The real-world guide to keeping kids safe online

Responsible parenting of children on the internet doesn’t get any easier. The proliferation of mobile devices and social networks means even “official” safety advice – such as keeping computers in communal areas – is outdated and ineffective. The balance between trust, control and intrusion is harder than ever to get right.

Every child and family is different, which makes ISP-set controls blunt tools. If parents are concerned about protecting their children from adult content or other potentially harmful material, they need to do more than ask their ISP to switch on the filters.

Technology, experts say, is no substitute for communication, practical rules on usage, and a level of trust that means children can explore the web responsibly. Between advice and technical tools, parents should be able to both retain openness and protect children of different ages from material or websites that could prove harmful. While this feature doesn’t prescribe a miracle pill, it aims to set out options that families can adapt for their individual situation.

Parenting before filtering

According to major studies into child online safety, and advice from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), technical measures are merely a subset protecting children online. In CEOP’s guidance to parents, deploying technical measures is seventh out of seven on a list of issues parents should address, behind common-sense approaches such as taking an interest and talking about what sites they use, and setting boundaries.

“Parents should realise that just as they set rules about where children can go and what time they must be home, or whether they eat well or badly, they can manage this stuff too,” says Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and director of the EU Kids Online programme.

The balance between trust, control and intrusion is harder than ever to get right.

The advice has always been that children should be restricted to using a PC in a public area, say, in the living room where parents come and go and can monitor use. In a world where homes have multiple connected devices, and children are expected to use the web for homework, that rule of thumb no longer holds true. “It gets complicated, and it’s probably inappropriate to say they should be in a place visible to parents,” says Livingstone. “Even in households with only one internet-enabled device, it’s probably a laptop and so will move – the days of an Ethernet cable connected to the desktop are gone.

“But that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t retain control. They can have rules about the laptop not going into bedrooms, or that children have to ask before they can use it. They [parents] control what time children go to bed and what they eat or read, and the internet can be part of that, but we shouldn’t imagine that’s simple.”

Technical solutions

Regardless of how many grown-up chats parents and offspring have, some teenagers will inevitably disregard the rules. According to the EU’s Kids Online research from this year, “a third of children say they sometimes ignore what their parents say about using the internet – 7% ‘a lot’ and 29% ‘a little’”, which is why many parents turn to technical tools.

Whether it’s from their ISP, tools built into the OS or specialist programs, there’s an arsenal of weapons designed to let parents control or at least monitor what children are looking at online and when, and who they’re communicating with. The effectiveness of such tools is, however, highly questionable.

We’ve already exposed the fundamental flaws in TalkTalk’s network-level filter, but at least that’s reasonably easy to implement and – theoretically, at least – applies the filtering to all of the internet-connected devices in the home. Many of the offerings from rival ISPs or standalone software providers rely on parents installing dedicated software on each device in the home, but few stretch across the full gamut of connected devices, including smartphones, tablets, games consoles and smart televisions.

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