In this article we discuss steps which you can take to ensure that your child has a positive and enriching online experience. We have covered many of the areas that pose specific risks to children in our article The Internet and Children: The Risks.
The simplest way to ensure your children enjoy a safe online experience is to stay in touch with what they are doing by showing an interest. If you’re unfamiliar with the internet, ask them to teach you or consider taking a course. Many are available locally and you can find step-by-step tutorials/guides online.
Talk with your child about expectations and ground rules for going online. This includes when your child can go online, how long for, and what activities they can do. They should understand that communicating with you about their internet activity doesn’t mean that they have to give up their privacy. It just means that you come to an agreement based on mutual trust and understanding. From talking you will be able to better understand how the internet can help your child with a whole host of activities covered in our article The Internet: Access and Usage.
What Online Activities Might my Child be Engaged in?
The type of activity your child will engage in will generally fall into one or more of the following categories:
Newsrooms, Forums and Bulletin Boards
So what’s involved? And how do you work with your child to minimise the risks on the internet?
What is Email?
Email is typically a one-to-one communications system. Just like regular mail, your child writes to someone and they can write back.
Spamming, the process of sending a huge number of emails with the same content at the same time, is now widespread. These messages can look very personal as their aim is to generate a response.
There are many scams around, which are more aimed at adults than kids. These include ‘phishing’ where an email appears to come from a bank, credit card company or auction sites. The email asks you to log on to a site to verify your information and the scammer then uses this information to defraud you by making purchases.
You can install spam-filtering software or use a service, which will remove much undesirable email which is often of a pornographic nature.
Email Advice for Your Kids:
- Never reply to a suspicious looking email or click on a weblink contained in one. Replying to a spam email or taking an action based upon it as doing so confirms that the email address is live. The spammer will send more email and probably share their list with other spammers.
- Don’t automatically trust an email because it appears to originate from a friendly source. Remember that spam (or other) email messages can appear to come from harmless source.
- Respond carefully to emails and never send personal information to someone they don’t know.
- In many email programs, you or your child can turn off the automatic downloading of images (Tools>Options>Security>Change Automatic Download Settings). It is a very good idea to turn off automatic downloading of images as many spammers add a tracking image in the email which tells them you have read their email and then start the email deluge.
- Be very aware that email is not at all secure. Each email passes through many points and can be read easily. Extracting personal information from an email, especially credit card information where there is a fixed pattern (i.e. 4 blocks of 4 numbers) is fairly easy. Never send credit card information by email. Either submit it through a secure website or use the phone.
Chatrooms are often topic-based, which in theory makes it possible for your child to avoid any subject area that they are not comfortable with. Just because a chatroom is designed around a particular topic, however, doesn’t mean that other subjects aren’t discussed. Even if the room is “teens only,” there is no way of knowing if everyone really is a teenager.
Chatroom Advice For Your Kids:
- On the internet they should always remember that people they meet might not be who they seem.
- Be suspicious of anyone who tries to turn them against their parents, teachers, or friends. They may have a hidden agenda.
- Never get together with someone they meet online without knowing who they are. If they do feel it’s appropriate to meet with someone, they should discuss it with you and never go to the meeting alone. The meeting should be in a public place, like a coffee shop or shopping centre.
- Be careful when they enter into a private chat area where they can arrange to meet friends they know. In some cases, those rooms are truly private. But in others, they may be listed in a directory of rooms and there is nothing to stop others from entering.
- Suggest that your daughter uses a gender-neutral name to use in a chatroom. It’s fine to be cute or funny with the name you choose, but be sure it doesn’t identify you and doesn’t have any meaning or implication that might encourage others to bother you.
Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have systems in place so that parents can block out chatrooms. Make contact to find out how you can add restrictions to any accounts that your children can access.
Newsgroups, Forums, and Bulletin Boards
Newsgroups, bulletin boards or forums are places where your children can read and post messages or download or upload files. Unlike chatrooms, newsgroups are not live or ‘real time’. If you child posts a message, it remains on the newsgroup for people to look at later. Newsgroups can also be used to post files, including computer programs, pictures, illustrations, and stories.
There are newsgroups on almost every possible subject, and they are often used as ways to get questions answered and share information about hobbies, musical groups, or any other subject of interest. Unfortunately, newsgroups have risks.
Newsgroups Advice for Your Kids:
- Be aware that the biggest risk is posting something that reveals information about themselves. In many cases, the mere act of posting something makes their email address public which then allows spammers to send them junk email, often of a pornographic nature, or individuals to send undesirable emails.
- Chose their newsgroups carefully. There are newsgroups that contain sexually explicit stories, illustrations, and photographs which is obviously undesirable for children.
Websites offer the opportunity to browse billions of pages of information. Much of this is safe and harmless to children, but there are plenty of sites containing content of a violent, pornographic or other undesirable nature.
Children as young as five now know how to type a simple search phrase into a search engine. But they only have to type one word that has a double meaning and they could be presented with something undesirable. There are a number of things that you, as a parent, can do to ensure your child only views suitable websites:
Things You Can Do:
- Services are available that rate websites for content, as well as filtering programs and browsers that allow you to block the types of sites you consider to be inappropriate. These programs work in different ways. Some block sites known to contain objectionable material. Some prevent children from entering certain types of information such as their name and address. Other programs keep your kids away from chat rooms. Check with your ISP to see what’s available and remember if you have older children, be honest and let them know why and how you are protecting them.
- On most internet search engines you can turn on a ‘Safe Search’ mode which removes adult sites from search results. This removes the sites that contain explicit sexual content from search results. It’s not 100% accurate, but using a safe search option does eliminate most inappropriate material. You should select Strict Filtering which removes adult content from both image and web search results.