Children come into contact with the internet at a very young age these days - a survey on a parenting site this year said that one in eight children go online before the age of two.
The role of modern parents, though, isn't to be the "internet police" - it's to educate children, and ensure they get the most from technology, without exposing them to inappropriate content or other online dangers. Also taking a few simple steps can help ensure your children have a healthy, happy relationship with the internet.
Don’t bar children from technology
Children will use the internet whatever happens - and the best way for them to learn about it is from you. This is something you should do at a pre-school age. ESET Senior Research Fellow David Harley says the key is a “gentle, guided introduction,” saying, “While I don’t advocate giving babes in arms immediate and unrestricted access to the cyberfrontier, it’s worth trying to give children a gentle, guided introduction: encourage them to try things, ask questions, and engage in constructive dialog: “It says here that…. do you think that’s really true? Should you therefore teach your children paranoia? Of course not: there are already too many people terrified to use computers.”
Be wary of webcams
If your PC has a webcam built in, be extra cautious - cybercriminals are known to use malware known as R.A.T. (Remote Access Tools) to spy on victims through the cameras. Criminals who sell access to households in this fashion are known as “ratters”. Turn off or disconnect webcams if possible on PCs used by your children - or stick tape over the lens - and ensure your AV software is up to date. In a blog post detailing the capabilities of Remote Access Tools, ESET Security Evangelist Stephen Cobb writes “How serious can a malicious software infection be these days? Short answer – very. R.A.T. – Remote Access Tool – is one of the most popular categories of “crimeware” being deployed by cybercriminals today.”
Be open with children about cyber-bullying
Cyber-bullying is incredibly common - and you should ensure that children go to you with problems, rather than hiding them. Tell children how common it is - and ensure they never reply to bullies. Much like replying to a spammer, it gives the bully a sign a target is “there”. Instead, children should save or print out messages, block senders if they can - and talk to you.
Know which gadgets go online
Online gaming is often plagued by foul language and abuse - and gadgets such as games consoles can also have web browsers. Be sure to know which of your children’s gadgets CAN go online - most games consoles can. Consoles such as Xbox and Nintendo DS have parental controls, which block children from inappropriate content. Use them - many parents don’t. Research by the UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom, showed only 16% of parents would install controls for games consoles compared with 31% for mobile phones and 46% for PCs, laptops or notebooks.
Be friends with your children
Where you can - and where it’s appropriate - befriend your children on social networks. Create a blank profile if you want, for instance, to have space on Facebook for more grown-up chat - but being friends with children can be invaluable. On BBM messaging, for instance, it’s a great way to keep tabs on who your child is chatting to - and on Facebook, it can help remind children to behave appropriately if they know you’re there.
Learn to use built-in controls
Many gadgets already have built-in controls which can help you protect children from adult content. Apple's iOS for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad contain a range of settings to restrict access based on age - including the ability to block in-app purchases, which can protect against “bill shock” if children buy extras within games. Windows 8 PC also has upgraded security controls for parents - visit the Family Safety area. It can monitor internet use and deliver reports each week on where they've been surfing.
Don’t leave them to it
The worst thing you can do as a parent is to assume your children are more tech-savvy than you - and that you won’t catch up. ESET Senior Research Fellow David Harley says, “It’s not about being the font of all knowledge: they will learn much more if, when you run into a problem, you tackle it together. Even now, many parents are still content to assume that their children are – even at an early age – more competent with computers and software than they are themselves. Even if this is sometimes true, as an adult you are much better equipped to apply your coping experience of the less salubrious aspects of life in general to online life. Don’t confuse technical grasp with coping.”
Set up separate user accounts for your children
It’s tempting to let the family share one Windows user account on a PC - but if everyone has their own OS account, it’s easier to keep track of when and how they are using the computer. If you have more than one child, this also means you can customise the level of protection they might need.
Watch what browser your children use
More than half of teenagers lie to parents about what they do online, according to a recent survey - so watch for “extra” browsers installed on PCs. A periodic check on “Programs” will allow you to see if any have been added. If your children are using a “secret” browser, or deleting their history, it isn’t automatically "incriminating" - but it is something that you should discuss together.
Block offensive websites
Choose security software that allows you to block offensive websites in a customisable way - without, for instance, blocking off news stories children might need for a school project. ESET Smart Security allows parents to block 20 categories of website, and to customise the level of blocking according to a child’s age. The software is password-locked, so children can’t modify settings or uninstall without your permission.