How to keep your kids safe online - KOTA Territory News

How to keep your kids safe online

Updated: June 21, 2007 07:19 PM EDT


By Chris Nickson

From DigitalTrends.com

Being online is part of the world of every kid these days. For teenagers it's the main way of communicating with friends (along with their cell phones), while younger ones use it for gaming (such things as Runescape, for example) and research. It's an inescapable fact of life, and kids spend an average of 16 hours a week online – a figure that continues to rise. But how safe are they in cyberspace?

According to a UK survey, 30% of kids have made friends online, and 8% have met face to face. 57% came in contact with online porn, mostly by accident. The US Internet Crimes Task Force has reported that in the last year over five and a half million kids received unwanted sexual solicitations while online. Put those figures together and they're quite disturbing; your kid is at risk.

Essentially, we can break kids into two groups – teens and those 12 and under. The latter we can do a lot to protect, but the former, well, that's a harder task. They're coming of age, more independent, and often more computer-savvy than we are. But for all they think they know, they're still socially naive, and can be easily manipulated by predators of all kinds.

The Basics

With younger kids, keep the computer in the living room, where it's easy for you to supervise everything. Put a limit on how long they can be online each day, and make sure they adhere to it. Make sure you kids never share an e-mail address, or, if chatting online, that they never give their real name.

It's also important that they know not to register with any site unless they have your specific permission, and that if any situation arises where they feel uncomfortable, they should come and tell you immediately.

You should have a pop-up blocker, and make your children very aware that they should not click on any pop-up or link that appears on screen. With younger ones, have them come and fetch you if one shows.

Above all, take the time to talk to your children about things they can find online, and how dangerous it can be. Communication between parents and children can be a powerful tool in itself.

Built-In Protection

There are many things you can do to protect your family online, with all kinds of software available. But one of the easiest steps, although not always the best, is to use the controls built into the programs you use every day.

Windows Vista has addressed the problem well. Previously, with XP for example, each user account essentially gave that user administrator privileges. With Vista, parents can create logon accounts for their kids, but set the parameters for those accounts, such as what sites the kids can visit, what programs and games they can use, when and for how long they can use the computer, and the parent can also bring up a report on all of the child's activities. Nothing is surreptitious; if your child tries to access a forbidden site, the following screen appears:

Windows Vista Parental Control
Screenshot of Vista's Parental Control

Note that the child can ask the parent (administrator) for permission, although the parent will need to type in his or her password to grant it – so make sure your password isn't one your children can guess easily.

Whether you like Internet Explorer 7 or not, it does do a better job than its predecessor on parental controls. One great feature is download blocking, which stops your kids from accidentally downloading a virus, or illegal music, movies, etc. You can find it in the centralized parental controls setting panel. Instead of seeing the usual run/save/cancel dialogue box, kids receive a message that due to Parental Controls restrictions they can not download the item. If you're using IE6, you can activate the filters that are available by going Tools > Internet Options > Content, then in the Content Advisor box, select "Enable." You can block language, sex, violence and nudity by setting the sliding tool below the categories and clicking "Apply."

You can also configure various search engines to make them safer for kids. With Google, go to their home page, follow preferences, and in the section marked "Safe Search Filtering" click on "Use strict filtering (Filter both explicit text and explicit images)." Yahoo lets you switch on SafeSearch filtering from the Preferences page, and MSN also has a SafeSearch filter in the Settings page. These aren't perfect, by any means, but make a good start.

For younger kids, child-friendly search engines offer another choice. MSN has a page for kids with a search engine, as does Yahoo and NetNanny. In all cases, sites that can be searched have been vetted as appropriate for kids.

AOL, Earthlink and MSN all offer filtering, as do some other services. They're often effective against porn, but the nature of the filters can mean that informative sites are blocked – indeed, overblocking and underblocking are constant problems, although there are manual overrides for parents.

E-Mail

Younger children should use a family e-mail address to allow you to monitor what comes in to them. When they're older, of course, they'll want their own addresses, and in all likelihood it'll be web-based, such as Yahoo or Hotmail.

Something that affects us all is spam. For your kids, the best way to protect them, with web-based mail, is to set any built-in spam filter at the highest level. However, that doesn't eliminate the spam, it simply sends it to the junk folder, where kids can still access it, so be aware of that.

Something that affects us all is spam. For your kids, the best way to protect them, with web-based mail, is to set any built-in spam filter at the highest level. However, that doesn't eliminate the spam, it simply sends it to the junk folder, where kids can still access it, so be aware of that.

Filters

There are a number of Internet filters available to help you protect your kids online, if you feel you need more than you find on the computer – and many do. Net Nanny, CyberSitter and Cyber Patrol are probably the best-known names, but there's plenty of competition, some good, some average.

These are fine for younger kids, and even for slightly older ones you can run it in stealth mode, where you can check later to see where they've been surfing.

Net Nanny Screenshot
Net Nanny Screenshot

However, no piece of filtering software is perfect; they all have their failings. With NetNanny, for example, it does allow you to view its list of restricted sites and words, and add to them. However, it doesn't put sites in different categories (unlike others, such as Cybersitter). Instead, you have to wade your way through a listing of URLs is you want to customize.

All offer word filtering, but in the case of NetNanny, that means just replacing the word with symbols – not an ideal solution, and the filtering isn't always good on AOL and MSN instant messengers. But you can review the activity log and see what your child has been doing online.

Cybersitter does much the same, but it can also scan your hard drive, not only for problematic images, but also spyware, a handy little extra (although you should scan regularly for that, anyway). With blocked sites, Cybersitter will sometimes give you a blank page or an "Error Not Found" message, which can prompt confusion with kids.

The filtering software that regularly receives the best reviews, though, is ContentProtect. One of its biggest advantages is that you can manage and receive reports remotely. In the office and the kids are at home getting online? You can check the activity log and even alter the settings for the software wherever you are. It also offers dynamic filtering, so a particular site might be blocked for content at one time, but if that content changes, so does the block. You can also set it up so you receive an e-mail if your kid tries to access objectionable material, and you do have the ability to override the automatic controls by using the password.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging and chat rooms offer a minefield for parents. Children use them, but predators love them, and obviously you want to protect your kids. Yet it's a fact that it's a major communication tool for them, and from a fairly early age. So what can you do? The best thing is to let them have an account on a service which doesn't offer chat rooms, such as MSN Messenger, and organize it so they can only be messaged by people on their buddy list. Set up the account with them, so you can be sure everything is as you desire. With younger kids you can also configure the service to log their chats, so you can review them later. Make sure they never give out real names, addresses, e-mails or passwords.

However, even that doesn't protect them. Online games like Runescape offer player the chance to chat with each other, and you need to educate your child as to the dangers involved.

If your child wants to use another messaging service, one that has chat rooms, such as Yahoo or AOL, be extremely careful. It's best to set it up only allowing people on the buddy list to message (you can find it under preferences). With AOL, in "Privacy," you need to check the option that ensures others can find out nothing about your child when they're chatting. On Yahoo Messenger, you can hide your IP address by going to the Edit Profiles page and clicking on Account Information. Once you've logged in, hit Edit/Create Profiles and check the "Hide my online status from other users." To activate it, click "Finished Editing" on the Edit Profiles page. With Windows Live Messenger, that's harder to do, but go to Tools > Options, and check through the categories and uncheck everything you don't want. Again, with all IM services, make sure you set options to log the chats for later reviews; how to do it varies from services to service, but is easily accomplished. Review the logs regularly.

All of these steps won't always stop them receiving porn spam within the IM service. Educate your kids to come to you if anything unexpected like this happens. You can use the ignore function, but you should also report the user to the service (which, to be fair, is often a pointless exercise). Make sure, too, that all file sharing options are disabled.

Inevitably, at a certain point it comes down to trust – but that logging feature can prove very useful. Yes, it's snooping on your kids, but it's a harsh world, and you want to keep them safe.

Teenagers

Trying to protect your teenagers can be a nightmare for parents. They know everything, they're indestructible, and they believe nothing bad can happen to them. They want their privacy, they want to assert their independence, and the last thing they want are controls. Even if you try to put some on, many are computer-savvy enough to bypass them. So what can you do?

The ideal solution has nothing to do with software or filters, or even controls. It's having a good enough relationship with your teen that things can be discussed openly and honestly. That said, teens can be willful, and go through phases where they're obstreperous and secretive. In that case you need to watch out for warning signs: Do they switch screens on the computer when you enter the room? Are they evasive when answering your questions?

You want to – indeed, you have to – give them some freedom. But you have to temper that with making sure they're safe. There is something you can do, although it's a fairly extreme measure, and one you wouldn't want to take without plenty of thought.

You can install a keylogger on their computer. You need to be very careful; if they find out, you'll destroy any trust that has existed between you and your teen. There are many brands available, but you need one that not picked up by either antivirus or most spyware scans, and which can automatically send the data to an FTP or to your e-mail.

These will log every stroke your teen types, whether in a document, e-mail, instant message, or URL. Again, though, and it can't be stated too strongly, you should only use this as a last resort. Using these on someone else's computer is illegal – although you could argue the fact that you probably paid for the computer, so it's your property, and your teen is a minor.

Hopefully, though, it will never come to that. Education, discussion and trust from an early age are the nest tools you can have on your side to keep your kids safe.

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