Online Safety, Security, and Privacy: Talking to Kids about the Basics

Cross the road without looking and you might get hit by a car. Touch a hot stove and it might really hurt. Kids are taught the basics of common sense early. But what about online safety?

Are we teaching them to apply the same common sense and critical thinking skills when they get online? Just as in the real world, it’s important to help them understand the basics so they can avoid accidents or getting burned.

Here are some easy ways to help kids see why offline rules apply online, and some tips to help you keep them safer and more secure when they power-on:

You don’t give everyone in the neighborhood a house key:

That’s obvious, right? If you did, anyone could come into your house. (You wouldn’t leave a spare key on the porch either because then anyone could find it and use it to get in.)

When it comes to online accounts, the same rule applies.

It’s important to teach kids to use strong passwords – they are the virtual keys to their accounts. And like real keys, they shouldn’t be shared with anyone but a parent and shouldn’t be easy to find or figure out. (That means no using “password” or the dog’s name. It’s the digital equivalent to leaving the key under the mat or in one of those fake rocks.)

Everyone has to go to the doctor:

While they may not like it, kids know that everyone has to go to the doctor for regular check-ups. It’s something we do often so we can catch a problem early or solve one before it gets too bad.

Security updates are our computer’s check-ups. Talk to kids about the importance of running security scans and updating software – they are the immunization shots that protect us from nasty bugs, viruses, and other threats that can happen online.

Mom would never hand her credit card to a stranger and ask them to hold it:

I’m willing to bet that no child has ever watched their parent take out a credit card in the grocery line and hand it to a stranger for safekeeping. They learn from our interactions and behaviors that some things – especially things with personal or financial information – should not be shared.

It’s the same with online safety.

Make sure kids understand that some information should not be shared and teach them to think critically when it comes to websites they visit or files they download. Unfortunately, not every site can be trusted.

We have to wear pants in public:

Duh! Right? It’s obvious that there are things we need to keep private when we are in public.

It’s no different on social media or other websites kids use. Some things just aren’t meant to be on display in public and they need to understand that.

While most sites offer privacy settings to help control who can see what, it’s important to remind kids that their privacy is also in the hands of everybody they interact with online. That means, the more friends and interactions they have, the less control they have over the information people can share or see about them.

Online, the common-sense learning curve can be steep. However, it’s easier when kids can apply lessons they’ve already learned offline from parents, teachers, and friends. Let’s be there to guide them and help them tackle the climb.

What are some other examples of how kids can apply offline common sense and critical thinking skills to online safety?

Published on: December 02, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Sarah Hoffman

Sarah is the Project Administrator at the Family Online Safety Institute. She helps run FOSI’s Platform for Good (PfG) and writes and develops many of the campaigns and blogs featured on the

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Recent Comments

As a School Resource Officer at a middle school I see a direct correlation between the number of social media friends a child has and the amount of bullying the child gets. I have unscientifically come up with a number of 200 social media friends for the “safe” amount of friends a child under 17 should have. I have found the as the number reaches 300 an anonymous factor starts taking over where a child is more likely to get bullied and or asked to participate in inappropriate social media behaviors. I teach the children and their parents to use a 200 friend limit when it comes to online friends. The kids that abide by this are rarely cyber-bullied and it is much easier for parents to keep track of their children’s online habits.

This is brilliant. Have you considered conducting a scientific study to prove your hypothesis?

Best, @MsGreene
Note: I am the co-founder of, but I am not Dr. Greene and I am not a doctor. Please keep that in mind when reading my comments and replies.

I so very often get asked by clients about how to monitor their kids’ internet use. This is fabulous. I love the headlines. I am going to pass it on!

Thanks, Patricia! Glad you found it helpful! I’ll have posts up daily this week on similar topics.