How can you make sure your children are safe to roam the internet, do their homework online and chat with friends? Here are the basics to help you stay in control...
Internet security for kids
If you have a broadband connection at home, you're probably concerned about what your children may be exposed to. Without the right measures in place, your kids will be able to surf without restrictions - and run the risk of being targeted by unscrupulous offers, predatory adults, as well as encountering unsuitable material.
When it comes to online danger, there are three key areas where your children need protecting. Generally speaking, these are adult websites, spam emails and online chat services.
Protecting children from adult websites
Adult websites containing explicit or violent images are widespread on the internet - as well as guides to making bombs and other extreme content - and there's a chance your child may stumble across one, either by accident or out of curiosity.
Some of these have a warning on the homepage that alerts visitors to the content of the site, but the best way to avoid them is with parental control software that allows you to restrict and block certain sites using keywords, or monitor the sites that your child has been visiting.
These days, most UK broadband providers offer free parental controls with any family broadband package. If you want to ensure internet safety, check with your chosen ISP before signing-up.
In addition to parental controls, you should also remember to keep your own password - as the PC's "administrator" - a secret so that your children cannot log in as an adult and access the sites you have restricted on their own login.
Protecting children from unsuitable spam emails
Spam emails are a threat to anyone with an email account, and adult websites often target new users by sending out unsolicited emails. This is illegal in many countries, but it's very difficult to impose geographical boundaries on the internet.
Adult spam emails will usually come from countries where these laws are absent or rarely enforced. Many email providers have spam protection measures, but these often just filter spam into a separate folder.
However, if you are worried, you can buy specialised software to deal with this problem.
Protecting children from dangerous adults online
Predatory adults can easily sign-up for online chat services, by pretending to be another child. In some circumstances, children have been put at risk when the adult has arranged to meet up in person or has been given personal details such as the child's address or mobile number.
The easiest way to prevent your child from becoming a victim themselves is by talking to them about the risks - and the importance of "surfing safe" at all times. When chatting online they should always follow these rules:
- Never give out personal details, including their real name, hometown or street address, phone number, email address or the name of their school.
- Never arrange to meet anyone without an adult accompanying them. They should let their new friend know that this will always be the case.
- Tell a parent, guardian or trusted adult if a chat buddy says anything that makes them feel awkward, embarrassed, uncomfortable or unsafe.
- Always stay anonymous, using a username or pseudonym at all times.
Remember, you can use parental controls software to restrict what your children can access online. If you don't want them chatting to strangers, just look for this in your software's filter settings.
It is a good idea to show your children some fun websites suitable for kids, to ensure they are chatting in a safe, secure and age-appropriate environment. One good example is Moshi Monsters - a heavily moderated social network for preteens.
Young children should always be supervised online. Parental controls are not without their occasional flaws, so it is ultimately the parent's responsibility to ensure everything is in place for their child to surf safely and not engage in anything unsuitable.
If your child tells you someone in a chatroom is saying inappropriate things, try to get their username and report them to the website, or for more serious issues, the Virtual Global Taskforce or your local police so that they can take action.
In addition to all these protective measures, parents can also decide and then agree with their children what they can and cannot do online and what rules, if any, they are willing to relax as they get older and become more independent.
Make sure your children understand why you are setting rules, so they are able to begin developing their own judgement too. The boundaries you set and the way you monitor your children's internet usage are likely to change as your children grow up.
Remind them of the rules as often as you can, and review your safe surfing "policy" regularly.