Technology has become a more important aspect of children’s education and teaching them about the world around them than ever before. This applies equally to laptops, smart phones, tablets, and the Internet itself. Many educational companies and schools have gone multimedia, with classroom and online instruction mixed to allow children to get the most information in the least amount of time possible. However, there are a number of dangers parents don’t think about or don’t believe there is a risk of their children being exposed to.
The online world is fraught with peril. As parents we hear horror stories every day about children being bullied in cyberspace, accessing sites that are wildly inappropriate for children’s eyes, and wandering onto sites that download so many harmful viruses onto their computers that the computer is effectively rendered unusable. The biggest problem is that too many parents assume that because sites A, B, and C are certified as kid-safe, a link to site D must be too. This is not the case at all, but many parents simply don’t know or don’t think to check and vet the information their kids view online.
In this article, we will discuss tips for making your kid’s Internet experience as safe, educational, and fun as possible while safeguarding you and your children from dangers such as malware, credit card and phone bill charges you weren’t expecting, as well as unauthorised surfing. We will also discuss some best practices to follow anytime your child goes online. Using these guidelines, you and your child can be sure you get the best out of the Internet without the scary things you don’t want your child exposed to!
General Best Practices
“My child would never go to that site!”
…Yes, they would.
Children are curious by nature. They are curious about the world, themselves, and other people. While this is a laudable trait in itself, unbridled, unmonitored curiosity can lead at best to awkward conversations and at worst to potentially criminal behaviour. One example of this, profiled on The Good Man Project, was a letter a man wrote to his 13-year-old son regarding the boy’s viewing of Internet pornography. While the father’s tactic for handling this problem was novel enough to raise eyebrows and provoke a flood of commentary both for and against the validity of the solution, the fact is that even good kids are curious and if not watched, will act upon that curiosity.
The first line of defence against this is to ensure that your child only has access to sites you have approved. Microsoft has user profiles you can set up for yourself and any other users, including your children. Among the settings for these profiles are web page browsing protocols. These allow you to filter out content you deem objectionable, including:
-Sites with child-inappropriate ratings;
-Sites without proper security credentials;
-Sites you have not specifically authorized your child to access.
While these settings help alleviate the problem somewhat, there are still more things you can do. Registering your computer with CyberNanny, Net Nanny, or Safe Eyes is a good way to help monitor what your children do online, especially when you can’t be there. These services log every page your child visits, describes how long the child was there and what they did, and when they logged off. You can have these status reports emailed to you and even communicate with your child directly, so you can send them an IM or email when it’s time to lay the computer down for the day.
Kid-safe browsers such as KidZui, Peanut Butter PC, and Hoopah Computer Explorer take this one step further. With these browsers, your child cannot access any website you do not specifically add to the browser’s permitted list. These browsers are set up to permit children age 2 and older to access the Web safely and appropriately for their age. While they require direct parental permission for your child to access any site, this adds another layer of protection to your child’s Internet experience.
The most important thing you can do, however, is to be present and actively watching what your child views and does on the Internet. All the kid-safe browsers and parental controls in the world won’t help if your child has somehow learned your password or has figured out a way to circumvent the parental controls. By being constantly available when your children are using the Internet, you can prevent kids from accidentally accessing adult-oriented material or pages that are inappropriate for your child’s age and maturity. As with everything else, there is still no substitute for parental supervision when children are using the computer to prevent mishaps.
Do’s and Don’ts
In theory, the Internet is very simple. Type an address or click on a link and go. This functionality is great for adults, but can land children in places they really don’t need to be. Most social networking sites are touted as being suitable for all ages 13+, but in reality skew heavily toward adult content and language. For this reason, here are some simple do’s and don’ts you should keep in mind while your child or children are surfing the web.
Register your IP address with a children’s safety website such as Net Nanny (above). Set up your system so it filters everything you can think of that your child might stumble across as an adjunct link to a site you already know to be safe. In this connection, it is a wise idea to thoroughly vet not only the sites your child will be visiting directly, but invest some time in looking through their partner sites. A child in the US was recently caught by his mother playing an animated spanking game which he accessed through a link to a supposedly “child-safe” site.
Teach your children about netiquette. We discuss saying “please” and “thank you,” general politeness, manners, and personal safety including stranger danger in the real world, but too many parents do not think to address the possible dangers of talking with others on the Internet. One of the most important things in this day and age is to teach your children to come directly to you or another adult if a stranger approaches your child in a chat room, on a message board, or if someone begins bullying them. By doing this, you can take the appropriate actions and prevent possible problems before they get started. Of utmost importance is to explain to your children why they should never give out information about themselves or you, including their age, date of birth, address, or other information without your prior approval. (If you don’t know yourself, this is because these bits of data can lead to identity theft or even more sinister activities.)
Never give your child your password or any other information. If they cannot get through the system this way, they are less likely to be able to access inappropriate content or charge things to your phone bill or credit card. As an example of this: Apple just settled a lawsuit with the parents of a nine-year-old child who had run up a bill for £980 in upgrades on the popular application game Ninjas Vs. Zombies. While the question of why a nine-year-old was playing such a game to begin with remains open, this case highlighted some rather serious problems with Apple’s user security. Many other apps, both for Apple and other systems such as the Android phone, have this same weakness.
The assumption is that if the user makes a purchase, it is authorised. While all the facts of the above exemplar case are not known, the parents alleged that Apple never attempted to contact them to verify the validity of the charges. In many cases, parents will enter their password and hand over the phone or tablet without a second thought…until the phone bill arrives. By that time, the inexplicable charges have often mounted to titanic proportions, prompting frantic phone calls and emails as they attempt to sort out what happened.
If at all possible, it is best not to leave your child unsupervised while they use your computer. Never auto-save passwords, particularly those for your computer user profile, your email and browser log-in information, or for other sites you visit frequently. Any information you keep on the computer for ready reference, such as credit card numbers and account passwords, should be stored under a separate password altogether. Please note, however, that this is neither a safe nor certain way of keeping your information safe. In addition to curious children whose intentions are relatively benign, this could leave your personal information open to hackers who may do any number of unscrupulous things with it.
The Internet is a wonderful invention when used wisely and monitored vigilantly. Since the entire point of the Internet is to collect and disseminate information and facilitate interaction and conversation between people, it is perhaps the greatest library and communications network on Earth. However, it does have a dark side, especially from a parent’s perspective. To combat this dark side, you have to think like a parent, a child, someone with benevolent intent, and a criminal all at the same time. Ask yourself “If I had bad intentions or wanted to draw children into something that isn’t appropriate, how would I do it?” While this kind of analysis may not be fun, it is a key component in keeping your children safe on the Internet.
The real key, of course, is and always has been communication. Explain to your children why they can access this site but not that one, why you can’t let them download that expensive app or game, and why you have set up the system as you have. By teaching them to talk to you openly about the benefits and risks of the Internet, you can also teach them to talk to you about other, more difficult matters later. This will foster a more open relationship and help keep your kids safe both on the Internet and in the real world.
This article was supplied by Joe Shervell, a keen blogger of childcare and parenting tips. He writes for www.naturalmat.com UK-based sellers of organic baby products’.