Switchful Logo

How to stay safe on the internet

Headshot of Dave Schafer
Researched by
Dave SchaferContributing Writer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor
Updated 2/6/23

We’re committed to transparency. We may earn money when you follow our recommendations, but compensation doesn’t affect our ratings. Learn more.

How to stay safe on the internet video thumbnail
How to stay safe on the internet
Our expert advice to staying safe online
Source: Switchful Youtube

The modern internet is one of the greatest advancements in human history—a fact that is easy to or take for granted. It’s also easy to forget that the internet can be a dangerous place.

Fortunately, a few basic precautions can make a tremendous difference. Following these security and privacy best practices can make your online experience safer and more secure.

A woman using a laptop computer with a list of how to stay safe on the internet

1. Use strong passwords

One of the most foundational things you can do to keep yourself safe and secure online is to use proper passwords. What constitutes a “proper” password, though? Let’s look at a few points:

  • Use a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. This gives you a much larger pool of characters to choose from.
  • Don’t make the password personally identifiable. In other words, don’t use your daughter’s name or your mom’s birthday. This makes it easier to guess.
  • Longer is better. Every character you add to your password makes it significantly harder for hackers to crack it with brute-force tools.
  • Avoid using the same password for more than one site or service. In the event that service is compromised, every other service that uses that password is also effectively compromised.
  • If you ignore the above point, at least make your email password unique. Since password recovery methods so often use email, having your email compromised means that all your passwords are compromised.

An excellent tip given to us by a computer pro, which combines all the above points, involves creating a phrase you can easily remember and using the first letter of each word for the password. So, if your phrase is “Spider-Man’s real name is Peter Parker,” your password could be “$Mrn1PP.”

spiderman on a computer screen with a quote of how to make a strong password

One potential issue with following the above rules is that your passwords can become really hard to remember. One way around this issue is to use a password manager. These are apps that help store and manage your passwords. They can automatically generate ultra-secure passwords, and then store them all behind a single master password.

When you go to log in, you just enter that one master password, and the manager then unlocks and fills in that site’s unique password. Some of the most popular password managers include 1Password, Bitwarden, and LastPass.

2. Stick to secure sites

Avoid sites that only have “HTTP” and not “HTTPS” in front of them. HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol, while HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure. That last word is key—sites with HTTPS are encrypted, whereas regular HTTP sites are not. This means that, in theory, anyone can intercept the traffic on a non-HTTPS site and read the data in plain text.

A quote with icons displaying the difference between https and http

Now, it can be pretty tough to pick out that one single letter in a long URL string, especially during a busy day at work. Fortunately, most modern browsers make it pretty easy to tell the difference. Typically, they’ll put a closed padlock symbol in the address bar of secure HTTPS sites, and they’ll make it extremely obvious when a site is using insecure HTTP.

In fact, some browsers won’t even let you visit insecure sites—instead, they’ll present a big, bold warning screen and make you jump through hoops to confirm you want to visit. This is for good reason—these sites are potentially dangerous, especially if you enter any information, such as usernames or passwords.

3. Be wary of public Wi-Fi

Free public Wi-Fi has become commonplace, and it’s very convenient. However, it’s also often very nonsecure. Ideally, you want to select networks that are secured with a password (even if it’s easy to guess) and that are tied to reputable businesses.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to avoid downloading or installing anything over public Wi-Fi, and to avoid logging into sites or entering passwords. Finally, when you’re done, go into your device’s network settings and “forget” the network—this keeps your device from connecting to the network automatically in the future, so you can’t accidentally connect to an unsecured network.

4. Don’t open files unless you know the source

For some, this might seem like Computer Security 101, but it’s worth repeating: never open files from unknown sources. In theory, any file can contain a virus—pictures, videos, Word documents, and especially applications and PDFs.

The takeaway is simple: don’t download programs from strange websites, and don’t open files emailed to you unless you absolutely recognize and trust the source. Speaking of email—make sure to double-check the actual email address of the sender, not just the displayed name. Many scam emails use legit-seeming names, but the email address is clearly not legit. Microsoft has an excellent rundown on spotting email phishing scams.

5. Avoid sharing personal information

The internet offers lots of opportunities for connecting with new people, whether it’s on social media, online forums, or other platforms. However, this also poses a potential risk because, unfortunately, not everyone is honest and trustworthy.

This means you should avoid sharing any personal information, like your home address, phone number, or current physical location. This goes even for anonymous sites like Reddit—it’s shockingly easy for dedicated people to identify someone.

One final tip is to wait to post vacation pictures until you’ve returned home. If you put them up while you’re still away, it can make your house more likely to be targeted for a break-in.

6. Use antivirus software

Windows computers, Android phones and tablets, and (to a lesser extent) Mac computers can all benefit from antivirus software. This software can either scan files that you download or scan the entire device on a regular schedule.

The only devices where antivirus software is wasted are iPhones and iPads. The operating systems of these devices are so locked down that even if you got a virus to run, it wouldn’t be able to do anything.

A quote displaying how viruses are not very effective on IOS platforms

Mac users often tout that they don’t need antivirus software, but this is only half-true. It’s true that Macs are less vulnerable than Windows computers, but this is because there are fewer Mac viruses in the wild, not because there are no Mac viruses.

Beyond the basics

If you’re ready to take your online security to the next level, check out these in-depth guides.

ISPs with the best security features and gear

Many internet service providers (ISPs) offer additional security features as part of your service package. It can make some sense to use the tools offered by your ISP, especially if they’re included in your package price. In this article, we review the ISPs that have the best security features and give you a better idea of what to look for.

Security features to look for in home Wi-Fi gear

Similarly, home Wi-Fi gear, like wireless routers and mesh network systems, usually have some built-in security features. These features include various forms of encryption, firewalls, access control, and more. In this article, we review key features to look for in equipment.

Best internet security software

Antivirus software remains as important as ever, and often brings additional security features designed to keep you and your family safe online. In this article, we explore what features you actually need and round up the best software options for staying safe online.

How to keep your kids safe on the internet

The internet offers almost limitless opportunities for kids to learn and explore the world. It also offers plenty of opportunities for them to get into trouble. This article focuses on ways you can keep your kids safe as they explore online.

Switchful article generic thumbnail
Although most of the world uses the internet every day, not many people take the time to understand how it all works. But getting your bearings when it comes to internet basics is a good first step toward making smarter decisions online.
Switchful article generic thumbnail
A firewall is a device or software that monitors network activity and blocks unauthorized or suspicious network traffic. Think of it like a coffee filter keeping grounds out of your morning brew, but with far more serious implications.

The people behind our research
We believe the best information comes from first-hand customer experience and methodical research by subject-matter experts. We never source information from "content farms," and we don’t generate content using artificial intelligence (AI). You can trust that our recommendations are fact-checked meticulously and sourced appropriately by authentic, industry-recognized people.
Contributing researcher
Headshot of Dave Schafer
Researched by
Dave SchaferContributing Writer

Dave Schafer is a freelance writer with a passion for making technical concepts easy for anyone to understand. He’s been covering the world of gadgets, tech, and the internet for over 8 years, with a particular focus on TV and internet service providers. When he’s not writing, Dave can be found playing guitar or camping with his family and golden retriever, Rosie.

Contributing reviewer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.