Minimizing Kids' Online Risks

As the parent of an 11 year-old that is active online, I’m concerned about the risks she might encounter there. I also realize that my daughter is fairly insulated from many dangers, because of simple rules she willingly agrees to follow. Risks remain, as they would anywhere, walking along Capitol Hill at night, driving fast on the highway, or climbing a ladder to change a light bulb. Living is about taking risks. But taking unnecessary online risks, particularly when there are predators online hunting teenagers, is another matter. Adult content websites such as hdpornvideo are widely available and accessible all over the internet, but should only be viewed by those of us that are fully mature enough to understand what they represent.

On Thursday, I discussed some risks kids make, based on a nearly two-day exploration of Xanga blogrings. A good friend with four daughters—ages six to 13 and all using the Internet—had asked me to look at the eldests’ Xanga blog. From her site I found a series of interconnected blogrings, mostly established by young teens around a common religious belief. It’s for their parents that I offer advice about kids’ online behavior and how to mitigate risks. But this post, like yesterday’s, is for anyone with a kid using the Internet.

You are the Best Parental Control
Many friends and friends of friends know that I’ve been online for a long time and have a job related to technology. It’s not unusual for parents to ask me about the Internet and what they should do to protect their kids going online. The typical question is about parental control software, whether it’s necessary and if so what to use and how best to protect their kids when online. There is no easy answer, because much depends on the parents, relationship with their children and the kids’ characters.

To be forthcoming, I’m no big supporter of parental control software. I see the lock-down mechanism as a last resort, and one that can create unnecessary and damaging effects to the parent-child relationship. However, some situations demand its use, which I will later address. However, to rigidly prevent children from accessing explicit material online from somewhere like hdtubemovies is to neglect the issue that it raises. Best parental control is the parent. How much control depends on the parents and the child.

In my household, the parental control is trust. My daughter follows guidelines for using the Internet. The extended trust is something she wants to naturally uphold, and it extends control without my having to really apply any. Kids want to please their parents, particularly when there is trust. Relationships where trust has been violated—where lies create problems with the parent-child relationship—are, in my experience, unlikely to bind a kid’s behavior. Either trust must be restored by removing the barrier of lies, assuming the child’s online behavior is untrustworthy, or there must be stricter online oversight, including the use of parental control software.

Whether loose or strict online oversight, parents must be involved with their kids online activities. If your child knows more about using computers and the Internet than you do, roles already have reversed with you as object to the child. Also, you aren’t able to determine what the kid is doing and what kind of people, whether friends or malevolents, are attempting to exert influence. Absolutely the kids can be influenced, particularly if there are problems with the parent-child relationship (aren’t there always?).

What Kids need from Parents
Many parents underestimate just how much supervision pre-teens and young teens need, choosing to treat them more like adults (and shirking off responsibilities to the kids). May 8, 2004, Science News story, “Teen Brains on Trial,” explains that the onset of puberty greatly impacts a child’s behavior. Changes in the frontal lobe of the brain and the pruning of neural connections appear to have significant impact on kids’ judgment and how they respond to stimulus in their environment. There appear to be real biological reasons why young teens exercise poor judgment and engage in risky behavior.

Science News explains “that mental efficiency in solving emotion-related tasks…suffers with the arrival of puberty…Response speed improves gradually after puberty and stabilizes at around age 15.”

Most parents probably don’t need a scientific study to tell them young teens, and even pre-teens, can be troubled and troubling. Middle school age, about the time many of these kids begin puberty, can be an especially uncertain time. As kids make new discoveries about themselves, exert greater independence and seek comrades sharing similar changes, they need parental involvement—and that includes their online world.

Dr. A. Rae Simpson offers simple yet profound advice to parents in her Harvard School of Public Health report, “Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action.” She writes, in the first of five basics for parenting adolescents, that “teens need parents to develop and maintain a relationship with them.” In No. 2: “Teens need parents to be aware of—and let teens know they are aware of—their activities.” She recommends that parents keep track of teens’ “whereabouts and activities, directly or indirectly, by listening, observing and networking with others who come in contact with [their] teen.”

I say that involvement absolutely extends to the online world. If you as a parent aren’t intimately aware of what your child is doing online, whom he or she communicates with, you’ve shrugged off your parental responsibilities and put your child at risk.

Why Technology isn’t Enough
My role isn’t to offer parenting advice on raising teenagers. Dr. Simpson does so quite well in her 101-page report, by the way. Her advice about parental involvement is as right for kids’ online world as what they do in the real world. Problem: Too many kids aren’t monitored online.

September 2002 BBC/ITC report, “Striking a Balance: The Control of Children’s Media Consumption,” concluded, “that the key period for parental concern about media consumption [TV, games and Internet] is when children are aged between 10 and 14.” I should reemphasize that’s the same age range Science News reports massive changes in kids’ brains and their difficulty exercising good judgment about emotional matters. The BBC/ITC study also found that parents don’t closely enough monitor kids on the Internet. One-third of parents said that their kids generally used the Internet without supervision. Additionally, 29 percent of kids 8-to-13 years old “who used the Internet used it unsupervised very or fairly often.” The number jumps to 63 percent for kids 14 to 16.

I get numerous questions about parental control software, but that’s not as effective as getting involved in what kids do online. I want to emphasize that technology isn’t enough. What you the parent don’t know about computers and the Internet or what your child does know is what really matters. No parental control software will prevent a determined kid from doing whatever he or she wants to online, particularly if parents lack sufficient understanding about technology. Relationship matters. Parental involvement matters.

I’m convinced that parental control software can have the opposite of its intended effect. Its use communicates that the parent doesn’t trust the child. The software also can create a false sense of safety. For example, Web browser parental controls typically either allow access to a Website or not. The approach may not be effective enough. For example, kids granted permission to a Website might still encounter bad content there, such as profanity in comments left on a blog post.

Finally, I will ask: Are you the parent really involved if you rely on technology—and technology you may not understand—to protect your kids’ online? My answer is a definitive no.

Establish a Policy of Trust
In my experience, too many parents blindly trust kids (or simply don’t care enough) rather than extend them trust. Parents should extend trust by giving kids’ online guidelines and establish accountability for them. Develop rules and, in a trusting manner as possible, enforce them.

My daughter’s iMac is in my basement office and so in close proximity to me. At first, she balked at this computer placement, but now calls the arrangement “cozy.” Proximity means I can loosely monitor my daughter’s online behavior, or at least let her believe that I do. I like having her around. Her energy, enthusiasm and questions are intoxicating. She’s right to call the arrangement “cozy.”

I also have established some simple rules for online behavior. She’s not allowed to go to a new Website without asking first. All first visits to a Website must be through Google search, which helps ensure she doesn’t mistype a domain and end up on some squatter’s porn site. She isn’t allowed to download anything without first asking (I’ve seen situations where even the downloading of emoticons recommended by a friend leads to spyware infection). She has a blogsite (and domain) on which she can post whatever she wants, including photos, but not reveal clearly identifying information, such as address, phone number or IM handle. She gets email through Apple’s .Mac, which has superb spam filtering. I would recommend against MSN Hotmail, because of the amount of spam, but don’t see major problems with Yahoo! Mail (paid version) or Gmail, at least for now. My daughter only IMs with kids after first getting my approval.

So far, my daughter abides by these guidelines. There are definitely complaints, particularly when I prohibit a site or download, but she hasn’t yet violated trust. I can’t say that such guidelines will work for every parent. But if parents are really engaged with their kids—giving them limited responsibilities, listening to them and extending them trust—there’s every reason to expect such an approach can work.

But the parent must be the starting point. And there must be guidelines (rules, if you like) in place. I’m surprised how many parents that ask my parental software advice never considered this first step.

Setting rules also can send a subtle message, even to the rebellious teen: That the parent cares enough about the kids to try and protect him or her online. As I wrote earlier, citing the Science News story, young teens struggle to exercise good judgment, particularly in emotional matters. You the parent must exercise good judgement for them.

Make Sure Technology Works for You
There are some technical considerations parents do need to know about:

  1. Most good email programs or services will block images in email by default, letting the user to enable images for email from “trusted” senders. Spam email often includes transparent images called “Web beacons” that when summoned verify the email address as valid. Images loaded in, say, one porn spam mail can lead to a torrent of porn spam. Parents should make sure images are blocked by default and that junk mail filters are set to a medium or high setting. Some email programs and services let parents restrict mail to trusted senders from names in an address book. This kind of subtler parental control can be effective without being too heavy handed.
  2. Google is a great mechanism for protecting kids from dangerous sites, but the search engine has its seedy side, too. Google actually has safety preferences that block or allow explicit content. Default is “moderate,” which I’ve found will occasionally let slip in porn for some image searches. I would recommend raising the setting to “strict filtering.” It’s probably a good idea to see if your kid has changed the setting to “do not filter,” which will lead to porn and maybe lots of it. In a test, I turned off the filter and did an image search for “amateur.” I ended up with page after page after page of amateur porn, before getting to less explicit amateur results like sports.
  3. Most IM programs let parents put some restrictions on who can instant message their kids. I strongly recommend against kids posting IM handles on public Websites. But enabling the IM control is a good compromise. Kids manually add IM buddies and receive messages for those people on their buddy list. Most IM programs also allow the archiving of conversations. While I’ve never had reason to read my daughter’s IM conversations, they are archived. Kids may balk about privacy, but I see the situation as no different than the workplace, where employers have the legal right to read workers’ emails and instant messages.
  4. Many Websites offering free services also provide paid versions. Parents, care enough about your kids to pay. Paid versions often remove advertising and provide subscribers with more controls. For example, I would recommend that parents with kids using Xanga or Yahoo! Mail to pay the little extra for the ad-free services.
  5. Kids’ blogs should be monitored by parents. Actually they must be monitored. If parents are concerned about whom kids’ friends are in the real world, shouldn’t they also be concerned about those online? More importantly, parents can see who responds to kids blog posts with comments. Is their profanity, harassment or signs that a sexual predator has quietly approached the kid? Again, kids might balk about privacy, but public posts are, well, public.I’ve actually learned a few things about my daughter—stuff she might not say to her parents that was brazenly posted on her Weblog. I see blogging as opportunity for parents to grow closer to the kids, the same way through blogging kids seek to grow closer to their friends. Besides, if a predator frequents your child’s blog, should he or she know more about your kid than you do? By the way, some services provide means by which users can see where readers come from, identifying characteristics that could be useful in tracking down online stalkers. If those tools are available to you, use them.

Do you have a story of online risk or privacy that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.