5 Simple Actions to Keep Your Family Safe Online

This October is the 10th anniversary of National Cyber Security Awareness Month.  The more research I do on internet safety, the more it becomes clear how important it is for us as parents to be involved with what our kids are doing online to help keep them safe.  And by online, I mean on their computers, phones, tablets, iPods, and video games.  I know it can be overwhelming for parents, especially those who feel they are not “tech savvy”.  That is why I created Be Web Smart! So for Cyber Security Awareness month, I’m asking you to do JUST ONE THING from this list.  Any small step you take will help keep your kids safer online.

National Cyber Security Awareness Month

Stay Safe Online is a great resource and they have an entire section with tips and tools for parents.  Here are some of the recommendations.  Choose one.  Then go do it!  Each of these will only take a few minutes. What are you waiting for?

1. Turn off location services on your smartphone or child’s mobile device

Why? Some apps use location information provided by the device’s GPS.  For example Google maps uses your current location to provide driving directions.  Some apps allow you to “check in” at a location.  When the phone’s camera accesses this information – or ‘metadata’ – the times, dates, and geographical coordinates where images are taken are collected. When those photos are shared – by your teen on Instagram for example – that metadata stays with the photo.

While the geospatial data can be helpful in myriad web applications that plot image locations, it also opens a door for criminals, including burglars, stalkers, and predators. It’s not a stretch to imagine young teens’ images of their ventures to the mall or beach being culled by web predators and meticulously plotted on online maps.

“It’s not something we think is happening. We know it’s happening,” said Kevin Gutfleish, head of the Innocent Images Intelligence Unit in the FBI’s Cyber Division.  (From FBI.gov)

How: Here are instructions for turning off location services on an iPod touch, iPad, or iPhone.

2. Cover your webcam

Why? If your computer were to be infected by malware – for example, by clicking an infected attachment in an e-mail, or downloading an infected file from a website – a cybercriminal could take control of your computer remotely.  They could then turn on the webcam, recording and saving images without your knowledge.  A recent example of this kind of cyberstalking involved Miss Teen USA.

How? This one is really easy. Find a sticky note or a Band-Aid, and stick it over the webcam camera generally found at the top of a laptop screen. Make sure the sticky part doesn’t touch the camera.  Then remove when you need to use the webcam.

3. Secure your mobile device with a passcode (have your child add or update theirs too)

Why: Cell phone theft has risen in recent years.  In San Francisco alone, from November 2012 to April 2013, 579 thefts of cellphones or tablets were reported, accounting for 41 percent of all serious crime.  And that’s just one U.S. city.  “The data on your phone is more valuable than on your desktop computer, partly because it has the more recent information,” according to Microsoft’s chief online safety officer, Jacqueline Beauchere. (More here)

How to turn your Passcode in iOS7 to protect your mobile device

How:  Since many Be Web Smart readers have iDevices, here are the instructions for iPods, iPads and iPhones.

  1. Go to Settings > General > Passcode Lock.
  2. Click Turn Passcode On.
  3. Enter a passcode.  Choose one that is easy for you to remember, but hard for someone else to guess.  Don’t use your birthday, anniversary year, last 4 digits of your social security number, or any easily-guessable info.
  4. Enter again to confirm.
  5. Click “Require Passcode” and choose the amount of time the screen must be locked before requiring a passcode.  (Shorter times are more secure.)
  6. To make things even more secure, instead of using a simple passcode, turn that selection off which will allow you to use a “strong” passcode.

And this link provides instructions for both Apple and Android devices.

4. Check your Firewall

Why:  Firewalls help keep hackers from using your computer to send out your personal information without your permission.  Think of the firewall as a bouncer standing between the Internet and your computer.  The bouncer decides who gets in. Your operating system and/or security software likely comes with a pre-installed firewall, but make sure you turn on these features.  (From http://staysafeonline.org/stay-safe-online/keep-a-clean-machine/securing-your-home-network)

How: This will vary depending on your computer operating system.

5. Review your child’s online profiles

Why:  Kids may be sharing more information than you know.  Even with a private Facebook account or Instagram profile, some information may be publicly available as seen in the Instagram screenshot below.  They may have included their age, first and last name, or school.  In fact recent research reveals that 71% have posted their school name or city where they live, and 92% have posted their real name. Unfortunately, a cybercriminal could use this information to their advantage.

Private instagram account but can see first, last and school name
Even though this user is private, we can still see her first and last name and school name (screened out here to protect privacy!)

How:  Spend 10 minutes with your child or teen and have them show you their social media accounts and apps.  Do you know what sites and apps they are using? This may be a wakeup call! Let them know you are not trying to stop them from using these services (although that is certainly your choice and if they are under 13, they may actually be breaking the terms of service of some sites).  You are educating and helping them to stay safe on the sites they are using.  Have them remove any personal information.


So there you have it, five relatively easy and important actions you can take. Which one did you choose? Leave a comment and let me know!


Other Protections – some not quite as easy to implement, but important:

  • Password protected your Wi-Fi router
  • Use Antivirus /security software, keep it updated, scan regularly
  • Keep browsers, operating systems updated with latest version and patches. i.e. Windows update will automatically install updates with security patches
  • Turn off computer(s) when not in use
  • Don’t open attachments/emails from unknown senders; don’t download free files from unknown sources/sites
  • Use strong passwords on all sites, accounts.  Change them regularly and don’t use the same password for all sites
  • Install Parental control software  – filter out adult oriented sites


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  1. says

    Hi Jean – THANK YOU SO MUCH! As a child psychologist and parent of four, I find your advice essential reading for any mindful parent or child-serving professional. I’ve just spent the past hour reading various articles of yours, including the comment threads with your follow-up comments and links.

    From cyberbullying suicide prevention to protecting our kids from the perils of anonymous chat sites – very valuable info delivered in an intelligent and friendly way. Keep up the great work! I will definitely refer parents I work with to your site. And my wife and I will put plenty of these tips to good work at home, too. Again, many thanks.

    • Jean says

      Thanks for your kind words, Peter. I appreciate the comment and am glad to hear that you find the information helpful.

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