Practical Ways to Keep Kids Safe on the Internet
Published on: November 17, 2019
Children who venture online may easily stumble across questionable material online. IT expert, Jan Simon details the steps you should take so your kids can explore the online world safely.
By Jan Simon
Talking about online safety with your kids is usually not very high on the to-do list. However, considering how abundantly the internet is used nowadays, it is a topic that must be addressed. But where do you begin?
Imagine the internet as a playground, which is open 24/7, by default. There are no safety measures, such as a fence. If you don’t watch your kid properly, she or he can easily wander away, right towards trouble.
There are two main options to consider when it comes to this online safety:
Technical helpers: These act like a fence around the playground and prevent accidental wandering off. These are an important first line of protection and act as training wheels so that the kids can explore the internet in relative safety.
Guidance: As the kids get older, more curious and craftier in jumping over the fence, this option becomes more relevant and from my personal view, it is a must.
Nowadays, almost all big tech companies provide parental control features right out of the box and help you set up a fence around the “playground.” These security features are generally built around the same concept as setting up a main family account and having child accounts for your kids, and controlling who can setup and monitor rules for device usage through the adult accounts. The child devices are connected through the internet to the tech company’s servers and with an adult account you can login to the server and use the provided parental control functions on a user-friendly website.
Common functionality across the providers includes oversight of installed applications and their usage time, enforcing age and user restrictions, purchasing controls, finding current location and locking devices.
These functions allow you to easily control the devices and offer a basic line of content filtering. For example when using a Google Child account, the searches done in the connected Google Chrome browser prevent adult sites from showing up in the search results and block access to listed websites.
Where to get started?
Firstly, find out what devices your kids are using or are going to use. Based on this you can go to the company’s parental control website where they explain what they offer in more detail.
For a Windows computer, set up a Microsoft Family account by visiting their starter page: https://account.microsoft.com/family/
Most kids use an Android-based smartphone besides using the Google Chrome browser on their computer: https://families.google.com/familylink/
For Apple devices like iPhones, iPads or Macs you can find more information here: https://www.apple.com/family-sharing/
If you’re using Amazon services in your family, you should have a look at https://www.amazon.com/myh/households
Facebook is different. Essentially, they do not provide similar family protection functions and rely on policy compliance (such as no accounts for children below 13) and that every parent is providing proper guidance on social media use. For this, you can see their parent’s safety page here, where they provide guidance tips: https://www.facebook.com/safety/parents
DNS Filter Addition
An additional line of protection is the use of a DNS Filter. Here is a very basic metaphor to help you understand this concept — DNS stands for Domain Name Server and acts as a“phonebook” for the internet. Every time you visit a website, such as bambiweb.org, you either type it into your browser or you click a link. Initially, your computer does not know “where” this website is, so it will contact a DNS Server, which is just like looking up a contact in a phone book. So it looks up the contact “bambiweb.org” and finds a “phone number” (IP Address) and with this information, your computer “calls” the website.
The “phone book” is usually set up in your home router. Every time a device connects to your home network, it will get information about which phone book to use in the form of a “phone number” (IP Address).
So on your home router, you can use a family-friendly phone book that doesn’t provide phone numbers to websites deemed inappropriate. CleanBrowsing (https://cleanbrowsing.org/) is such a phone book provider. Once set up, everyone who uses your home network is prohibited from visiting inappropriate sites.
As you can see, this can be circumvented rather easily, by setting up a different phone book or using another internet connection. You can bet that kids find ways to get around these restrictions eventually, but it will provide a base protection if your kid’s friends drop by to show them inappropriate content or use a device that isn’t set up with a child account.
This is likely the most dreaded option for parents, mainly because the hard part is when and how to start a conversation. When I grew up and first went online in the 1990s, the internet was still in its infancy. There weren’t huge, easy to join communities and interactive large-scale games where a conversation with a total stranger could start in the blink of a moment. From my experience, most people “grew into it” on their own and followed the social norms they grew up with.
In my eyes, letting kids just wander off on the internet without guidance is like giving them the car keys and expecting them to drive responsibly right away. The ability to see how their parents interact/drive on the internet is quite limited and expecting them to learn how to drive just by seeing others do it might not be the best way.
Utilizing technical helpers can provide an opportunity to start a conversation. Your kid will need your help/permission to install games or specific applications. As an example, let’s say that your daughter wants to buy and install a game to play with her friends online. Let her show you the game and tell you what it’s about. This will give you an opportunity to evaluate if the game itself is suitable and set rules on how your child should communicate and play on the internet.
Differentiating between online-only and real-life (RL) friends and contacts will make it easier for you to set an easy to follow framework of rules.
Here are some common “default” rules as a starting point:
- Talking tone to online friends should be as you would to a RL friend; this is especially important when it comes to teasing or cursing. Point out that there is another human being at the other end and we should treat them with kindness.
- Not discussing/sharing private matters or information (real name, address, pictures, etc.) with people you know only online. You do not know how this information will be used. A bit like in real life, you wouldn’t talk too openly with a stranger. In games where the players are thrown in a team of random people talk only about the game. If the online contact becomes too pushy, talk to a parent and stop/mute the other person.
I trust that this gives a basic overview of the solutions that are available to protect children online, along with their shortcomings. My hope is that the information I provided will help to start a conversation with your kids about internet usage.
About the Author
Jan is Thai-German. He grew up in Germany, studied Business Administration and now lives in Bangkok. He has been running his own IT Company, Jan IT (www.janit.biz) since 2012, helping SMEs on IT topics and solving people’s IT problems.
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