Everyone has heard the horror stories about children online: Teens who are cyberbullied so badly they become suicidal; others who don’t realize that the pictures they send out are broadcast to the entire world. But how can parents protect their children while still allowing them to explore the beneficial parts of the Internet?
For general health and brain development reasons, many experts call for limiting screen time, but even if you do, there are still a couple of hours of the day when your child will be plopped in front of a computer. Technically there’s a federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, designed to help keep kids safe. Enforcement of that law can be a bit tricky, however, particularly with sites not based in the United States.
The safest option, of course, would be to sit over your kids’ shoulder and watch everything they do. But that takes your time and doesn’t give the kids the freedom to explore on their own, learn and have some measure of privacy. Still, there are ways to watch what they are doing, or at least shield them from some of the darker corners of the Web.
1. Ground rules
Before they even see the keyboard, the most important step is to talk with your children about the Internet. You don’t want to scare them (or maybe you do), but it’s important to let them know the basics that adults know already (or should):
- Never give out your full name or address
- Never agree to meet in person someone you meet online, unless it is with your parents permission and supervised)
- Understand that once you post something, it’s out of your control and it only takes a second for someone else to take a screenshot and pass it along.
Safekids.com offers detailed news and approaches to online safety for kids of various ages. It provides contracts for online safety — documents for parents and kids to sign that lay out agreed upon online conduct. The National Cyber Security Alliance is another good resource for safety tips for different age groups. Even the federal government has gotten in on the act, with recommendations for kids, parents and teachers.
Microsoft rolls safety and technology education into a great site called YouthSpark. It lays out advantages and potential problems of being online and on social media sites and offers some food for thought about how to avoid the pitfalls. It also provides instruction in coding and other technology skills.
2. Safe search
Google, Bing and pretty much all of the other search engines offer safe search features, which help filter search results. In some cases, the questionable material won’t show up, in others it will be pixelated, or block the searches.
Google has a site called Safe Search Kids, which has the filters on all the time. That site also has instructions about how to turn on the Google filters, because it won’t take kids long before they just go to the main page. Bing, under its settings page, also offers a similar option, just be sure your children have their own computer login, so you don’t filter your own results as well. Sometimes, these filters can be a bit overzealous in what they filter out, so be prepared for the kids to occasionally ask you to unblock it for a perfectly legitimate website.
3. Parental control software
Eventually, kids may stumble on things that put them at risk, or figure out the names of the websites and then circumvent the filters on the search engines. That’s where other monitoring programs can come in to block such things as pornography and gambling sites. Typically they can also be tailored by parents to better fit their child’s maturity level and their family’s values.
Net Nanny (about $30) is one of the better known options, but others such as AVG Family Safety (about $60) or McAfee Family Protection (about $50) are also well-respected, and new player Qustodio is billing itself as the “Internet’s best free parental control app.”
These programs are all evolving with the times. Many of them have ways to monitor your child’s social networking presence and will send you alerts – some will send you a text message – when they flag something your child posted or something they might see as inappropriate.
4. Kid-friendly sites
There’s a wealth of age-appropriate sites for kids out there, and as with seemingly everything in technology, new sites pop up every day and go away just as quickly. Kidzworld is a site entirely dedicated to children. It has news, information and a social networking component, all filtered and moderated. ClubPenguin is owned and operated by Disney, a brand name that probably tells you all you need to know. Common Sense Media makes a business of rating and reviewing web sites for kids, so you don’t have to keep up with the rapidly changing landscape on your own.
There’s no perfect way to ensure that kids who are online never see anything inappropriate. But by using a combination of vigilance, content blockers and interesting kids content, you can tip the balance in favor of a healthy and safe experience.
How do you ensure your kids are safe when using the Internet? Share in comments below or on our Facebook page. And be sure to share this article with your Facebook friends.