How To Protect Your Child Online, According To A Cybersecurity Expert

Ann Brenoff

The internet continues to create new challenges for parents, 1 in 3 of whom reported being concerned about their children’s digital habits, according to the Pew Research Center.

HuffPost asked Theresa Payton, a national authority on cybersecurity who has worked at the highest levels of the financial services industry and government ― yes, the White House ― how she keeps her own three kids safe online.

Payton is also the author of Protecting Your Internet Identity: Are You Naked Online?, deputy commander of intelligence for the CBS show “Hunted,” and manages her own cyberprotection company, Fortalice Solutions

Knowing what you know, how scared are you about digital dangers out there awaiting your children?

Kids are online, which means that parenting today involves knowing where they are going and what they are doing there. The best line of defense against any dangers lurking is you ― the parent.

Which means you need to be where your kids are. You would never throw them the keys to the car before showing them how to drive. You would never let them go on a vacation with another family you have not met or run a background check on.

Be where they are, play on their gaming platform, join their social media networks, make them tell you their accounts and passwords. Make a commitment that you will not spy, but you will trust but verify.

I’m glad you mentioned “trust but verify.” How is that different from spying? And is spying even such a bad thing?

As global positioning systems improve, so have the apps that track our teenagers’ movements. Today, kids regularly check in with friends and let people know how to find them by using check-in or location software on social media sites. This includes tagging a place on Instagram [and] announcing where you are on Snapchat, Facebook Places, Waze and Foursquare. These are all free services that encourage frequent check-ins.

There are also paid services parents can use to help monitor their kid’s online activity. My family and I use a paid app, Life360, which monitors our whereabouts and even tracks the speed traveled in cars. Life360 has a private check-in and messaging feature, so I know when my kids arrive at (and are still at) the agreed-upon location. 

Kids know how to protect their privacy and security online. The problem is that they only use that knowledge to block out some of the adults in their lives.

Parents who keep up with what their kids are doing online are doing the right thing. Kids may claim to see this as intrusive surveillance, which is why setting family ground rules early on is essential ― and the younger, the better. Let your kids know that you want to share their experience of learning about the internet just as you help them with homework, and not invade their privacy.

Do not spy on your kids. It is spying if you don’t tell them that you will be periodically checking their accounts. 

I don’t consider it spying as much as trust-but-verify monitoring, especially if you have continued dialogue with your children and teens on internet safety. It’s crucial for parents to know what their children are doing online.

Our kids know more about the digital world than we do. Given that, how do we protect them?

As a parent, make it your priority to understand how your posts and theirs expose personal information and how that information builds up over the course of their childhood and into their teenage years.

After teaching internet safety classes for kids in grades K–12 and at universities and colleges, I have learned firsthand that kids know how to protect their privacy and security online. The problem is that they only use that knowledge to block out some of the adults in their lives, such as teachers, coaches and parents ― but not necessarily strangers. 

Studies have proven that parents are the best and often the real first line of defense for keeping kids, teens and young adults safe and secure online. Talking about the internet can be challenging because the concept of “forever” is lost on many of today’s digital natives. They don’t think about what would happen if today’s post turned up during a search when they apply for college admissions [or] job applications, or when they are the subject of a background check.

Digital footprints, unlike footprints in the dirt or sand that are washed away by the tide and time, are forever. A picture or status update your child posts on social media may get deleted, but somewhere out in cyberland, it still exists.

It may reappear when your child least expects it, and have disastrous results.

Disastrous results?

Sexting and revenge porn are real and ruining kids’ lives. My heart aches every time I get a call from a parent desperately asking if I can remove the nudes of their kid from the internet and make the sharing of their nudes stop. One hundred percent of them would never have thought their kid would [share nude photos of themselves].

A study in the Journal of Pediatrics said that sexting is a new norm among young adults. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen And Unplanned Pregnancy shows that nearly 40 percent of all teens have posted or sent sexually suggestive messages. Cyberbullying and cybershaming aren’t slowing down. We need to continue to talk about appropriate behavior online, just as we do in person.

If your child becomes a victim of this, here is a free resource and tool parents can use from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

But parents feel overwhelmed; it’s like trying to chase a speeding bullet train.  

Yes, they do. The most important thing is for parents to be aware of what platforms their kids are using and have frequent conversations about safety ― I really can’t over-emphasize that! Technology changes so rapidly and with the rise of IOT (the internet of things) and AI/machine learning, this rate of change is only going to increase.

When I tell parents this, they often shrug and say, “I give up!” or “You are so lucky this is your day job, so you understand all this!” First of all, it is important that you talk to your kids about their digital persona as early as possible to avoid problems later in life. Before they have an email address, social media account or a smartphone is the right time to set ground rules and have conversations. If they already have one, plan to begin talking to them about their digital persona TODAY! 

It is important that you talk to your kids about their digital persona as early as possible to avoid problems later in life.

While I was conducting research for the latest edition of my book, I visited several video chat sites. There were three recurring themes across the sites that we noted: Almost every young person online was in a bedroom while chatting. More than half the kids were sitting on their beds conducting video chats. And there were no parents in the background monitoring their chats.

When my own kids are in their bedroom on a laptop or smartphone with video chat capability, I know this is a recipe for disaster. I ask them to only do homework in their room and social media in the family room. I monitor their activity, and I call them out if they break the rules. Kids connected to the internet should be in a public and regularly used family space, even if you are not looking over their shoulders.

I also recommend that parents of younger children play internet safety games with them to make sure that everyone is up to speed on the latest threats. Some of my favorites are at and

And don’t ignore privacy settings and your ability to set them. If parents need help setting privacy settings and guidelines or want to know where their teens ― or at least their iPhones ― have been, they can get free help. For Apple families, go to this site. For Google families, use this one.  

What is the allure of talking to strangers online anyway? 

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how kids, teens and young adults know about “stranger danger” in the physical world, but they lose that concept in the digital world?  When I teach in the schools from K-12 to universities and colleges, I’ll go over stranger danger to eager “Yes!” [responses] and some eye rolls. But if I ask this question: “If you get a friend invite from a friend of a friend, do you delete it or accept it,” guess what the answer is overwhelmingly? They accept it because “it would be rude not to.” Whoa! That stranger danger rule must apply and extend to the digital world, and that includes “friends of friends.”

Make sure your kids know that chat rooms are wide open, easy to use, and, although some harmless fun can be found there, these sites are a magnet for pedophiles and other creeps.

In addition to children’s video chat sites, there are online video chat services that are designed for businesses and consumers that are used by kids. The good news is that many of them offer privacy settings, so you can lock your kid’s profile down and keep strangers out.

Any other practical tips you can share?

Parents may or may not know about the ubiquitous presence of “secret apps.”  Be concerned. “Secret apps” may look like your average smartphone app, and when you look at your kid’s phone, you may think they downloaded fancy calculators, word processing, some games and photo editing apps. But look more closely: Those seemingly innocent apps may be hiding a secret activity behind them. There’s a lucrative market for secret apps ― also called decoy apps ― that can obfuscate your kid’s transactions and activity on a cellphone. 

Worried your teen might be coerced into sexting? They might be using one of the apps such as Private Photo Vault (it hides private photos behind a pin code) or My Utilities (this is a telltale sign they have downloaded an app called Best Secret Folder).  

Want to know how big this market is? I went to the Apple App Store and typed in “Secret Apps” and was presented with 780 choices.

OK, this is scary stuff! Any parting wisdom you want to add?

Yes. Teach by example. Show them, don’t just tell them. You might want to start with monitoring your own online usage and compare it to your kids’. There are multiple apps that are designed to show you how often you check your cellphone to help you create your own healthier digital habits. Try

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.

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