9 steps to internet safety

The last couple of days I have been thinking a lot about this topic simply because it is this week's debating topic for my second daughter. I also came across a helpful article in a family magazine that I receive monthly called Perspective. Between them these things drove me to post a comment on one of my favourite blogs.

This topic, I am sure, has been discussed, blogged and commented on countless times, and what I have to say is nothing new. All the same, there may be others who find my 9 Ways of Protecting Your Kids on the internet helpful. Here they are:

1. Use internet content filtering software.

2. Place the computer in a common area of the home.

3. Set a login password.

4. Ask, "Why?"

5. Suggest alternative sources of information.

6. Offer other forms of entertainment.

7. Talk about what is good or bad about the World Wide Web.

8. Get to know the parents of your children's friends (very important).

9. Set your own example.

Let's take these one at a time.

Use internet content filtering software. A huge body of information is available regarding this idea. This is the most obvious means of establishing some form of protection. It is not 100 per cent perfect but generally does what it is meant to do. Filtering software usually allows contents of sites that are listed in a "white list" to be displayed while those in a "black list" are disallowed.

Place the computer in a common area. This is a no-brainer. If the computer is in a place in the house where you can see or glance over what site your child is currently into it is less likely they will visit a site that they know you disapprove of. Placing the computer in an area of the house where there is a lot of traffic primarily serves as a deterrent for visiting sites that are offensive or embarrassing from your children's point of view.

Set a login password. If there is a lock on a door, it is a bit more difficult to enter it. It is the same with a computer connected to the internet. Set a login password to every computer that is connected to or will be connected to the internet. Let the children go through the exercise of asking you to login for them when they need to use the internet. This deters the children from simply going to it and starting to surf. This also requires a bit of effort on the part of the parent(s) since they have to stop whatever they are doing to do the logging on. Do not give the password to any of the children because that is just like having no password at all.

Ask, "Why?" This is more or less related to the previous paragraph. Ask why they need access to the internet. Nowadays, it is common for children to refer to the internet when they are doing their homework and this is a fact of life. Parents should find out if there is really a need to access the internet. Ask the children for a clear answer -- don't let them just waffle through and answer in very generic terms. This also trains the children to express an idea clearly.

Suggest alternative sources of information. Sometimes, the children's homework requirement may be resolved by another source of information. For example, there is Microsoft's Encarta and the Encyclopaedia Brittanica on DVD, which they can also use. Both of these programmes may still require going to the Internet, but only when updated information is available or facts have changed since publication. There are times in my own home that one child simply needs a picture of a scenery and an old copy of The National Geographic can help immensely.

Offer other forms of entertainment. Oftentimes, access to the internet is sought after because of the entertainment value that the internet presents. There are now hundreds of sites that offer video snippets, online games, music and so on. Make your children realise that there are other forms of entertainment and that the internet is only one medium. Try to have video nights with the children or go and buy a board game that everyone will like. Let them experience that, in terms of entertainment, the internet is not the be all and end all.

Talk about what's good or bad about the WWW. Simply telling children that access to the internet is restricted because it is bad is not exactly the best idea. The children, depending on their age and level of maturity, have also to find out why. Using parental wisdom and discretion, explain to them why such a restriction is in place. Generally, they will accept your reasoning and will go along with it. With the older children, sometimes it is even appropriate to mention actual cases of unsavoury events that occurred because of the Internet -- cyber-stalking and loss of privacy, for example. On the other hand, they also have to see that the Web presents opportunities for learning and knowledge and it is to their advantage if they learn how to make use of it in this manner.

Get to know the parents of your children's friends. This point, together with the next, I consider a major item. Why? Because all your other efforts will go out the window if your children have unfettered access to the internet in their friends' homes. If this is the case, the friend's house begins to appear more attractive and more inviting than it really is, simply because of the access to the internet. By getting to know the parents, you will get some idea on how they go about protecting their own children. It is also a good opportunity to share your won approach and possibly educate them on the need for internet protection. Armed with the foreknowledge of how easily the internet is accessed in the house of your child's friend you can provide the appropriate advice.

Set your own example. Finally, the main point. I consider this to be the major means of protecting children. Why? Because for them, their measuring stick on how to behave is how their parents do and say things. Children learn from looking and seeing. If you tell them that the internet is only to be used for homework and communicating with others via email, but they see you spending an inordinate amount of time playing World of Warcraft, this presents a conflict in their minds. It also presents the fallacy that, "It's OK for daddy or mommy but not for me because they are now big, therefore when I am big enough I can do the same thing too." Wrong. If they see that you use the internet in exactly the same way you want them to use it -- with a few exceptions, such as necessary work, which they can clearly see and understand -- they will start using it in the same way.

Looking at these items you can see that only one third of them pertain directly to the computer; the remaining two thirds involve the people who use the computer, especially the parents.

Personally, I consider the last two items as the most crucial since for children what is most important is what comes through their eyes and not what goes through their ears. They are constantly comparing what is being said or asked of them to what their parents are doing. As the saying goes, we as parents must be able to walk the talk. Only by showing our children that we are also protecting ourselves from the perils of the internet will they themselves consciously police themselves as well.

Phil Flores is the father of three and works in IT in Sydney. 


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