Cyber Security: Special Issues for Young Children

Children may be particularly at risk online because they’re not always aware of the risks associated with what they’re doing. For that reason, children need close supervision when using digital devices and also need to be taught basic cyber security skills as early as possible.

Preschoolers (2-5 years)

Preschoolers are one of the fastest-growing groups of computer users, particularly with the arrival of touch-screen devices such as the iPad and iPhone. Recent American research has found that half of five-year-olds go online every day, along with a quarter of three-year-olds.[1] In addition, small children are also the fastest-growing group of video game players.[2]

One of the main issues facing children this age is making in-game purchases without understanding what they are doing. For example, one five-year-old managed to spend $500 on the free game Mini Golf King.[3] Though both game and tablet makers say that they have made it more difficult for children to make unapproved purchases, the following precautions should still be taken if children are playing games online or on tablets :

  • When making a purchase on a child’s behalf, use a prepaid credit card or turn the device on and off afterwards to make sure no credit card information remains in the device’s memory.
  • If the child is playing on a mobile device, set it to “Airplane mode” to turn off its wireless connection.
  • On an iOS device like an iPad, set up Ask to Buy. You can see the instructions here:
  • On an Android device, open the Play Store app and then tap the icon that looks like three horizontal lines. Scroll down to settings, tap on “Require authentication for purchases” and select “All purchases.” You’ll now have to enter your password anytime your child tries to buy an app or make in-app purchases.
  • Talk to children about in-game purchases and make sure they understand that these cost real money.

School-aged kids (5-12)

Children in this age range increasingly use the internet to socialize with other children. Children’s virtual worlds such as Hero Up and Club Pony Pals are popular with kids at the younger end, while older kids may start using social media or texting and are likely to be using the internet for schoolwork.

  • Spam, some of which includes scam messages, becomes an issue for children at this age in several different contexts: through email, social media, texts and the chat functions of games. Kids need to be taught to never reply to spam and to never follow unknown links.
  • Both typosquatting and mousetrapping can lead kids to inappropriate and unpleasant places on the Web. Bookmark your children’s favourite websites and tell them to come to you if they need help or land anywhere unexpected.

[1] Gutnick, A. L., Robb, M., Takeuchi, L., & Kotler, J. Always connected: The new digital media habits of young children. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

[2] Kids and Gaming 2011, The NPD Group, October 11, 2011.

[3] Kleinman, Zoe. “My son spent £3,160 in one game.’ BBC News, July 15 2019.