The Basics to Online Safety

The Internet, though useful, presents dangers to everyone who uses it, regardless of age. Although there are certain rules for Internet safety that apply to all users—be careful what you share online and make sure you’re visiting secure websites, for example—each age group also must be aware of the safety issues they may face with the typical activities they do online.

Basic Internet Safety For Kids

Children who use the Internet for games or YouTube videos can easily find themselves on an unfamiliar site with just a few clicks. It’s important that kids who use the Internet often understand these few safety rules:

  • Don’t talk to strangers on the Internet, and if someone messages, you don’t need to respond.
  • Don’t post pictures of yourself online or share personal information with someone who asks.
  • Never download anything from the Internet without a parent or guardian’s permission.
  • If you accidentally go to a website you shouldn’t be on, tell a parent or guardian.

Screen time limits and app restrictions can be useful for parents of Internet-savvy children. There are many great educational sites for kids that should be taken full advantage of as long as kids are aware of how to keep themselves safe online.

Basic Internet Safety For Teens

Teenagers usually have a better understanding of the Internet and the above basic safety rules, but social media and online dating present their own set of problems. See the Social Media and Online Dating sections below for more details on staying safe online. The most important thing for teens to remember is that everything online has an impact. Posts can’t be permanently erased, and doing acts like cyberbullying may seem okay behind a screen, but the messages reach real people.

Passwords

Passwords are an often overlooked—but critical—part of online safety. If your passwords for sensitive accounts on banking sites, loan portals, or social medias fall into the wrong hands, your online and in-person safety becomes at risk.

A password needs to be three things: strong, impersonal, and unique. Strong passwords require a combination of letters, both capital and lowercase, numbers, and special characters. Make sure that your password has no personal information; don’t use anniversaries, birthdays, pet names, or any other details that could be found out from another source. Even if you use numbers and special characters, making a password personal often means it’s easier to guess. Finally, never use a password more than once. It may be annoying at first, but having unique passwords for each account will keep you safer online.

Most importantly, never share your passwords with others. Write them down on paper or in a notebook and keep them in a secure place rather than on your phone as an extra security measure. If you’re not sure how strong your passwords are, run them through the Password Strength Test to ensure you’re keeping your accounts secure.

Scams

The Internet is full of scams—and, unfortunately, victims of scams. It can be incredibly helpful to know what to watch out for online. Charity scams, email phishing scams, and social media scams are just a few of the potential pitfalls online.

The most basic rule to consider when evaluating whether or not an offer’s a scam or legitimate is this: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Don’t click on any links that claim you’ve won something or been entered in a contest. If you have good spyware protection on your computer, you shouldn’t be clicking on alerts on Facebook or websites that say your computer’s safety is at risk. These,  ironically, are attempts to put viruses and damaging software on your computer. Never open emails from unknown sources. Before giving money or information anywhere, research first; make sure the person or organization has been authenticated. Scams, especially charity scams, spike in frequency after big events or natural disasters, so don’t be lured in by those claiming to help organizations that don’t exist or are suspicious.

Exercise caution when anyone asks for money or tells you “immediate action” is necessary. Do research before clicking any links or giving out valuable information.

Email

Email phishing has unfortunately gotten more common as email use increases. Phishing targets users in hopes that they’ll reveal account information or give money. Sometimes malware can be installed on your computer by users simply clicking a link in a suspicious email. The emails look legitimate, which tricks users into giving up information or clicking suspicious links.

Recognizing phishing red flags can help users spot deceptive emails. If the email has an unknown sender, was sent at an odd hour, or has unexpected attachments, these are all indicators of an unsafe email. If you recognize that an email isn’t legitimate, don’t open it; it’s safer to delete the message.

Spam email deserves to be considered if only for purposes of keeping a clear inbox, which helps your computer’s security software run smoother. If you have trouble with spam email and can’t tell what’s legitimate, check out this article for ways to decipher the authenticity messages.

Dating

Online dating has grown significantly in popularity through websites like eHarmony and Match.com. It can even be done on a phone now through apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. While the convenience makes it that much easier to find a partner, it also opens up users to more online safety risks than ever.

Catfishing is the most concerning safety threat when using online dating apps. A catfish will pose as someone else in order to get something from victims. When using online dating apps or sites, watch for these warning signs to determine if the person you’re talking to is real or a catfish:

  • They never show their face
  • Your relationship moves along much faster than normal
  • The person asks for money or financial assistance
  • They only send pictures and turn down all requests for video calls

Although you have to share a certain amount of personal information online for dating apps, try to limit what you do share for your own safety. Don’t publicly put out your birthdate or specific location if you can help it, and never share passwords or personal information like address, Social Security number, or phone number (unless you’ve determined the person is legitimate and you’d like to switch to texting).

Online dating can also be risky for someone unfamiliar with the Internet; if you’re older and looking to get into online dating, read our comprehensive guide in order to keep yourself safe.

Shopping

Shopping has become another popular online activity. It’s convenient and often opens shoppers up to more options than could be found in-store. But it’s important to keep online safety in mind when shopping on the Internet; scams and stolen information are always a risk.

Never save your card information when shopping online. The temptation to keep everything saved for future convenience is strong, but ultimately entering your card information with each order is the safer option. The same goes for store accounts. Log out after each visit, just to ensure that your information is not at risk for theft.

Some shopping websites are safer than others. Sites like Wish and Shein have garnered poor reputations for keeping users’ card and account information safe. Additionally, their products are often not as they seem. The same rule of thumb for scams and online dating applies here, too. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.

If you’re new to online shopping and worried about staying safe, check out our comprehensive guide to online shopping here.

Social Media

There are many things to keep in mind when using social media. You can't completely erase anything you post on social media, even if it’s deleted from an account. Social media etiquette can keep you from finding yourself in a sticky situation at work or a professional environment later. Don’t post anything unprofessional or illegal.

Although social media prompts users to share personal information, consider what’s really necessary to share and what is better kept private. Publicly posting your phone number, address, or current location is never a good idea, even in the spirit of updating followers; home invaders can make use of this information to know when you’re away.

Keep your passwords secure and consider changing your passwords once a year. This will keep your accounts safer from hackers online. For strong passwords, see the section above, and if you’re looking for more information on keeping your social media accounts safe, check out our guide to social media and online privacy.