How can you make the internet a safer place for your children? It’s a common concern as all parents want their kids to be protected and happy whenever they go online. It’s relatively easy to supervise and monitor the very young ones as they stare delightedly at the NickJr or PBSKids site, but the risks increase greatly as kids get older and more independent. As a father of three boys, I have had to start thinking about this very concern. Hopefully, this post will help others in keeping their little ones safe online.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘cyber safety’ before, but safe internet usage goes beyond reminding them not to talk to strangers. With the evolution of the internet and the way it’s now woven seamlessly into our lives, the focus needs to be on ingrained habits. That means ensuring your children have the tools and predefined responses to online events so that no matter what happens, they’re not placing themselves (or your family) at risk. I’ll start with a few general ideas and concepts to teach and then finish with some actual methods to help protect your kids and computers.
Downloads are a no-go
Most kids can’t tell the difference between a legitimate download and a scam/malicious link. It’s not their fault, the online world is full of things that will trick even the savviest adult. The difference is that kids tend not to take that extra moment to check exactly where that link is pointing, question whether it’s too good to be true, or even read what they’re agreeing to. They want to get back to what they were doing, and if something pops up, their first instinct is to click ‘yes’ – purely so it goes away. Unfortunately, that single ‘yes’ may have just opened the doors to malware and viruses that will ruin their computer. Set a family rule that they need to ask permission for all downloads (and an adult will check it first), and to never click a popup. When you’re called over to give download permission or check a popup, talk through exactly what you’re checking and why. As your child matures, get them involved in this process so their safe habits extend outside the home.
Critical thinking is a must
Most youngsters think the internet is a magical place and can’t imagine their life without it. To them, the internet is on the same level as oxygen! With that acceptance though, comes unwavering trust that the internet would never lie to them, never trick them and never hurt them. While we adults know better, it’s only because we already view the internet with a certain level of distrust. The best way to keep kids safe is to teach them to approach every aspect of the internet with critical thinking. That includes teaching them to question the motives of other people online. Is that person really a kid? What do they really want? Unfortunately, all kids do need to be aware that predators use the internet to target and lure children. Ensure your children tell you immediately if a stranger makes contact. Along with this stranger danger, teach them to identify what marks something as suspicious, and what they should avoid. If they come across anything inappropriate, they should shut down the computer and come straight to you.
The internet is forever
Kids have an overwhelming drive to contribute to the internet, they don’t think twice about recording a video, jumping in a chat room or onto social media. The world really is their playground! But what they don’t understand until they’ve been burned, is that anything they upload, write or say is on the internet forever. Even if they delete it or use a platform where content self-erases, someone can still screenshot and send it right back out. Many cyber-bullying cases are based on this exact type of blow-back. Once your kids know that everything they post is permanent, they’ll be more likely to pause and think.
OK, now that we have identified the dangers, how can you actually help prevent this from happening? No matter how much you tell your kids not to click on a link, I know from experience that they aren’t always going to listen! While there are some things we can’t prevent, there are still steps we can take to help.
Lock it down!
There is a hard rule when it comes to the relationship between security and convenience. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. Most modern systems try their best to strike a balance between the two but often err on the side on convenience. Take Microsoft Windows for example. After 15 years of historically being the LEAST secure operating system, it still defaults to your user account having full administrative permissions! This means that you can install any program and change any setting with only the click of the ‘OK’ button. Kids aren’t going to know what this means, they are going to click OK…and now you have a virus. What can you do about this?
- Make a new Windows account for your kids that does NOT have administrator rights. Then, put a password on your account that they don’t know. Now, whenever they are prompted to install something or change a setting they will be unable to continue without you typing in the password. Of course, this means that you need to not leave your computer unlocked all of the time. So, turn the screensaver on and make it require a password on wake. This way, your kids can instead log into their account and do what they need to do.
- Install a parental control application. There are a plethora of parental control programs out there that claim to keep your kids safe. And for the most part, they do effectively keep the kids out of things they shouldn’t be in. However, don’t for a second think that there aren’t instructions on how to bypass that program freely available online! Use these as a stopgap, but don’t put all of your trust into them. NOTE: I have limited experience with these applications, so I can’t really vouch for one. They all come with their benefits and drawbacks so make sure to try it before buying.
- Get rid of Windows. What I have done with my boys is eliminate the whole risk of Windows to begin with. Instead, I purchased inexpensive Chromebooks for each of them. These allow fully compatible access to the internet (which is filtered as I will cover soon) but have no vulnerabilities to infections. They are cheap, durable, and last forever on battery. Also, they are familiar to children because most schools have Chromebooks in the classrooms these days. They can’t run Windows apps, but to be honest that doesn’t really matter as pretty much everything they do these days is online or available as a Chrome App.
OK, but what about porn?
No longer do kids have to scrummage through the basement for their dad’s box of playboys. A simple Google image search can turn up stuff that no kid should be exposed to. What do we do about this? Well, nothing is perfect, but by far the most effective thing I have found is to use a maintained filtering service on your entire home network. This way, even if your child is using a device that does not have parental control software they are protected. The one I use at home is OpenDNS.
The free home version does take a little setting up, but once in place, it allows you to selectively block any of 58 categories of content. It also can help protect against malware, botnets, and phishing attacks all for free! If this setup is a little past your pay grade, we can do this for you or you can utilize the ‘Family Shield’ version of the service which is preconfigured to block adult content. All you need to do is set your main router’s DNS to 22.214.171.124 and 126.96.36.199. Click the previous link for instructions.
That all being said it is possible to override OpenDNS or any other filter if you know what you are doing. A mobile device on cellular data or just at a friends house will still allow them to visit any site. But, these methods should suffice for the younger kids.