The ABC’s of Internet Safety
By Tarah Stock
Like it or not, we live in a digital age. The Internet is shaping our society and phone use is forming our families. The average teen spends most of their waking hours in front of a screen. Half of Canadian kids between the ages of seven and eleven own a smartphone. While many homeschool families resist the pull of technology, more and more are embracing it.
Most likely, if your home has wi-fi or your smart phone has data, your child has access to a whole new world beyond the safety you provide—or they will soon. How to keep them safe and help them develop the life skills needed to navigate this ever-changing frontier is the ever-growing concern. Every family needs an Internet safety plan (ISP).
Since the digital landscape expands and reconfigures daily, there are essentially three key components every ISP should include: awareness, blocking and monitoring software, and ongoing conversations. These are the ABC’s of Internet safety–the foundational and interdependent elements of a strong, effective plan. While there are no guarantees and no ISP is fool-proof, these components (when kept current and continuous) are a family’s best defense against online dangers.
What are the potential threats associated with the devices, applications and websites your child accesses?
New research comes out daily showing the prevalence of sexual exploitation, the impact of social media, the pervasiveness of advertising, and the effects of digital media on child development. Whether children are on a gaming device, smart phone or computer, parents must be made aware of issues their children could encounter and the significance of their potential impact. The following sites provide information to help parents get an accurate picture of the current digital landscape:
Beyond conducting regular research, a good ISP involves routine family assessments. Have you recently taken time to find out what technology and applications your children access, when, and for how long? Thankfully, the technology in the next plan component makes that job easier.
Blocking & Monitoring
How do you filter and keep track of the content your child sees and how much time they spend online?
No homeschool parent has the time to constantly watch what their child is doing and experiencing online–especially when that child is capable of working independently. Although many devices have parental controls in place (and hopefully, these have been properly configured), they do not keep search engines, marketers, and strangers from choosing what to show your child. If you want to decide what content your child sees (or know about it after the fact), third party hardware or software is needed.
Axis, a tech-savvy faith-based organization, annually produces A Parent’s Guide to Internet Filtering and Monitoring to explain and provide specifics about the latest information on technology available to parents. Among their top software recommendations are:
These software companies are subscription based and constantly updating. They provide advanced options for filtering content and setting time controls. They also provide activity logs. While free filtering software exists, it is not recommended. Free software is unreliable, typically sells user data, and is often the source of computer viruses. Choosing a paid option most suitable to your present budget and tech environment is an essential part of a good ISP.
What happens when technology fails to protect?
While capable and effective, none of the above technologies can be fully relied upon to protect our children. At some point our kids will encounter one of the many dangers that exist online. Will they recognize it? If they do, one of two things can happen: either they will keep quiet and continue heading into dangerous territory, or they will come to us. Having open communication between parents and children is the most effective form of Internet safety.
Whether our children are able to identify threats and what they choose to do about it will largely depend on the kinds of conversations taking place. As with all areas of home education, parenting is paramount. Here, too, the ultimate safety of our children hinges on our ability to create and maintain a healthy environment for ongoing communication.
Sometimes, maintaining this final component of an ISP can be most challenging. It is difficult to know how and what to communicate about sensitive matters at each different stage of development. The important thing is to regularly set aside time and create space for Internet safety conversations. If you are uncertain of what to say or how to say it, look for tips on the blogs of the sites mentioned in this article or do a quick Internet search of your own. It’s the most important part of an ISP and suggestions are everywhere.