First, I’ll scare you with some statistics: 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13! That’s despite Facebook having a policy prohibiting anyone under 13 from joining. So for every hundred friends of yours on Facebook, chances are 1.5 of them lied about their age! Are your kids on Facebook? Do you know who their friends are? Are you certain their friends are who they say they are? What about that strange man with the Baron Greenback profile picture? Ah, no, sorry. That’s me.
There are a lot of ways to keep your kids safe on the internet. Here at work we use a combination of the following:
- Unplug it. Cost: Free. If you don’t need a computer to be connected to the internet, don’t have it connected! Then you don’t have to worry about viruses, malware, your kids seeing sites they shouldn’t. If a machine sits there for the purposes of playing games, leave it offline. It’s the only way to be certain.
- Filter what they can see. Cost : Free (You only need the basic edition). There’s a cracking service called Open DNS (http://www.opendns.com/). This allows you to specify what areas of content you want blocked and what you want open. You don’t have to maintain anything, you just have to alter the settings in your router. Word of warning here – what’s blocked for one is blocked for all. If your kids can’t find something online, you won’t be able to either!
- Personal Firewall. Cost: Free. For the truly technical among you, Smoothwall is good for this. Not only can you specify what you want blocked you can log everything going in and out so you can see what the little mites are Googling.
- Browser Extensions. Cost: Free. If you’re using Firefox, give the kids a list of approved sites they can visit unsupervised with the ProCon extension (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/procon-latte/). If you’re not using Firefox, your options are limited to 2, above, or 5, below.
- Use dedicated software – NetNanny, K9, that sort of thing . Cost: Varies. K9 is free, Net Nanny is £15.99.
If you give your kids their own computer and let them go free I guarantee that one of those methods will work for at least a few days. Then someone will point out a way around it. They’ll ask their friends, they’ll search for something innocuous, they’ll discover the wonder of php proxy sites… They’ll tunnel under the firewall, disable the extension, guess the password to the router and change the DNS settings… If you search for “Parental Controls Chrome” one of the top 3 hits is someone asking how to disable them. They didn’t get an answer, clearly their Google-Fu is weak.
So which one am I doing?
None of them. I’m leaving the internet in all its unfiltered glory accessible from the computers in my house. There are two of them and they live in the kitchen in plain view for all to see. Nothing stops people looking up something dodgy better than the thought someone could walk in at any time.
When kids are young, the internet is a shared experience. You guide them to the sites that will be best for them – CBeebies, Octonauts, Lego.com. You use the computer with them, make sure they’re safe. As they get older, give them some independence on the internet and talk to them about what they’re doing, ask them what sites they’re visiting. If they’re anything like my daughter the full extent of research on the internet consists of consulting Wikipedia. By all means, check the browser history to make sure they’re not doing anything untoward (and, by the way, history logs don’t delete themselves. If you find no history, it’s time to start asking questions – of your partner first).
All of these technological solutions move the responsibility for our children away from the parent and onto the tech. It’s like entrusting your child to the sole care of the TV. It’s not the tech’s place to keep our kids safe, it’s ours. Pure and simple, end of. The tech can help.
When they hit the teens, though, then it’s time to start throwing obstacles in their way. And that list up there is only the start of what I’m going to do!
Because they’ll learn. Nothing teaches better than doing. They’ll learn their way around the guts of the computer’s network settings, know how to access the security pages of a router and what to do with them, know which extensions do what to a browser. They’ll find out how to configure a patch panel, trace network cables to find out which of the 4 they’ve found actually works. They’ll be teaching themselves useful skills without you having to lift a finger. Or they’ll go round to a friend’s house and go online there.
This blog post originally appeared as a guest post at The Blog Up North (though how he can call himself a Northerner with a strait face, I don’t know). I repeat it here because life is damn hectic this week and I’ve got nothing else to pull out of the bag!
- Kids and the Internet – An IT Guy’s Guide to Keeping ’em Safe (blogupnorth.wordpress.com)