The start of the new school year marks an exciting new phase for kids, but it could also mark the first step into a minefield of online risks.

This is the warning from Doros Hadjizenonos, regional director at Fortinet, who says young children, tweens and teens face a growing risk from predators, scammers, fraudsters and bullies online. For kids who have just received their first smartphones, or those who are keen to fit into a new school environment, the online world can be especially dangerous.

Giving the enemy ammunition

Hadjizenonos says the biggest risks facing kids online involves the information they willingly share. “Most kids don’t fully understand how the photos, videos, and personal information they voluntarily share can be used against them. For example, there have been cases where fraudsters pose as online friends, convince young people to share inappropriate photos of themselves, and then use those photos to extort money out of them. The consequences can be devastating.”

He points out that beyond the immediate risks, anything kids share in the online space also contributes to an indelible digital footprint, which universities and future employers will explore when considering a person’s background.

“Kids need to understand that they need to manage their online presence responsibly, as it has the potential impact on future opportunities,” he says. “It’s important for kids to understand that whatever they post on the internet is there forever, and everyone can see it. This includes messages, private photos and videos. All of these can be copied and shared.”

Anti-social environments

Social and gaming sites present a range of risks to kids online too, Hadjizenonos says, from cyberbullying to phishing.

According to UNESCO, cyberbullying impacts one in 10 children, leading to long-lasting consequences on their mental health, well-being, and education. Nearly half of American teens have experienced bullying or harassment online, with many perpetrators targeting victims based on their physical appearance, race, or ethnicity, according to Pew Research. The bullying and harassment can take the form of calling the victims offensive names, spreading false rumours about them, sending them explicit images they did not ask for, or even direct physical threats.

Kids are also at risk of fraudsters and predators, who find it easier to target them in the virtual world than in the real world. In particular, Hadjizenonos notes that teens are particularly at risk of phishing and online shopping scams. “In gaming, where people can share gifts, kids also need to be cautious about any links and attachments they are sent, as these could launch malware or steal personal information.”

Building a safe, trusted environment

Keeping kids safer online begins with communication, Hadjizenonos says. “Kids need a trusted adult they can talk to. The adult should be there to double-check any communications and links kids are concerned about. And if kids get into trouble, or have done something they regret, they need to know they have someone they can go to for help.”

He notes parents should update all software and applications, secure the Wi-Fi environment and use built-in parental controls on devices to help detect inappropriate or dangerous situations.

“Kids need to realise the risks of using weak passwords or reusing passwords across multiple sites. Identity theft and reputational damage are genuine risks, so kids need to be taught not to post information about where they live, their location, or what school they go to. They also need to keep their online profiles private, so only their friends and family can access them,” he says.

For additional security, parents can control kids’ social media pages and could even download a device usage contract between kids and parents, he says.