The internet is arguably the new frontier for communication, collaboration and business but, with criminals also using it for ill-gotten gains, it does have its bad parts too. And this is making life difficult for parents struggling to keep up with their child’s technology obsession.

In bygone eras, parents’ concerns over their children were relatively simple: they worried if they were healthy, happy and socially adept at school and other challenging environments. As they got older, they considered too the challenges of new relationships, new careers and living quarters.

However, while these issues are still valid, today’s parents find themselves facing a whole host of new issues, many of which arise from their son or daughter’s use of the internet such as social media and privacy.

Studies have shown that children as young as three are actively using the internet, usually first on a mobile device like Apple’s iPad, with older children increasingly the early adopters of online solutions like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Tinder.

All of these services have many good qualities, but they’ve also given rise to cyberbullying - suffered by as many as one in four students in the US – revenge porn and financial and ID theft. More generally, young children are all too often being exposed to an internet with little or no age barrier; there is simply no age classification or attendant who can block you from going in, like you get at the cinema for example.

Security vendors and governments are doing their utmost to make the internet a child-friendly place through the introduction of new technologies and initiatives, but concerned parents themselves find themselves out of the loop.

Parental concern

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A new survey from ESET reveals that 88 per cent of parents are worried about what their children can access online, and yet surprisingly few of these have taken any steps to install security software or parental control apps on their child’s internet-connected devices.

The poll, which took in the responses of 2,000 parents across the US and UK, found that 37 per cent of kids do not have security programs on their mobile or tablet, while only 34 per cent of parents have installed a parental control app to help manage their child’s online experiences.

When asked “What specifically concerns you when your child accesses the internet on a smartphone or tablet?” security concerns came out on top. 81 per cent cited their child visiting inappropriate web pages and 71 per cent about their kids giving their personal details to strangers, with 61 per cent more generally concerned about their sons and daughters spending too much time on their gadgets.

Technology and education go hand-in-hand 

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Fortunately, while these fears around child safety online are not unfounded, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Security vendors continue to roll out new privacy and security software, while daily data breaches and newspaper headlines have focused citizens on ensuring they patch their systems, create complex passwords and use anti-virus software.

High-profile hacks, like at Sony Pictures Entertainment, have also shone the light on the benefits of password managers, device restrictions on mobile devices, and on internet monitoring and filtering – which can be enabled through internet service providers (ISPs). 

Some users and parents have even looked to take advantage of virtual private networks (VPNs), Tor and web extensions to stay safe online. The proliferation of security apps for secure telephone calls and messages has also proved that online safety goes beyond the desktop.

However, experts point out that technology is only one part of the solution when trying to keep kids safe online – it also has to be about education.

The Guardian has previously reported that a number of high-profile security experts take care of their own children by detailing the risks involved, from suspicious links to unknown strangers, and employing appropriate defensive measures.

These defensive measures differ by parents of course, with some security experts having no web filtering, while others not even letting their children browse unaccompanied. Somewhere in the middle, other experts say that scanning for malware and keeping AV updated are sufficient, while some advocate the use of personal private clouds.

“My general rule is if they can imagine a responsible adult standing behind them, and watching what they are doing on the internet, and they would be happy with being watched by them, then what they are doing is ok,” Kevin Gourlay, head of the (ISC)2 Safe and Secure Online cybersafety initiative, told the newspaper.