This past week, I spoke to another group about online child safety. While many parents are all too aware of the risks children face online and with Internet connected smart devices, our children are still being victimized at an alarming rate. Last spring, I spoke to a group of high school students about online safety, and while some showed sincere interest, many others were blasé; I asked those unconcerned children to explain to me what made them believe that they were immune to online predators, cyber thieves and other miscreants constantly searching for young victims. The general consensus of these kids was that they were too smart to be victimized. Others said that they could tell if someone they were chatting with online or meeting “FTF” (face-to-face) was a “real” person or was a threat. It is attitudes like these that create victims, as many of these kids were gullible, and could easily be taken advantage of — or worse.
In order to help parents and their children deal with online threats, the security software publisher TrendMicro recently published a free e-book “Creating a Safe Online Environment for Kids,” available for online reading and for free download as a PDF file. While only 10 pages in length, this e-book contains simple but adequate information parents and their children need to order to be safer while using the Internet.
While recently visiting with one of my granddaughters, aged 3, I was impressed that she could use her mom’s iPhone to play online games, take pictures, watch streaming videos, play streaming music, and perform other simple tasks. Another granddaughter, at age 2, had her own 7-inch Android Wi-Fi enabled tablet; she could play games, and knew how to tap the icon for “Netflix for Kids.” She was very adept at swiping the screen, scrolling through the child-safe videos and cartoons, selecting one, and playing it.
As the TrendMicro e-book states, “The Internet has become the new playground for kids everywhere. Hours are spent playing online games, using social networking sites, streaming music, and researching for homework. … It’s important to know the possible online risks in order to create a safe and nurturing online environment for your kids.”
One of the first steps is “Preventing Unwanted Access.” Parents need to be well aware that there is an enormous amount of inappropriate content online, which may be harmful to our children. Utilizing the “Parental Controls” incorporated into most of the modern operating systems, included with most of the major Internet security suites, and available as separate (often free) apps or utilities for all platforms, allow child safe Internet access. The community of geeks at Gizmo’s TechSupportAlert.com have tested and evaluated several of the third party parental control utilities from a variety of sources, and found them of some value. The simple change of the Domain Name Server (DNS) used by the computer to connect to websites can easily be changed from the default settings to free DNS services that offer filtered Internet access, such as Open DNS (opendns.com) or Google’s Public DNS (developers.google.com/speed/public-dns). By implementing one or more of the parental controls that are available, parents can restrict their children’s access to inappropriate content (as defined by the parent or by default) that includes pornography, unsuitable images, hate content, violent videos and images, and other undesirable content. Parents also need to control access to games and other content that may create a financial responsibility; one of my granddaughters had a game on her tablet she frequently played, but the game also tried to entice her to click on a button to purchase more virtual game tokens, and another button to open (for a fee) additional levels of that game. Wisely, my daughter had previously blocked the ability of her young daughter to make online purchases.
Parents may also want to implement features on the major search engines that block most search results that are not child safe. Google offers a “Safe Search” setting that will block most, but not all, search results that contain inappropriate material or content. Microsoft’s Bing search engine also offers a “SafeSearch” function, similar to Google’s. For users of Yahoo, setting its Safe Search preferences is a very simple process; from the Yahoo! search page, on the top-right corner, click on “Options - Preferences” and then the Safe Search selection (pull down) will be displayed. The user can then select “Strict,” which “Filters out mature content in both Image Search and Web Search,” or choose “Moderate.” The user can also password protect or lock the Safe Search function in order to be sure that all Yahoo! search results are filtered.
One of the greatest fears that many parents have while their children are online is “Unwanted Contact,” as explained in this e-book. Young children are often active on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of chat and social networking. Two of the major contemporary risks faced by our children while socializing online are “Cyberbullying” and “Online Grooming.” According to TrendMicro, “Cyberbullying refers to the act of harassing someone through information technology. Often times, this translates to bullying via the Internet. Cyberbullying can be difficult to address as bullies hide behind fake personas, making them harder to trace and stop.” Pedophiles often use the Internet for what law enforcement calls “victim acquisition,” using a well known and documented process known as “online grooming.” These predators, mostly adults, often pretend to be of the same age as the targeted child, and will try to personally meet with the child, which is a very serious threat to the child and his safety. Many of the pedophiles are very effective at taking advantage of the innocence and gullibility of our children, and will often attempt a variety of means to meet “FTF” (face-to-face).
TrendMicro recommends that parents instruct their children on “How to Keep It Friendly,” and “ ... nurture their friendships with their peers.” The “Golden Rule” applies as much online as it does elsewhere, with the e-book providing some behavioral recommendations. “Play nice. Tell your kids to treat people online the way they would want to be treated. Encourage them to only befriend people they know in real life.” Anyone experienced on Facebook and other social media may be very aware that large numbers of people will submit “Friend Requests,” and many kids use the number of online friends as a form of status symbol; this may be a dangerous assumption, as this is one of the popular methods of victim acquisition, the spreading of malware, financial scams, privacy threats, and identity theft. Our kids must report any forms or incidents of harassment, or any other online contact that makes them feel uncomfortable; parents need to act on these, possibly reporting to the administrators of the site where the incident occurred. Parents need to show a sincere and genuine interest in who the kids are interacting with, and get information on these “friends,” and find out who they are, always being cognizant that the information provided by these “friends” is often untruthful.
Privacy is another issue presented by TrendMicro in this e-book. Our children need to be absolutely aware that anything that they post digitally, whether on a social networking website such as Facebook or Twitter, as well as in an e-mail or SMS text message, can never be totally deleted or otherwise removed. It is almost inevitable that highly personal and private content sent to others will be widely shared, despite admonitions of the original recipient to the contrary.
The e-book closes with the statement, “The Internet can be a wonderful place for kids — but only if you make it so.” I wholeheartedly concur.