How to Teach Children to Be Safe Online

A father smiles as he holds his daughter while teaching her how to be safe online.

It’s a scenario familiar to many parents—opening your credit card bill and finding a string of charges related to kids’ online spending. Frequently, it's from in-app gaming purchases or other virtual stores that focus on selling to children.

You’re certainly not alone. In recent years, Apple, Google and Amazon have had to refund millions to parents for their children’s unauthorized in-app charges, after receiving orders by the Federal Trade Commission to do so.

Fortunately, parents can take steps to prevent this from happening as well as using the situation to talk with kids about how to be financially responsible and an astute consumer. Part of the challenge is recognizing that digital games can manipulate children with “bait apps” that make it difficult for them to resist purchases.

With a combination of education, rules and tech restrictions, you can breathe easier knowing your children—and your finances—aren’t so vulnerable while your children are online. Here are some strategies to help.

Use Tools for Restricting In-App Purchases

Each type of digital device and platform has tools you can tap for restricting purchases.

With Apple, you can use the Screen Time tool to prevent your children from making accidental or multiple purchases from its app store and other Apple services. You can require a password for purchases, prevent certain types of purchases, or disable purchasing completely.

You have several options for doing this:

  • Set up a Family Sharing group if your children have their own devices. Use the Ask to Buy tool so that you can screen and approve their purchase requests. By doing this, whenever your child starts to make a purchase or download something for free, you, as the family organizer, will receive a request. That lets you see what the item is and approve or decline it, directly from your own iPhone, iPad or another device. This can monitor products in iTunes, Apple Books, App Store, in-app purchases and iCloud storage.
  • Require a password for purchases on your device if you allow your children to use it.
  • Turn off in-app purchases entirely using Screen Time on any devices.
  • You can follow step-by-step instructions for these options here.

With Microsoft products such as Xbox One, with its popular games including Fortnite, Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto, you can help prevent unauthorized purchases during the excitement of play on the gaming console. Require a password for each purchase by following instructions here.

You can keep track of your child's Microsoft Store purchases, track spending and review the order history. To prevent unauthorized purchases and account changes, you can create a passkey and require it for signing in when you’re not around, making purchases, and changing your settings. This also prevents children from changing parental controls on their accounts if you forget to sign out.

Other ways to reign in-use of Xbox spending include:

  • Making an account for everyone who uses your Xbox so you can control who can make purchases and change parental controls.
  • Adding a guest account on your console to keep your account and payment info safe when your child plays with friends who don’t have an account.
  • Not adding a credit card to the account of any family member you don’t want making purchases, including children. Consider buying Xbox gift cards for your kids instead.
  • Control the amount of money to your child's Microsoft account, and set limits for how much your children spend in your family group at the Microsoft Store.
  • Turn on Ask a Parent to require adult approval for things your child wants to buy in the Microsoft Store.

Google offers a tool called Family Link for requiring parental approval for app purchases, however, it tool allows children to opt out at age 13. To regulate in-app payments on Android devices, set a password for the Google account that is used for making purchases from the Android app store, Google Play.

Pay for Apps That Don't Offer More Purchases

Particularly when it comes to apps for younger children who may not be able to understand the value of digital transactions, paying a bit more for apps that don't have in-app purchases may be the best approach.

Restrict Bank Account Access

Link accounts to a credit card, which carries fraud protection, rather than a debit card, from which funds can be withdrawn immediately, directly from your bank account. Another option is to use payment tools such as PayPal or Google Pay.

Keep Information Safe

Teach children to take these steps to reduce the chance of hackers stealing your bank and profile information:

  • Sign out after making purchases and close the web browser.
  • Keep passwords safe by not sharing them with anyone except a parent or guardian.
  • Make purchases from your home which has a secure, private WiFi network.
  • Check for an HTTPS web address, indicating it’s on a secure network.

Teach Good Consumer Habits

Discuss with your children how to be discerning online buyers.

Simply looking at reviews can easily help spot a red flag. Other buyers who have been scammed, have been unhappy with the product or have had problems with the seller typically will post this in the product reviews.

Show children how to check for added tax, shipping and handling fees and how they can dramatically increase the cost of a purchase.

Parenting Skills Required

Guiding children toward responsible online purchasing requires setting boundaries, just as with other aspects of children’s lives. Parents should set some rules about purchases and consider how much they want to spend on these digital items.

Taking a look at your child’s digital world through their eyes is helpful, too. It’s easy for a child or teenager to be excited or distracted in the midst of play, whether they are by themselves or with friends when making a purchase online.

At the end of the day, having a firm, yet gentle discussion about those boundaries will give them some important tools for helping them grow into responsible adult consumers.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Fifth Third Bank, National Association, and are solely the opinions of the author. This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute the rendering of legal, accounting, or other professional services by Fifth Third Bank, National Association or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, and are provided without any warranty whatsoever. Deposit and credit products provided by Fifth Third Bank, Member FDIC.