How to protect children online

Protecting your children online
It's one of the most significant challenges facing parents today. As the world becomes smaller and the ability to access information and people continues to accelerate, how do parents protect their children?

In the old days it was easy. Teach your kids to cross the road safely, stay in well lit areas and avoid contact with strangers. Do those things and life was pretty safe. But today, our children are "friends" with people they have never met and are unlikely to meet IRL (in real life – because now we speak in acronyms and initialisations rather than real words!).

Parenting is a balancing act. You want to give your children enough freedom to experience the world but limit them for their own safety. Before we dive into setting particular controls and dishing out the advice regarding online safety there's something we want you to consider.

All the protection in the world will not stop your children from making poor choices. The most important protective skill you can give your child when they're online is discernment – how to make smart choices about what they search for, what they accept as truth, what they share and who they communicate with.

Be involved in your child's online life, just as you would in the real world. You probably know the names of your child's school friends. Do you know their online friends? When your children go to see a movie at the cinema you know what theatre they're going to and what they’re seeing. Why is online video different?

Location
A good starting point is to set rules for where computers can be used in the home. If you have a shared computer that's used by several family members, place it in a public space. Not only will this discourage kids from accessing sites that they ought see it can become a way for the family to share interesting things they see online.

With kids now routinely having access to computers and tablets as part of one-to-one programs, setting rules about where and when computers can be used is a good way to establish a safe physical environment. For example, make a decision about whether computers can be used in bedrooms and the times they can be used and enforce them.

The next step is actually managing what content your kids can access.

There are Rules
Social media and online messaging services have terms and conditions that users sign up to when they create their accounts. In most cases, these services set the minimum age for customers at 13 years old. Some even go as far as specifying that users between the ages of 13 and 18 require parental consent to use the service.

For example, the popular messaging service Kik specifies that parents can have their child's account deactivated if they have not provided that consent.

However, they have gone further, rating part of their service as 17+ as a result of their Kik Cards service that can be used to find images, videos and, play games.

Boundaries
There are lots of programs that limit access to specific content based on a set of rules. However, these programs can be difficult to set up, easily bypassed by savvy kids and make running your computer more complex.

Spend some time getting to know your router. The router is the device that shares your Internet connection either wirelessly or with cables to the devices on your network. Many router manufacturers, realising that their customers are looking for ways to better manage Internet access in the home, have added options for filtering what flows in and out of their network.

If you're choosing a new router for your home, take some time to look at the parental filtering options available. You may even find that the router you have has some filtering options already available that you haven’t used. Those filtering options might allow you to block specific sites or block sites based on keywords. More sophisticated systems use site categories and allow you to create specific rules for each person in your household.

Any routers will also allow you to set access rules based on time. For example, if you have a house rule that says no social media between 4pm and 6pm, as that's homework time, you can block access to Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and other sites during those hours for specific computers. There are some simple things you can do on shared computers as well. Google and Bing both offer options that filter search results so that explicit results are omitted. With Google, you'll need to sign in with an account in order to lock the Safe Search setting so that your kids can’t disable it.

Security Software
If you browse through the computer software shelves at your local store you'll notice that "antivirus software" doesn't really exist any more. It's been superseded by the more comprehensive "Internet Security" category. Many Internet security packages include some form of site filtering. Ostensibly, this is so that you're protected when you visit a website or receive an email that is attempting to lure you into revealing personal information or steal data directly from your computer. But it can also block access to sites that contain content you'd prefer your children avoided.

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Securing your Network

Your home network is the connective tissue that binds the computers your children use, your printers and other devices, and the Internet. Keeping it secure is not difficult but does require some effort and thought.

Let’s start with the wireless network.
There are a few technical terms that are worth understanding so that you can make decisions about the options you set.

  1. SSID The name of the wireless network
  2. WEP A type of wireless network encryption that is no longer favoured as it has been broken by hackers.
  3. WPA A type of wireless network encryption that is commonly used and is considered to be secure. There are two versions; WPA and WPA2. WPA2 has superseded WPA and is the one you should set for your network.
  4. If you're using a router that was supplied by your ISP then it should already be configured in a reasonably secure state. However, we'd recommend making the following changes.

1. Change the default password for the administrator account
Connect to the router and log in as the administrator for the device. If you're not sure how to do this, your ISP or router vendor should have provided instructions.
Follow the instructions to change the default password and, if possible, the username. Make sure you keep a record of that information in a secure place.

2. Change the name and password for the wireless network
While you're in the settings for the router, locate the options for the wireless network.

  • Change the name of the wireless network (it's usually called the SSID) to something you like (it can be almost any combination of letters, numbers and symbols)
  • Change the password to something you'll remember but isn’t easily guessed. A good way to do this is to not use a word but a short phrase. Something like "getyourownpassword" works!

3. Some Advanced Network Options
You'll most likely see an option that lets you hide the SSID so that it's not broadcast. In our view, it's not worth bothering with. If you get a new computer, or have a visitor over that you will allow access to the network, this makes it harder to connect the device. Also, the security benefit is negligible. If someone wants to hack your network, the SSID, even if not broadcast, can be easily gleaned as when a device connects to the network, it's sent as unencrypted data even if you're using WPA2.

You'll also see an option for MAC address filtering. This allows you to create a white-list of devices that are allowed to connect to your network. Any computer that isn’t listed won’t be able to connect. This adds management overhead in a home situation and doesn't add a significant security benefit.

4. Firewalls
The vast majority of routers include a firewall function. A firewall is a device or computer program that restricts access to a computer or network unless specific criteria are met.

Think of a firewall being like a wall covered with small doors. In security-speak, those doors are called ports. Each port is designed to only allow specific network traffic through. For example, Port 80 is regular web browsing traffic. Port 443 is for secure web traffic.

If all the ports are open, then bad guys can bombard your computers with all sorts of traffic. But a firewall closes all the ports, only opening the ones you specifically need.

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Blocking Specific Content

So, with all these different apps and websites your children are using what can you do to curtail their access?

Go into your router's settings (the instructions that came with it will guide you through that process). You will find some options for setting restrictions or for filtering.

If you want to block access to YouTube, then add "youtube.com" to the list of blocked sites. Similarly, you can do the same with Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and any other sites you want to stop your children from visiting.

You may also be able to block access to sites containing particular words.

There are some routers that integrate with third-party services that block sites based on their type. These services use categorised blacklists of sites. They allow you to choose what types of sites you'd like to block rather than having to list each specific site.

Alternately, if you do some research it may be possible to do some of that blocking yourself but amending the firewall settings in your router. For example, an article by CIPAFilter shows how to block Kik and other messenger services.

Your Computers
The days of installing anti-virus software on your computers are over. But, that doesn’t mean you don't need protection on your computers, tablets and smartphones.

When you're browsing the shelves at your local computer or stationery store, you'll be looking for security software. This is because the world has become far more complicated over the last few years. Malicious software, or malware, has evolved from simply being all about reckless damage to a tool used by sophisticated organised crime gangs.

Windows users have long been accustomed to installing security software and Mac aren't exempt from needing it as well. Good security software will not only protect you from viruses but also from malware that's introduced through infected websites, email and other methods.

Online Places In today's connected world, children can interact with other people in lots of places. Here are few of the potential types of sites and services your kids might be accessing.

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Social Media

This is the easy one. It's worth noting that the best-known services like Twitter and Facebook aren’t all that popular with kids and teens. That's because they've been "taken over" by older people.

It's more likely that they'll be using sites like Tumblr for their online interactions. Pinterest and Skype are also popular.

Here are a list of social media sites and apps kids would use.

Games

The games kids play on computers, consoles, tablets and smartphones aren't limited to single players or local networks. Many games rely on an online element that allows game-players to communicate while they communicate or compete.

If you have a console like the Xbox, Wii or PlayStation you'll know that those devices support an Internet connection for sharing and accessing media. But those connections can also be used within games.

As you'd expect, games played on computers often have an element of inter-player communication. Sometimes this is by typing messages to each other but other times it can involve a video-conferencing or verbal communication.

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Gaming Tips for online gamers

Blogs and YouTube While you might think sites like blogs, YouTube and other video sharing sites are all about consuming content, they also have an interactive element through comments.

If your child wants to have their own blog or share a movie, make sure you can see ALL of the content (it's relatively easy to create content that is hidden behind a password).

The comments posted on blogs or video sites are a social network all of their own. Lots of people post video blogs on YouTube. When someone posts a comment about the clip, it starts a conversation. That conversation can be the seed of an online friendship.

Instant Messaging While SMS remains incredibly popular, there are dozens of instant messaging programs that allow your children to chat online with the friends.

One of the most popular is Kik. This works in a similar way to SMS but works entirely across the Internet rather than the phone network. Facebook also has its own messaging service and there's also WhatsApp – the messaging service purchased by Facebook earlier this year for $19B.

Behaviour
It's tempting to look for a silver bullet to protect your children when they're online but there's more to it.
Talk to your children about what they do online.

Email
If your children receive emails that look "official" and include links for them to change passwords or log in to sites, they should never click those links. Emails that look real but are fakes are part of a scamming technique called phishing.

Those links will take your kids to sites that are often high quality copies of real sites that are designed to fool them into providing personal information.

3 steps to keep online scammers away

Web Browsing
This is a tough one. Having your kids use the computer in a public part of the house will help ensure that they only visit sites that you find acceptable.

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