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Keeping Children Safe Online

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When I first started using the internet, I was roughly at the same level of computer literacy as my father, Within a year, however, I was lightyears ahead of him, ready to give him lessons in how to navigate the chatrooms, Usenet groups and discussion boards that made up the bulk of my browsing experience back then. The notion of filtering software and online safety never occurred to either of us: me, because I was unlikely to use his credit card to buy anything dodgy; him, because he couldn’t imagine anything on the ‘net that I needed to be kept away from. I had to teach myself to be wary of the constant “a/s/l” questions, to ignore the requests for pictures or my contact details, and to watch out for emails and messages with suspect links.

Children growing up today have never known a world without the internet. Emails, instant message and social networks for them are taken to be as much of a given as electricity and indoor plumbing. As the internet has grown, there has been a corresponding rise in parental fears that behind the smiley emoticons and friendly messages are adult criminals intent on groom children for their own nefarious purposes. Watch To Catch a Predator or read a press release from the Internet Watch Foundation and it’s easy to understand why some parents are convinced that Paedogeddon has arrived online.

I know of one dad who is positively Orwellian when it comes to his children’s internet use. Not only does he monitor all the traffic on the home network, and periodically check their browser histories, but he’s also installed keylogging software on their laptops that reports back all of their activity to his own computer on a daily basis. His argument is that by knowing what they are saying, who they are chatting to and which files they are sharing, he can take action to ensure their safety before they do anything stupid. “They can have privacy when they are old enough to vote,” is his mantra. Personally, I believe his approach is a little excessive, but then I don’t have kids and don’t work in IT security.

For the non-techie parent, there are any number of web filtering options available. What many parents don’t understand, especially those who are not as tech-savvy as their children, is that such measures are not particularly difficult to circumvent. Not only that, but this does not actually protect children from any online dangers from websites that have been deemed as acceptable.

A better approach may be to take an interest in what children are actually looking at. Yes, it’s more time-intensive, and yes, parents will sound like humourless doom-mongers, but unless they want to launch an IT black ops campaign in the manner of my aforementioned friend, it’s probably for the best. A few simple steps mean that children can not only feel safe, but can also enjoy a degree of autonomy.

First, any child who is not tech-savvy should not have a computer of their own. By which I mean, if they have access to a computer at home, it should be a communal one. Keep them browsing where a glance over their should will reveal their recent activity, and they are more likely to stick to more innocent websites. Next, parents should browse with their kids. True, they may have to spend a few tedious hours swapping virtual pets or playing mindless games, but at least the advice they give will then actually be relevant to their kids’ browsing habits. Finally, if during the course of their browsing, parents need to warn their offspring away from a particular website or online contact, they need to be clear and honest when giving their reasons why. “Because I said so” is not going to cut it.

So long as the internet continues to exist, so too will scam merchants an online predators. It’s only natural to want to protect children, but keeping them in a virtual walled garden is as unrealistic as hoping they will never need to use a computer. It does nothing to prepare them for the time they will be responsible for their own safety, not does it protect them from the threads that lurk on seemingly benign websites. The best protection parents can give their children for their electronic lives is to make sure they are well-informed and aware of the risks they may face. It may require a little more effort than firing up some web filtering software, but it will stand them in better stead in the long run.

[Image by CC511]

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