How safe are your children online?
Updated: Sep 20
Currently homes across the world have been turned into offices, schools, gyms, restaurants and almost anything else imaginable due to COVID-19. For many children the current daily routine involves waking up, eating breakfast then logging on to the internet to start the school day.
Almost all schools implement internet security features such as filters and blacklists (lists of websites or other resources that aren’t allowed) which are applied to devices or through the internet connection itself to protect the student when going online from certain online content.
So what safeguards are needed for children learning from home and what potential threats do they face.
What threats might children face?
Seemingly innocent activities like using YouTube or Google to find resources for school work can expose children to unexpected risks given the breadth of inappropriate adult content available online at the click of a button. Features on the sites such as links to related videos or search results, can find children stumbling across content inadvertently. Even using YouTube Kids, a subset of curated YouTube content filtered for appropriateness, has some risks. There have been reports of content featuring violence, suicidal themes and sexual references.
Another recent common occurrence, teachers and schools making use of video conferencing tools to maintain a face to face connection with students.
There have been reports of cases of class-hijacking, including Zoom-bombing where uninvited guests enter the video-conference session. Although many video conferencing software providers have now set up features to reduce this risk, such as session passwords and new participants having to be accepted before being able to enter the session.
A discussion could be had about the normalisation of children using video conferencing software, especially younger children who may be experiencing it for the first time. Which could lead to a wider post-pandemic danger, with a claim being made that "malicious actors (including paedophiles) may seek to exploit this level of familiarity. They can persuade children to engage in actions that can escalate to inappropriate sexual behaviours."
Secondly, it is worth considering the mental health impact of blurring the lines between personal life and school life, which now all revolve around the internet.
Online bullying has been a big topic in the media and schools over the past couple of years, with children now almost being forced to go online to complete school work, is this putting them at more risk?
What can you do to protect your children?
There are features which can be implemented at a device-level but need setting up manually first to be active. For example, many Apple devices offer ScreenTime controls to limit access to apps and websites and apply time limits to device use (recent Android devices might have the Digital Wellbeing feature with similar capabilities). Traditional mechanisms like firewalls and anti-virus tools are still essential on laptops and desktop systems. It is important these are not just installed and forgotten. Just like the operating systems, they need to be regularly updated.
Despite all the negative things discussed in this post, the internet itself can be a great resource to gain advice and guidance on how to fully protect your children whilst being online and using technology at home and away.
These sites provide access to online safety booklets, advice on parental controls, video guides and lots more useful resources.
But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by these materials, some key messages include:
ensuring the device being used is regularly updated. This can include updating the operating system such as Windows, Android or Mac.
using appropriate antivirus software and ensuring it is also kept up to date.
applying parental controls to limit screen time, specific app use (blocking or limiting use), or specific website blocks (such as blocking access to YouTube).
on some devices, parental controls can limit use of the camera and microphone to prevent external communication.
applying age restrictions to media content and websites.
monitoring your child’s use of apps or web browsing activities.
when installing apps for children, checking online and talking to other parents about them.
configuring web browsers to use “safe search”.
ensuring children use devices in sight of parents.
talking to your children about online behaviours.
Whilst technology can help protect your children from inappropriate or unwanted content, it can have limitations and isn't a "fix all" solution.
Monitoring and an opening channel of communication between yourself and your children along side the use of technology gives you the best chances to keep safe online.
This post has been adapted from an article at The Conversation,under a Creative Commons license. The full original article can be found here which was written by Paul Haskell-Dowland, an associate dean of Computing and Security at Edith Cowan University and Ismini Vasileiou, an associate professor in information systems at De Montfort University.