The internet is humankind’s greatest technological achievement. As a parent, it is also the greatest source of headaches and worry. Striking a balance between keeping kids safe and allowing them the freedom to explore, to learn, to share and to communicate is nightmarish. And it’s made even more difficult because the internet, culture, expectations and software all change at such a frightening rate.
And so, it is very important that BCS lends its support to Safer Internet Day 2018. As a BCS member - and as a parent - I applaud its agenda for a safer and a more respectful internet.
A few years ago, I thought I was doing a good job when it came to internet safety. I had configured my home network and broadband carefully and believed it was a solid and reliable playpen for my children. Right up until they showed me I was completely wrong.
We’ll look at those technical aids later. They are useful, but not the whole answer.
First though, I would like to share my conclusion. And it is this: keeping your kids safer online is, in my experience, about discussion. Discussing the risks - as you understand them. Discussing how to mitigate those risks and discussing how those mitigations work. And, also, discussing the bad guys’ motivations and tactics.
My epiphany came when, being absolutely sure I had rigged up a perfect and impervious digital baby sitter, I found my son and his friend playing Minecraft online with ‘some boys in Japan’. This was a few years ago and configuring Minecraft PE - the tablet version - to play online was pretty tricky. They had watched some YouTube videos about how to connect with other gamers across the internet, followed the instructions and were busy ‘pwning’ each other.
My confidence needed reassessing and my purist’s faith in technology took a battering. As a family we started to use discussion to supplement technical countermeasures. My wife did not know about any of this, so discussing it together seemed like a good idea.
Nothing is perfect, of course, but through using some of these ideas - we have survived. Thus far.
‘If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.': Download the latest game for free. Free apps. Earn lots of money today. The internet is groaning with ads that promise something for nothing. In our family we found getting into the habit of discussing and deconstructing these ads to be very useful. What’s the seller’s angle? How are they making money? Why do they want you to behave in a certain way? What’s their end-game? Sometimes you can spot the scam or an attack. Not always. But sometimes.
‘How was your (online) day?’: Discussing your day is something we all do. Try asking what’s going on in your kids’ online world too. Make talking about online life as everyday as discussing school, work and all the rest. It’s amazing what you will find out.
‘What are you playing?’: Get to understand the games your kids are playing, with whom and how the action unfolded today. Playground politics are alive and kicking - often quite hard - in the digital world.
Social signals: Before you download a new app, look at the reviews. Be wary of apps with, say, 10 glowing reviews. Could these be the developers and their friends? Looks at the reviews, read them and look for patterns.
Privileges: Before you download an Android app you can read about the privileges it needs. Privileges here mean access to things like your contact database, location and the phone’s cameras. Some privilege requests are quite normal and logical. A photograph app will need access to your camera. But dubious apps will ask for access to phone features way beyond reasonable. Torch apps requesting access to your contacts, for example. Avoid these apps.
There is a lot of different technologies to help keep us safe online. None is perfect. Here are a few of the major ones:
Firewall: A firewall is a security device that monitors internet traffic as it flows in and out of your house. The firewall follows specific rules when deciding whether to let information flow. You are likely to have one. They are built into most broadband routers and modems. The problem: If you’re at home and access the internet via mobile - 4G - you will bypass your broadband firewall.
Anti-virus for your desktop: If you use a Mac or Windows PC and venture on to the internet without antivirus software you are asking for big trouble. You really should have antivirus software. The problem: If you are reckless - say determined to download that £45 game for free from the internet - you are more likely defeat your own defences. Antivirus software will often warn you if it thinks something is wrong, but if you are utterly determined to execute that - too good to be true - download, it will let you and you will have to live with the, likely dire, consequences.
Anti-virus for your phone: Again, like your desktop PC, antivirus for your mobile is very valuable - particularly if you use Android. The problem: Like PC antivirus, mobile malware protection is only one component of a wider defence.
Internet filters: The big broadband providers - BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin, PlusNet and EE - all offer filters that vet content. They often work on a sliding scale where you, as the parent, can set the level of explicitness that you find acceptable. These filters are well worth investigating. They are great because every device in the house - phones, tables, PCs, smart TVs - everything - is well protected. The problem: If your child is accessing the web via 4G from home, they’ll sidestep these broadband filters. And, the filters can be a bit annoying. Set the tolerance too high and you will block access to the National Lottery’s website, for example, or that wine company’s free prize draw that you want to enter.
Parental controls: Many of today’s major apps, operating systems and sites offer parental controls. They are a useful way of filtering and limiting what your children can do. The problem: YouTube’s parental settings, for example, are fallible and, what’s right for one family might be wrong for another. Remember too, parental settings are just as easily disabled, as enabled.
Privacy settings: BCS has done, and continues to do, a lot of work about personal data: how we are trading information about ourselves for free access to sites like WhatsApp and Facebook. Understanding the forces at play and your family’s position on privacy are, I think, important precursors to making privacy configurations in your favourite apps.
Patching: Keep all your phones, tablets, PCs and smart devices rigorously up-to-date with the manufacturer’s latest software.
If you have any concerns about keeping young people safe online, the NSPCC has some further advice and resources.
About the author
Supporting the government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy we’re keen everyone has the skills and confidence to use IT. Here, we share thoughts on a variety of digital matters.