We all know that the internet is a vital resource for learning and education. But it can also be a dangerous playground for kids, with violent, sexually explicit or disturbing material, online predators and cyber-bullies apparently lurking around every corner.
So how can you keep your kids safe without depriving them of important digital access? Other than ripping the smartphones from their hands, locking away their tablets and banning them from using computers, how can you protect children when they are texting, searching or surfing online? If technology is the problem, perhaps technology also holds the answers.
Parents have to bear in mind many different dangers of internet use which might not immediately occur to their children; for instance exposure to cyberbullying, access to inappropriate web pages or mobile apps, giving away financial or other data, exposure to risky online challenges, and the simple problem of spending too much time with digital devices. Are your children safe from all these digital dangers?
The only realistic answer is that they’re not, because they’re all curious enough to explore unsafe places, and there are plenty of deliberately misleading sites and users out there ready to snare them.
For instance, practically any smart device, be it a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer, now has a built-in web-capable camera. While this is a great resource for communicating instantly around the world, it does also open children to the threat of spying, and the sending and receiving of inappropriate images.
Hackers can access a webcam, turning it on and off at will and accessing images, whether for their own gratification or in an attempt to extort money or images from victims.
There are some basic ways to protect against this—making sure that the webcam is set to ‘off’ by default, or even taping over it—but it’s worth educating your kids not to locate webcams anywhere likely to give away any information inadvertently, or to use them for any purpose they wouldn’t want anyone else to see. You should set a good example by applying the same rule to any webcams in your devices.
Another good rule which applies as much to parents as to kids is not to give away any unnecessary information in online images—for instance if you must post a family portrait on Facebook, don’t include information on your whereabouts or images of precious belongings.
You should also become a role model in the matter of selfies—never post anything which could lead to embarrassment or distress, and teach your kids to stick to this principle. Remember, anything posted online can spread quickly and irretrievably—there’s no magic ‘delete’ button.
Teach your kids good password etiquette—don’t use easily guessed passwords, or the same password on every site. If you have difficulty remembering all your passwords, use a password manager app.
It’s particularly important to check their use of chat rooms and make sure that they don’t spend long unsupervised periods talking online to anyone they don’t know in real life.
One of a parent’s most powerful allies in managing their kids’ digital world is the parental control settings feature. Offered by many broadband service providers, parental controls can set filtering levels for internet access and also block specific websites. They can also work away from home when connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot using your ISP ID.
Parental control apps can also be used to set specific times and hours for children to use the internet; limit the pages or types of pages they visit, adding new sites on request if they are suitable; restrict or allow the use of games; and locate the device, showing where the child is using it.
It’s never too early to talk to kids about these issues, but equally, as a parent you should be responsible for taking control of your children’s internet use. Until they’re old enough to understand the risks, you are the guardian standing between them and what can be a dangerous online world.