Online safety for young children: recommendations from two technical experts

As parents try to juggle working from home and childcare, children of all ages are spending more time on devices, often without parental supervision. We spoke to two GRC International Group information security experts about their top tips to keep children safe online whilst using tablets, phones and other Internet-enabled devices.

James Andrews is Head of Technical Operations and dad to two daughters aged four and seven. Adam Seamons is Systems Engineer and has a six-year-old daughter and a baby girl.

Implement parental controls

It’s critical that parents understand what they are allowing their children to access online, and not to take the easy option when setting up devices or give into pressure. Most devices come with parental controls that enable you to set restrictions such as how long a child can spend on the device, the age appropriateness of the content that will be offered to them and how long they can spend on each activity. Think about the level of controls you would like and research devices that offer these. Many parental control services email activity reports to you or their account might be linked to your full account. Take time to read these reports and check what your children are doing online and whether it is appropriate.

If the device doesn’t come with adequate controls, there are apps that will do the same. Search for ‘parental control’ in the device’s app store to find something suitable.

Adam: “The Amazon Fire includes advanced parental controls. It only presents age-specific content and we can direct relevant content that we want our daughter to see. We also define how the daily time allowance is spent, for example how much time can be spent playing games.”

James: “Our daughters have Android devices, mainly because they are cheap and include parental control options. Parents should always review these controls and add them before giving the device to their child.”

Think durability

Some manufacturers produce specific devices for children. These are ruggedised to make them extra durable in order to withstand inevitable drops and accidents. Both James’s and Adam’s daughters use Amazon Fire for Kids. Adam explains, “We specifically chose the Amazon Fire for Kids for its durability as well as parental controls.”

Understand age-appropriate content

Video games are a great example of content that is attractive to children but needs to be closely monitored.

Adam: “Video games aren’t what they were when we were young, and they aren’t always safe for children. Not only is the content unsuitable but also children can meet others online while playing. The age ratings for games can be selected under parental controls so that only age-appropriate games are available. Apps also display an age-based rating, which can be set within the parental controls.”

ESRB (US) and PEGI (EU) ratings

Different countries and regions use their own age-based rating system for games that refer to the suitability of the game’s content. The same game might be rated differently in different countries, so understanding the ratings and reviewing the game’s content description is advised. For example, The Sims 4 received an 18+ rating in Russia, a 12+ in much of Europe and a 6+ in Germany.

Search for child-friendly versions

Many well-known services such as Google, Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime also have child-friendly versions. For example, Google has a kids’ YouTube app.

James: “Child-friendly versions are evolving, so always check how they interact with the adult version. For example, can your child easily switch between their streaming service account to your account and potentially access unsuitable content?”

Beware mixed-content platforms

Platforms such as TikTok contain lots of fun content for children as well as lots that isn’t appropriate.

Adam: “My daughter loves watching TikTok videos but we don’t let her download the app onto her device. The videos are only 30 seconds long and not censored so she can very quickly be watching something totally unsuitable or listening to adult music. This needs close monitoring.”

Further information and support

Safer Internet Day is an international programme to improve children’s awareness of Internet safety. The Safer Internet Centre runs the event in the UK and its website has a wealth of useful information for schools, parents and children.

London Grid for Learning (LGfL) – a range of online safety resources for schools, parents and children.

Microsoft Family Safety – information and guidance from Microsoft and how to create family groups.

Apple parental control guidance – how to set parental controls on Apple devices.

Google parental supervision guidance – help to set digital ground rules.

BBC Bitesize – the BBC’s Bitesize website has been a leader in free online content for many years. The content is divided into key stage and includes daily lessons as well as more fun age-appropriate games.