Children today grow up in a world where the internet is part of the fabric of their existence. They see their parents use it for work, navigate and map out routes to and from classes and activities, research and book courses, restaurants, movies and any number of events, shop for groceries, talk to friends and family and store and retrieve photos, books and music.
So it should come as no surprise to us that one of the biggest demands our children will have whilst growing up is constant access to devices and services which allow them to connect online.
However, unlike adults, children are particularly vulnerable on the internet. They risk being exposed to content which might disturb, upset and negatively influence them. They could meet and become the victims of internet predators; they could either bully or be bullied online.
What can parents do to protect kids better? Beyond the basics of talking to your kids and educating them about the dangers online, what else can you do to keep your kids safe?
Be Open about Monitoring Them
With younger kids and teens, a degree of monitoring is important. Monitoring helps to alert you of any dangerous behaviours that your kids might be engaging in before they get too serious. It certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a “spying” exercise in which you hope to catch your kids and shame them for inappropriate behaviours. Instead, you need to think of it as an alert system and security measure that every parent needs to put in place.
First of all, be open about your need to monitor them. Tell your kids about the dangers of online predators and let them know what measures you will be putting in place. If you are setting security protocols in their computers and phones, tell them about the programs and how you will be using them to keep them safe.
Your Home Router
The first level of security which you can set up can be at the router level. Check your router’s user manuals, but you should be able to enter as an administrator and set it up to block certain types of websites. This means that anyone using wifi through your router will not be able to see content from these sites. Some routers can also disable internet access during certain times of the day – such as between 12 midnight and 6am in the morning. This might be useful if you have kids who refuse to log off at night.
Computers and Software
Most computers will have a series of built-in controls. These are usually found in the “settings” section and might be under parental controls. Usually these allow you to designate specific hours off limits, block certain video games and programs.
You can also invest in monitoring software. They come in 2 forms – blocking and recording, and the more expensive ones tend to combine both features.
Blocking software will allow you to create a list of approved website and block access to any others. The programs will message you if your children try to access other sites and restrict when and for how long the computer can be used.
Recording software can monitor your children’s activity on social networking sites, record conversations, search terms and sites visited. Detailed reports are sent to your account and you can even set up a watch list of words which when used, will send an alert to you. Some of them will also send you reports if your child is in contact with suspicious profiles on online social sites.
With all the attention on computers, we sometimes forget that smart phones are yet another door into the unknown for our kids. Smart phones with a data plan have just as much access to the internet as a home computer and they have one additional feature – video and camera recording modes.
You need to educate your children about when and how to use the video and camera functions on their smartphones. A video of another child undressing or in an embarrassing situation could be posted on the internet with terrible consequences such as attracting the attentions of a child predator, or shaming and cyberbullying the child whose image was posted. Teach your children to be careful about how they use their own devices and to be alert of situations in which others might be recording them or taking pictures.
Smart phones often get used when texting and can result in inappropriate information and images being exchanged. Whilst this might seem trivial to your quick-thumbed teenager, the consequences are that whatever they share and post can easily be forwarded and shared with a wider audience, and could end up staying on the web forever where it might become a source of embarrassment to them years later.
Smart phone versions of computer monitoring programs exist to help parents in this area too. They often include GPS tracking capabilities as well.