Do you ever have a day where you get totally hammered with work (as opposed to hammered AT work) and you just have to park the offspring on a PC in the corner?
"Play Minecraft!" you say. But of course your seven year-old is a more effective Googler than you are. How should you best protect your child online?
Completely denying them access to the internet is neither sensible nor realistic. There are many benefits to being able to search the amazing resources available online and ignoring them will put your child at a disadvantage. Even if you take such draconian measures, the reality is that the internet is available everywhere; if you block it at home, children will simply access it elsewhere, quite possibly in a less safe, unsupervised environment.
And let's not pretend: the internet is dangerous. It's a recruiting ground for the next wave of terrorists – many of who, as recent headlines show, come from Britain – and a place where bullies search for the vulnerable. For terrorism in particular, a friend's link on Facebook can lead to a pro-terrorism site that leads children to other resources. Self-radicalisation through cleverly designed websites is on the rise and recognised by the UK government as a real threat.
So how can you balance providing access while blocking the threats? It used to be advisable to locate the family computer in a high-traffic area of the house, so you could keep a casual eye on which sites were being visited, but with the explosion of smartphones and tablets this no longer seems like a realistic. We'll show how to use a combination of technical measures, education and reassurance to achieve a safer web experience.
A lot of this advice can be useful for adults, young and old, too. Bullies target whoever they can, and even savvy teens and grown-ups can give up too much personal information without realising the consequences. So whether you want to protect your kids, or yourself, the following advice will help.
Someone to talk to
As with many problems in life, possibly the most effective solution to internet issues is to have someone to talk to. Children are curious creatures and full of questions. The internet will raise as many of these as answers, and if you don't feel qualified to provide these then try to find someone who is. This may be a teacher at the child's school, a close friend or even a counsellor such as those provided by ChildLine.
You or the nominated person don't need to be internet experts. Much of the negative experiences that happen online – such as bullying – are analogous to what happens in the playground. Humiliation, exclusion and teasing are all common themes, whether in real life or online. Often the advice is similar. “Ignore them” applies equally to playground taunts and upsetting text messages or emails.
One advantage that you have over the bullies, when dealing with online behaviour, is that you can save the evidence. If your child is having problems encourage them to keep abusive emails, text messages and social-media posts. These may be useful to those running the school or even to the police if the situation moves from silly unpleasantness to serious harassment.
The sad possibility exists that your child may sometimes behave in a bullying manner. They may not even realise the fact because “liking” a cruel post on social media is a quick and easy decision, the importance of which may not resonate strongly with a young person. Don't wait for evidence that this is happening – broach the subject anyway and pre-empt such behaviour before it happens.
Finally, if you have an excellent relationship with your child then discussing issues may be relatively easy and mutual trust makes for a safe situation. Alternatively, your moody teenager may be hell-bent on visiting unsuitable sites and undertaking risky behaviour online. Locking them down with technical measures such as parental controls clearly has advantages.
Limiting internet time by configuring your router, or blocking certain applications on the PC, can work but some kids will know how to bypass the restrictions. Be realistic and understand that parenting skills are equally important: it's these used in conjunction with technology that will have the greatest impact.
Young people have always been very sensitive about how they appear to their peers. As they become teenagers, they experience acute anxiety about their personal attractiveness and “coolness”. This may make some prone to making poor decisions online, such as sending sexual images to their friends or even to strangers.
Emphasise to your child that once they have sent a file, posted a comment or shared any information online, their action can never be reversed. The nude image is no longer in their control once they've sent it and the opinion they've expressed on Facebook can never be recalled. Let them know that their opinion today may be very different in five years, but their posting will still be there with their name next to it.
They may even want to consider setting up any social-media accounts with minimal detail, possibly without a photo – or perhaps with a photo that doesn't give away their physical location. They should also make sure they share posts and videos with friends alone, so that not everyone can see it (use the pop-down menu at the bottom of the post to control this).
It's advisable to only “friend” real friends. Consider verifying requests of friendship from those who appear to be real friends with a simple phone call or text message saying, “did you just ask to be my friend?” If it's a fake account, you'll know pretty quickly.
Inappropriate adult behaviour
Adults may approach your child online and attempt to persuade them to send inappropriate images or engage in unsuitable discussions over internet chat. Just as we teach youngsters not to accompany strangers in real life, always advise that strangers on the internet may not be who they say, that their intentions may not be good, that their photos may be of someone else and that extra care should be taken when sharing personal information. In particular, where you live, your age and any other personal details could lead to unwelcome interactions offline: they should definitely not be made public.
A young child may be unable to understand exactly why they should not give out their address, phone number or details of which school they attend. If that's the case, make a list of things that should remain secret and let them know what they should keep quiet about. If someone asks for these details persistently, they should know to come to you for help.
Adult images and video
It's no secret that the internet makes access to a full range of pornography free and easy. It's also not hard to stumble on some of this content by accident. There are some technical steps you can take to protect you and yours but bear in mind these are mainly useful for stopping someone accidentally seeing adult content and to prevent someone who is “casually” interested.
BullGuard Premium Protection includes a Parental Control section that allows you to block a range of sites, including those ranging from nudity to illegal images of child abuse. You can also apply a filter to your router, which in turn will affect any mobile devices using your Wi-Fi.
OpenDNS FamilyShield is free and available from the OpenDNS site. Such measures are effective, but take note: If your child is determined to find such content, they will find a way to bypass parental controls and web filters – even if that means hopping on to a neighbour's Wi-Fi connection.
Adults and children on the internet may attempt to trick your child into disclosing passwords to email, games services and other internet accounts. Discuss the consequences of handing out this type of information and make it a blanket rule never to share passwords with anyone, even if they seem to be important.
Also encourage your child to choose a strong password and not to re-use passwords with different accounts. If they use the same one for everything it will only take one bully to watch them log into a system at school to learn their password and then their Facebook, Steam and email accounts are all compromised.