be leading children to navigate the Internet and other technology tools safely. We need to tech-proof our children so that they practice good cyber hygiene, whether they are home or at play. After all, we will need these savvy digital natives to help us decode the mysteries of the next generation of technology devices! Let's coach them to recognize potential trouble and respond responsibly.

Analysts from the National Research Council observed in a 2002 report:

Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one’s children is teach them to swim.iv

Through consistent reminders from toddler days, children learn to stop and look (and look again) before crossing a street, or walking through a parking lot. They repeat weekly, if not daily, practices like checking for traffic and buckling their seatbelts, until they become ingrained and automatic. The same approach should be applied to using digital devices and communications. Research released in January 2014 by PlayCollective and Digital Book World indicates, "67% of U.S. children aged two-to-thirteen are now reading ebooks."v So, at what age should you start guiding your child? The answer is now.

Social networking sites (e.g., Facebook and Tumblr), telecommunications services providers (e.g., Sprint, Verizon, AT&T), government agencies, and child safety advocates (e.g., NetSmartz) all offer advice about how to use technology safely and responsibly. Frequently mentioned recommendations are:

  • Talk early and often with your child about using technology. Discuss what is appropriate to share online and what is not.
  • Learn to look for privacy settings and enable safe mode functionality when offered.
  • Disable geolocation functions when posting photos from mobile devices.
  • Agree to boundaries about online time limits, interactive games, downloaded apps, and appropriate content.
  • Consider implementing parental control software for phones, tablets, and computers. Many vendors offer free trial periods for their products. Privacy issues must be evaluated when making this decision. Some monitoring products self-identify, whereas others act like spyware.
  • Put computers in high-traffic areas at home and talk about online activities.
  • Explore the Internet together.

Parents Magazine lists 30 safe and fun websites for children.vi My six-year-old granddaughter and I have spent many entertaining hours on Starfall, NASA Kids' Club, and National Geographic Kids. The latter even offers a safe photo-posting site alternative to Tumblr. Even though Tumblr has a safe mode feature to prevent explicit images from appearing, it only works when images are tagged for adult content.  The NetSmartz Workshop (from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) features fun activities as well as instructional materials for parents and teachers.

Keeping children unplugged will not help them distinguish between safe and unsafe use of technology. Practice will help them make good decisions and learn about the productive, rather than destructive, use of tools. As the American Library Association urged in its 2014 report, "restriction of exposure to complex and challenging websites and of the use of interactive tools and platforms represents a critical missed opportunity to prepare students to be responsible users, consumers, and producers of content and resources."vii

Let's help our children learn to swim and surf safely!


  • http://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/rules/rulemaking-regulatory-reform-proceedings/childrens-online-privacy-protection-rule
  • http://www.fcc.gov/guides/childrens-internet-protection-act
  • http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/parent-guide
  • http://www.stopfraudcolorado.gov/sites/default/files/safe_surfing_brochure.pdf
  • http://www.netsmartzkids.org/
  • http://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/
  • National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children


  • http://media.publishersmarketplace.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/LaunchKids2015.pdf
  • www.childrenstech.com (Children's Technology Review)
  • http://www.todaysparent.com/kids/technology/30-fun-and-safe-kids-websites/


  • Independent Reviews
    • http://www.tomsguide.com/us/pictures-story/596-best-parental-control-apps.html
    • http://www.pcmag.com/products/26690
    • http://acisni.com/cell-phone-parental-control-software/
  • Vendor Product Descriptions
    • http://usa.kaspersky.com/products-services/home-computer-security/parental-control/
    • http://www.bitdefender.com/solutions/parental-control.html (vendor)
    • https://www.mymobilewatchdog.com/
    • https://wbillpay.verizonwireless.com/vzw/nos/safeguards/safeguardLandingPage.action?intcmp=INT-MVZ-VNT-SAFEGUARDS and www.parentalcontrolcenter.com

In Regis University's information assurance courses, we discuss four general approaches to using technology: promiscuous, permissive, prudent, and paranoid. The promiscuous technology user sets no limits on sites visited, images transmitted, posts liked, or information shared. The permissive one affably accepts friend requests and probably opens irresistible email messages sent to the junk folder by his or her ISP. The paranoid one never uses an ATM and stands in line at the bank teller window. Prudent behavior users make good decisions, and this is what we should encourage among our children.

For additional information about the four general approaches in Regis University’s information assurance program, contact an admissions advisor at 877-820-0581.

iPhillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W.W. Potts, and Jane Wardle (July 2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world (Abstract). European Journal of Social Psychology. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.674/abstract
iiChildren's Online Protection Privacy Act (passed by Congress in 1998).
iiiChildren's Internet Protection Act (passed by Congress December 2000).
ivDick Thornburgh and Herbert S. Lin (2002), eds. Youth, Pornography, and the Internet, National Research Council, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2002; quoted in ALA study on page 13.
vJeremy Greenfield (13 January 2014). Two-Thirds of Kids Now Reading Digitally, New Study Shows. Digital Book World. Retrieved from http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/two-thirds-of-kids-now-reading-digitally-new-study-shows/
viSee <http://www.todaysparent.com/kids/technology/30-fun-and-safe-kids-websites/>
viiKristen R. Batch (June 2014). Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children's Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later. Policy Brief No. 5. American Library Association. Retrieved from http://connect.ala.org/files/cipa_report.pdf