[Editor’s note: This is a 6-part series regarding my views and plenty of common sense on how to keep your children safe in a dangerous world. It is generally geared toward children 12 and under. I hope it helps you.]
This is a topic I’ve had to deal with more and more lately as my kids get older, bolder, and more technically savvy. Sadly, I’m already starting to ask my 10 and 7 year old children how to work various electronics. ;( Very soon I suspect that they will understand how to defeat any “safeguards” I put into place, but until then I’ll continue to try my best to protect them from… themselves.
Now, like I mentioned in a previous “How to Keep Children Safe…” post, it’s about setting expectations. Tell them what is acceptable to you and what is not. For example, “you’re allowed to visit this site and this one too, but NOT others without seeking permission first.” Obviously, this works for a while on younger children but not so well on the older ones. In this case, be as honest with them as you can be. I’m not saying come right out and say there are sometimes people out there who want to molest you or who knows what else, but to say that there are bad people on the Net and they WILL prey upon young children like you if you’re not careful… or however you want to put it. I feel that’s a more honest way to frame your reasoning rather than “because daddy/mommy said so.”
A Few Personal Examples
I recall years ago when my oldest must have been around 6 or so he was playing a computer game and, as kids do, figured out how to get online and play other people and while he was doing that he was chatting with the other person (via keyboard). Shortly thereafter he came downstairs and asked for our phone number. We couldn’t figure out why until we realized that he had gotten into the online gaming aspect of the game he was playing and that the other person wanted to call him. We quickly said no, had our talk, and then I immediately shut down that function of the game. The point here is that you shouldn’t take for granted what your kids can figure out… they’re likely a lot more tech savvy than you realize even at a very young age. Speaking of which…
As another example, my youngest (he must have been 3 or 4 then) has always been very curious about sex. Long story short, he was able to get online, search for the word “sex” and happened upon some very disturbing things. A part of me was proud because he was learning to spell but, needless to say, I immediately installed a kid-safety application on all computers we owned (among others) called K9 Web Protection, which we’ve kept ever since. While there are plenty of other options this one was free and seems to work just fine once you get it setup properly. I don’t recall exactly what wasn’t correct when I first installed it but my wife had asked if I got K9 installed, I said “yes” and figured I was done. She wanted to test it and low-and-behold something didn’t work as expected because it wasn’t filtering adult content. Oops! I eventually fixed the problem but the point is to ensure that your safeguards actually do what you expected.
I’ll tell you, lately my kids have been worse about technology, especially the older one (he’s still only 10). Just a few weeks ago he asked for a Facebook account because one of his friends apparently has one. I said “you’ve got to be kidding me and don’t ask again.” (Apparently Facebook agrees and limits the minimum age to 13.) He’s also wanted a cell phone but wound up with an iPod over Christmas, which is bad enough if you ask me.
So Many Devices, So Little Time
While I’m thinking about it, are you even aware of how many devices can access the internet these days?
Obviously, any computer can, as well as netbooks which are like mini laptops, tablets (e.g., iPad, Nexus, Android, Kindle, Nook), smartphones (e.g., iPhones, Droid, Galaxy), gaming consoles (e.g., Wii, Xbox, Playstation), iPods which are like small versions of iPads, PDA’s (e.g., Blackberry or the “old” Palms), and even some newer home entertainment equipment such as televisions and blu-ray players. I probably missed a few too. That’s not even mentioning how easy it is to get internet access not only at home via wireless routers but at many public places as well.
With respect to children and their interests, every gaming console (and game it seems) WANTS you to be on the internet to play it, to share with friends, compete against others, and so on. In fact, there are some games that won’t even work unless connected to the internet. Yes, folks, it’s the internet or bust where games are concerned so please be fully aware that your children WILL be on the internet and interacting with other people–not just other kids–if they’re playing games of any sort. I guarantee it.
So, what can you do about it all?
Well, with respect to computers, it starts with setting expectations as mentioned above. We’ve found that limiting computer time helps a lot (they’re only allowed to play on the weekends for an hour each day). For those with younger children, installing an appropriate kid safety application like K9 is a good option. Most all games allow some ability to control graphic content but they often aren’t great. For Windows users you can setup an assortment of Parental Controls that can help for computer-based games but not so much for the internet. These controls can also restrict access to the computer at specific times of the day among other choices. Of course, these controls are setup by user so it might be wise for each child to have their own account that can then have restrictions setup as you like.
Web browsers often have built-in parental controls (e.g., Internet Explorer has a “Content Advisor”) which are a good start. Spend some time fiddling with them or read a tutorial. In addition, search engines can help too. Google, for example, allows you to filter explicit content but that’s easily turned off so don’t rely on it. That said, there are some sites that try to list only child-friends sites, such as KidSites (or do a Google search for “list of kid safe websites”).
Though I’ve never tried them, there are plug-n-play products (usually free software to download and install) that can be used to completely deny internet access unless the USB-enabled device is physically plugged into the computer. Personally, I don’t like this idea at all but maybe it’s right for you.
Apparently, you can also install your own “spyware” of sorts as there are programs that can take snapshots of what your kids have been doing online. Again, not a big fan here so you can do your own Google search if you want something like this. Likewise, K9 allows you to review online activity too but only sites visited and content by category (such as “gaming,” “images,” and a bunch of others); you can then click on each major category and get details of everything viewed but it’s not very user-friendly whatsoever so I rarely use it.
Needless to say, there are an assortment of other problems besides explicit content, including popup ads, viruses, spyware, etc. To combat these problems, have an anti-virus program installed (AVG has a free version which isn’t too bad but there are plenty of others, especially paid options), and perhaps an anti-spyware program (such as Spybot) is a good idea. There are other computer security tools but I’ve found that the aforementioned are usually enough unless you’re surfing virus-heavy places like bit torrent sites. The best option is to stay off these sites and teach your kids to do the same… and explain why.
Again, there’s so much more to be concerned about other than your computer. All of the aforementioned internet-ready devices can be very problematic, even moreso than your computer. And, sadly, their parental controls are either horrific or way overboard. For example, my iPad (and the kids’ iPods) allow you to control an assortment of age-restricted options, which is great, but you know what happens when you turn them on to any degree of limitation? The iPad/iPod will not only disallow use of any application that could be used to access restricted content but will actually completely hide that application from the screen! What does that mean? It means that even if I wanted to put in my passcode to use the Google Chrome app, because it can access the internet for example, I can’t even see the app in order to do so without first removing the Parental Control restrictions which completely subverts the idea of such controls in the first place. In other words, it’s a huge pain in the rear and I’ve since turned off parental controls on my iPad and relied purely on a passcode. There are apps that help but still leave much to be desired if you ask me.
Perhaps the most concerning threats are not simple internet access but social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. And, of course, your kids are going to want to be on them… even before you’re ready for that conversation. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to do about this potential problem except to say that it’s in your child’s best interests for you to know what they’re doing and saying on these sites and with whom they are interacting. In other words, stick your nose in their business whether they like it or not!
And, like I discussed previously, it’s more than just well-known social networks. There are online chat rooms, instant messaging services and, more concerning if you ask me, chatting (as well as the ability to talk) while gaming (at least for boys, that is). Granted, most of this may very well be harmless if they’re ONLY conversing with their friends that you know but it’s ever so easy to begin conversing with unknown people at the click of a button.
My best advice here is to teach your children to keep their personal life and information quite, you know, OPSEC. Don’t give out their phone number, house address, email, school name, even a picture to anyone without your approval… ever. With the ever increasing abilities to do things like take pictures and email them via text from all sorts of devices, they need to understand that even that can be harmful for a variety of reasons, including the fact that GPS location data can be embedded into the picture without their knowledge which thereby gives the recipient your exact location, most likely your home address.
Ultimately, you’re not going to be able to keep your kids safe from everything, even when they’re very young. While you can be proactive with passwords and pass codes, age-restriction settings, kid-safe applications, and more, you need to remember to (1) set boundaries and expectations and (2) adequately explain the dangers and reasons why they are allowed or not allowed to do certain things. And, of course, remember to adjust those boundaries, expectations, and reasons often and as appropriate to your child’s age and ability to understand.
If you have your own suggestions feel free to share them below…