I remember that when I started studying Computer Science at University (in those days it was a Polytechnic), in the first lecture we were told that at any social gathering we shouldn’t tell anyone we were studying Computer Science because the conversation would either stop immediately, or follow the route of “ah, that’s interesting, do you know how I can fix my [insert electrical item here]?“
One of the questions I get asked a lot is how I help my kids stay safe online.
I’ll start these tips with the viewpoint that the Internet is 99.9% a good thing for kids. I think it’s better than television, which is a passive, brain-switch-off experience. It’s a type of entertainment as much as educational experience for children (and adults) which should be embraced.
My kids range between five and nine years old although I think this advice is useful for any children up to about twelve. Here are my top tips:
- Keep the family computer in a visible place. I don’t agree with kids (under twelve) having a PC in their bedroom, or for that matter, a laptop which can move around the house. We have a family computer on the corner of our living room and kitchen, so we can always glance across and see what the kids are doing.
- Enable fast escalation. Our kids can approach my wife or I at any time and say “Why is this happening?” on the computer and we’ll always try to help. Like anything with children, if they feel they might be told off, they won’t talk to an adult, so whatever happens online we’ll always make them aware it’s not their fault.
- We use free Family filtering software – the Windows Live Family Safety filter. Each of the kids has their own user accounts and we have another one for guests. Family Safety provides time limits (which we enable for weekday mornings) as well as stopping some sites. For our five year old, it’s on maximum control setting and for the nine year old it’s set to block anything adult and allow most other sites. At the moment none of the kids are allowed Facebook, although we do allow YouTube because they like listening to music and you’d be surprised how young kids don’t realise that YouTube contains videos that aren’t music related.
- Using the family filtering software we regularly check their accounts (it takes seconds) and make it very clear that we check what they’ve been doing online.
- Stay aware of latest scams, websites and general web trends and behaviour. This is easier for our household because of my job, but my wife is still aware of most online ‘problem areas’.
Even with all these tips, my wife phoned me at work last week to say one of the girls had asked her to look at a website she’d been using. On the site, which is a Flash games-based website aimed at young girls, there is a chat functionality, and someone on the site had been chatting to our daughter and been totally vulgar.
My wife took a number of screenshots, of which part of the chat window is shown above. I contacted the website to make them aware of the incident and haven’t heard anything back from them.
I started off with these tips saying how the Internet is 99.9% a good thing for kids. Our experience highlighted that you need to be extremely vigilant of that 0.1% element.