The only completely certain way to keep your kids safe online is to keep your kids offline.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get real. The internet is a wonderful tool that can provide access to the universe. It can open doors to education and entertainment. And let’s remember that not all entertainment is a waste of time, and not all education and information is beneficial. ALL of it—the good and the bad—is “out there” just waiting for your search engine to grab and display for you. But you knew all that. So how do we screen out the stuff we don’t want?
What you want is called a filter, and there’s a pretty good chance that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) offers one. I know that when I was with AT&T, they had one. Wild Blue had one, Hughesnet has one; most of the providers call them Parental Controls. Ours is done now through OpenDNS, which can be a bit cumbersome and geeky to set up, but it works very well and offers some broader customization options. Additionally there are many commercial offerings, and a search on the keyphrase “parental controls” will give you a ton of providers. If you select the one from your ISP, they’ll be able to help you get it set up.
Great, so we’ve got the computers filtered, but what about phones?
All the smartphone platforms offer parental controls apps. We’re using one called Mobicip. The app itself is free and you can put it on your kids’ phones and control certain things, but for right at $10/year per phone you can get a subscription to the online service where you can do some more configuration per phone. The website offers profiles for various age groups that you can use as-is, or you can configure to fit your personal needs. THIS IS ONLY ONE OFFERING—it was the one that looked like it fit what I was looking for.
Wonderful—so now all the kiddies are protected from stuff that can hurt them, right?
First, filters are not infallible. They will make errors in “judgment” and let some stuff through that shouldn’t go through. Or else they’ll be so restrictive that you’ll have to loosen them up so you can at least use the web, and then some stuff will get through that you don’t want. It’s a delicate and difficult balance to keep out only all the bad stuff and let in only all the good stuff. Besides, not all the stuff you want to keep out can be filtered, and this is where the BEST protection comes in—YOU, the parent, or grandparent, or aunt, or uncle, or pastor, or loving friend.
You can’t filter out haters on social media—but you can empower your child to not maintain a relationship with them. There is no reason for your child to remain in contact on social media with someone who is mean to them. Is there?
Not everyone who claims to be a 12-year-old boy in middle school is a 12-year-old boy in middle school. Way too many strangers who claim to be 12-year-old boys in middle school are actually middle-aged child predators of both sexes. Your child should NEVER, EVER, EVER be friends online with someone they don’t know offline. The exception to this is in cases of well-vetted and heavily-moderated safe places for kids, sponsored by an organization you know well. Your church may partner with an affiliated church in a distant city and have adults monitor the activity of online content and participants. When I was growing up I had a pen pal. We corresponded a couple of times a month, and we never met. That was not unusual, but that was a different time. I saw an organization a while back that provided moderated chat rooms for kids, and can’t recall the name of it now, but do your research and make sure of the safeguards in place before you let your child befriend anyone online. Grownups can put pieces of information together and learn an awful lot about your kids and your kids won’t even know about it. (By the way, if you have a sports or ballet sticker on your car window with your child’s name on it, you’ve just provided enough for a predator to get started; consider removing it.)
Stuff happens. People make mistakes. They get fooled into clicking on a link. They get dissed and bullied and harassed online just like they get dissed and bullied and harassed offline. Here’s what you need to make sure your kids know:
(This is not a misprint, I’m purposely repeating it, because you kids need to know what follows:) Stuff happens. People make mistakes. They get fooled into clicking on a link. They get dissed and bullied and harassed online just like they get dissed and bullied and harassed offline. That’s digital life.
How do you make sure they know it? You talk to them. Seriously. You sit down with them, turn off the television, ask them to put the phone in the pocket and leave it there for a few minutes. You start out by telling them that they are not in trouble, and you are not accusing them of anything, you just want to let them know something you’ve learned and you hope they can learn from. You tell them that sometimes people think it’s funny to get them to click on a link that sends them to a porn site. You tell them that some websites are supported by advertisers whose products have nothing to do with the subject of the website they wanted to visit, and they probably won’t know it till they get there. (**this site is supported by advertising, some of which has nothing to do with technology, but I have filtered out any “adult” content; some sites don’t do that.) You tell them that you’ve done your best to make sure that your home is a safe place to surf the web, but that there is always a chance that someone else knows how to get around the filters, and as a result, they may end up at a website they never intended to go to. TELL THEM THAT YOU KNOW THAT THIS CAN HAPPEN WITHOUT THEM WANTING IT TO HAPPEN—it’s very important that they understand that if it does happen—and it likely will—they should feel okay telling you about it, so that you can add the website to the blocked domain list in the filter. Also you need to know this so you can help them not feel guilty for what they may have seen. Some of the images are not only pornographic, some are just plain disgusting, and your child may need help getting through that. The most important thing to come out of the conversation is the most protective thing you have to offer: your understanding of the fact that if it happens, it may not be your child’s fault. Not every teenage kid wants to view pornography, but it’s very important that they understand that you won’t be mad at your child for telling you about a bad site that popped up. Remember kids don’t have the range of experiences that you do, and an unfortunate misplaced space in a website name could very well lead them to places they’d rather not go.
You are your kids’ best defense against inappropriate internet activity. As fabulous as the World Wide Web can be, don’t forget that your kids also need a very healthy dose of disconnected time, and they may not do that willingly. You must be the parent and enforce downtime and outside time and no-phone time.
We can’t keep kids from falling down and scraping knees, and that’s part of growing up. We can’t keep kids from all the ills of the internet, either, but if you wouldn’t let your five-year-old watch adults doing private “grownup” stuff in person, you wouldn’t want it available online either. If you think it’s important to teach your kids to stand up to bullies in person and to walk away from jerks, you’re going to want to teach them to block people who are toxic to their online experience. Today’s tech-savvy kids know just enough to do what they want to do but not nearly enough to do it safely. When you present yourself to your kids as a resource to help in this, you won’t come off as the dictator who won’t let them experience the journey, you’ll come off as the person who has the map and has also walked the road, and who knows where the map is wrong and where the quicksand is—and how to avoid it.
I’d love to hear some of your ideas on how you’ve talked to your kids about this, or if you have any questions or concerns, let’s hear them and see what we can come up with to help.The only completely certain way to keep your kids safe online is to keep your kids offline.