Thursday, October 27, 2011

5 Steps We Can Take Immediately to Keep Our Children Safer Online

Guest Post by Philip J Reed, on behalf of Westwood College

As if parents didn’t have enough to worry about already when it comes to keeping their children safe, the internet has rooted itself so deeply into daily life that it also brought with it a whole host of new -- and evolving -- problems.

Of course, the main problem here is that the internet isn’t all bad! If it was all doom and gloom, it would be easy enough to bar access and say that’s that. Instead, though, there are a great deal of important, useful, educational, informative and outright fun sites on the internet, and we can’t in good conscience just lock our children away from all of them.

So how do we find a balance between allowing access, but still achieving peace of mind? Read on, because we’ve compiled a list of five steps we can take today to keep our children safer when they use the internet.

1) Be aware of the sites they use.

The first thing you should know is what sites your children are using. Many of them should sound familiar. (For instance: Google, Yahoo!, Wikipedia and so on can all be valuable educational tools and should not sound immediately suspicious.) But if they name any sites you are not familiar with, you should check them out.

It’s quite likely that the sites they name are not objectionable, but they will still be worth seeing for yourself. And, besides, it’s possible that your child is spending time on sites that they don’t immediately see as dangerous, but you may still have concerns. Is the average user-base much older than your child? Are you finding obscene comments left by other users? If so, even if the site is well-intentioned itself, you may wish to think about allowing them access. Be aware of what they’re doing -- or what they intend to do -- and respond accordingly!

2) Make them aware of the danger.

Very few children would willingly compromise their own safety, or that of their family. When children reveal sensitive information online, the odds are very high that they don’t realize the danger, or even that the information is sensitive to begin with.

Sit down with your children. Talk to them earnestly about the risks, and about why they should be careful. Your child probably knows better than to reveal phone numbers or social security numbers, but do they realize that last names and hometowns can sometimes be enough for unsavory individuals to track them down? Even seemingly irrelevant information like the name of their pet, their mother’s maiden name or the street they grew up on can be used to bypass security questions on their email accounts, and once that happens the more secure information contained within is now on display for anyone interested.

3) Consider using parental safety software.

Your children won’t want you watching everything they do online, and it probably wouldn’t be productive to do so anyway. Your children won’t behave normally with you watching, and you’ll never get an indication of how they’d normally spend their time online.

So how can you keep them safe? Talk to friends and family members (IT training is getting more popular every year, so you may know people with more computer knowledge than you realize!), and the odds are very high that at least one of them will be able to recommend some good parental safety software.

Such software can block out objectionable websites and content, censor profanity, and even keep your child from conversing with strangers. It’s a good way to protect your children online while still maintaining a respectful distance, and allowing them to feel some sense of freedom.

4) Limit the time they spend with their electronic devices.

This one can be difficult, but it’s worth considering. Do your children sleep with their cell phones? What about their laptops or other electronic devices? Not only can this lead to and foster obsessive behavior regarding these devices, it also makes your children more easily reachable by unsavory individuals. By keeping the cell phone chargers in the living room or other common area, you can get your entire family in the habit of leaving them there overnight, out of reach and out of mind.

Limiting the time they spend with their electronic devices will limit the amount of possible mistakes (and poor decisions) they can make by using them. It can also help to engender increased socialization among family members, a very nice bonus that’s not to be overlooked!

5) Remember that the police can help.

While the police should by no means be called in for small or avoidable issues, they certainly should be notified when anything becomes a serious problem, and they should be notified quickly.

Serious problems include your information being compromised, your children being repeatedly contacted by unwelcome individuals, or, of course, overt threats being made. You should take every internet-related incident seriously, and decide whether or not to get the authorities involved. Advances in computer forensics are made every day, but, ultimately, every second counts, and the longer you wait to go to the authorities, the less information about the perpetrator they will be able to recover!

So keep on top of your children. Be aware of what they do, and make them aware of the consequences of their actions. A little bit of education -- and a lot of love -- goes a long way, so stay involved in your child’s life, both online and off.

What steps do you take to keep your children safe online? We’d love to read them in the comments below!


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