Internet Safety for Families

  Charles Thacker       January 31, 2007      Tutorials Education Internet

School districts across the United States provide Internet access for students and staff through their district networks. The purpose of this access is to provide an additional resource for the educational environment and meet the needs of an increasingly dynamic instructional model.

Technology in general, and the Internet specifically, is just a tool. It is inherently neither good nor bad - it just is, until it’s used. Like many new advances in our society, the Internet has brought out the best and the worst in humanity. While the Internet provides students excellent learning opportunities and encourages personal growth, many of us are concerned about the risks our kids are exposed to online. The challenge we face is to educate - not isolate - ourselves and our families about safe Internet use.

The Bad News

According to recent surveys, and bearing in mind that each report is created using different research, somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 7 school aged children received an unwanted online sexual solicitation in 2006. In this regard, equality between the sexes exists online. Taking all exploitation and victimization - not just online activity - girls are twice as likely to experience exploitation.

The Internet is one avenue of contact that predators can use to approach people. Due to the anonymous nature of communication that the Internet provides, a predator can hide behind a well-designed persona that can be anything they wish to the outside world. A 40 year-old man can become a 15 year-old girl, and as long as he maintains the right ‘appearance’ online, it is nearly impossible to break through the façade.

It is an odd behavior, but even adults show a prevalence to trust communications from unknown sources when in an electronic format. As an example, imagine you were to receive a letter in the mail indicating that the National Lock and Bolt Company was concerned about the security of your house and if you would just make a copy of your house key and send it back to them in the self-addressed, stamped envelope provided they would confirm that your house is secure and you are safe. Would you do this? It’s unlikely that any of you would. Now let’s replace the letter with an e-mail message from Bank of America, with whom you may or may not have an account. They say they are concerned about your account password and PIN information. Many more Internet users will respond to such an e-mail, which is called phishing, and they put their personal information at risk by doing so. Children are even more susceptible to this and parents must be vigilant of, and involved in, their children’s Internet activity.

The Good News

While we are all targets when we use the Internet, we do not have to be victims. The difference between a target and a victim may seem subtle, but it is important in establishing your own Internet behavior. In this sense, a target is someone who is the object of an attack, but a victim is someone harmed by another’s actions. We are all possible targets when we use the Internet but we have tools at our disposal to avoid becoming victims.

There is hope. You and your family can take a proactive stance to insure your children’s safety online, and there are things your schools are doing to help keep your students safe as they use the Internet in the classroom.

At Home

Education is the key to safe Internet use and as a parent you should begin by educating yourself and your family. Learn about the Internet, the good and the bad, as well as ways to safeguard your family. There are several tools available for educating yourself.

Guidelines for using technology need to be established and followed by your entire family. This can be done with the creation of an Internet Safety Contract that is signed by all family members. There are several examples of contracts like this on the Internet, and you can download and modify an existing one for use in your own family. Everyone must sign it and abide by it. These rules that you establish should not be negotiable. Some rules in the family are pushed and tested by your kids as they learn to find their place in the family and as they try to establish themselves and individuals. Many families understand and support this, allowing the children to learn to guide their own actions. My own upbringing was done through what my mother liked to call ‘judicious neglect’. If our safety was not at risk, then very few doors were closed to us. However, the rules you create for Internet use in your family will often fall into the category of safety and are thus non-negotiable. As an example, the rule for your young kids to stop and look both directions prior to crossing the street is one that you will not back down from. It is for their physical safety and you won’t discuss relaxing it. The same applies to the majority of your Internet contract rules.

There are some general tips and guidelines you can use as a starting point for your family’s Internet use.

  1. Be involved in your child’s Internet use. You should know who they interact with online, just as you know who they play with in the neighborhood and at school. The recent public service ads concerning drug and alcohol use are right on target with their message. Be involved in your kids’ lives. Know where they are going, whom they are with and when they’ll be back. The same applies to online use: Be aware of their activities and be involved. They should be communicating with people you know and approve of. Hopefully you’re creating an open dialogue with your children at a young age, and you’re working to keep that dialogue active as they grow up. It’s much easier to start that way than to try and make up for years of isolating when you finally decide to be involved in what they are doing.

  2. Get the computer into a public area of the house. Just moving the computer into an area where those who pass through the room can see the monitor will make a huge difference in your family’s Internet use. It may seem as though you are helping your child with their homework requirements by providing computer access in their bedroom, but in addition to the risk of dangerous Internet behavior, recent research has shown that the sleep habits of kids are greatly improved when electronic devices (phone, TV, computer, video games, etc…) are removed from the bedroom. Sleep cycles of teenage kids are already in a state of disarray and when you encourage behavior other than sleeping in the bedroom this deteriorates more. Getting enough sleep and being well rested are key factors in student success. You get two benefits by removing computers from bedrooms. Take advantage of this opportunity.

  3. Do not ever give out personal information about your child or allow them to do so. Personal information includes their name, address, phone number, and photograph. Information given out on the Internet, via web pages, chats or e-mail, is like a bullet from a gun. Once you’ve pulled that trigger, there is no way to get the bullet back. After you’ve given information to someone online you have no control over where that information ends up. You don’t own it anymore - it’s free for the giving by whomever you’ve provided it to.

  4. Help create your children’s screen names and avoid anything that will reveal their age, gender, location, etc. Avoid all suggestive terms or sexual connotations; they are magnets for online predators. You want your child to ‘own’ their screen name or login ID, so let them be creative with it, but be involved to make sure it does not draw the wrong kind of attention.

  5. Create separate accounts for each family member. This provides you with several useful outcomes. One is that your user accounts won’t be administrative accounts and thus cannot inadvertently, or maliciously, damage the operating system or important files. Apple’s OS X encourages this very setup by providing a multi-user environment where there is an administrator account and the remaining accounts are ‘regular’ user accounts. You also have the ability to control computer use by your family. I’ll take a small tangent here and relate a story about a staff member who had some concerns about her daughter’s computer use.

    I was asked about what filtering software to use for a family and when I went through the basic introductory queries to establish their needs it was quickly apparent that the real problem was one of general access and use. They were concerned because their daughter was using the computer so much and was not completing other duties, such as her chores and homework. They can control her access while they are home, but when gone their teenage daughter would have access for as long as they were not around. I recommended that filtering wasn’t really the answer since it wasn’t the content they were most concerned with. My recommendation was to create individual accounts for all family members. They would then have the ability to control the password for their daughter’s account. If they had to enter the password, or could change it as needed, then their daughter could not log in without their permission. It does require some extra oversight in a situation such as this, but even when not used in such an extreme case, individual accounts allow for more accountability and security.

  6. Take advantage of technological tools to safeguard your family. There are three main types of tools you should investigate. Monitoring and filtering software, both readily available for all modern operating systems, and child safe search engines. Monitoring tools allow you to view and review all activity on your computer, from screen shots taken at regular intervals to transcripts of all chat and e-mail messages. Filtering software prevents access to content, applications and material that you wish to block for individual users of the computer. If you are using OS X at home, you have an immediate advantage, especially for your younger users, with the Parental Controls that OS X offers. I’ve put monitoring and filtering software as the last tip because the first four are more important and more effective. You have the chance to educate your family with the first four steps, but the use of technology to monitor and filter is a way to isolate your family. There are times when this is useful, but being involved is the more important approach. Encouraging the use of child safe search engines, those that are already filtering their results for family oriented content, is more beneficial to the younger users of your family, but should not be overlooked as a way to provide a safe searching environment.

OS X Parental Controls

There are two security methodologies you can use with access control or content filtering. You can deny access to everything except what you explicitly allow, or you can allow access to everything except what you explicitly deny. At first glance these sound like the same thing with reverse wording, but they are in fact two different ways of dealing with security. For younger users I recommend the first approach (deny all, allow specific) but for older users you will find that approach to be too time-consuming and restrictive. Having a young user in the family now, I can say with confidence that the OS X Parental Controls are a perfect choice for filtering young children’s access.

After creating your child’s account in OS X, you can turn on Parental Controls to customize their computing experience. You can restrict access to specific applications, allow e-mail and chat with only authorized users, and set up approved bookmarks on the fly for approved web sites. This gives you the perfect Internet workstation for young children without having to worry about sitting in the chair with them. As you have read, I encourage you to be involved in your children’s Internet use but you should be able to have a presence in the room and still feel confident that they will not stumble into trouble with a few misplaced clicks. Visit Apple’s web site to learn more. This is just one more reason to switch.

At School

Your schools are also working to provide safe computing environments for your students. I can only speak for our own district regarding what is being done, but there are many common tools and policies in place among school districts in the United States. Content filtering is very common in school districts and is required if the district wishes to take advantage of certain e-rate funding.

The first step we take is much the same as I recommend for your own family. We are involved. We encourage and emphasize the use of technology in structured environments with educational goals and tasks. Computer time is not free time.

We do have content filtering in place for all users, staff and students, as required by CIPA for our e-rate funding of certain services and equipment. This is a subscription service that we can modify as needed for granular control over what is available and what is not. Our goal is to restrict access to adult content and to provide a positive and safe educational environment.

While our sixth through twelfth grade students have e-mail accounts on our internal FirstClass system, they do not have external Internet e-mail access without parental and staff consent. This keeps junk and obnoxious mail from getting into the vast majority of student e-mail accounts. Similarly, the chat environment that is available internally for students does not extend to the Internet.

Every student has an individual login and password that allows them to store their own material in a secure location for their access and helps to keep their activity isolated from other users. This login information also provides the district with a tracking mechanism if necessary for reviewing activity on the network.

Watching for Signs

There are many signs you should be watching for in your children, but you cannot take most of them as a direct indicator of a problem individually. You need to consider several factors and be aware of other issues that may be impacting your children’s behavior.

Some low risk signs to keep an eye on include:

Higher risk signs, some of which are dangerous all by themselves, include:

If you are concerned about your child’s behavior or actions, you should take the appropriate steps depending on what you are seeing and what you’re concerned about. If they come to you, do not overreact. It takes quite a bit of courage to come forward and let your parents know that something has happened that you don’t feel comfortable with. Be supportive and encouraging in their decision to tell you. Start a dialogue and keep it open. Educate your family - don’t isolate them. When educated, your children will be prepared to use the new technological tools that will become available to them on a regular basis. They will have the experience and intelligence to stay safe while using these new tools. If you are concerned about your child’s physical safety, and feel that a predator is making contact with your child, either electronically or personally, then you must contact the appropriate authorities immediately. If you don’t know whom to call, start with 911 or your local police department. They all want to be as proactive as they can. It is preferable to stop any possible physical threat before it happens than to try and pick up the pieces afterwards.

Remember Yourself

Remember that you are also a target on the Internet. I know that I’d like to be sought after for my sexual appeal, but unfortunately that’s just not the case. As adults we aren’t sexual targets but financial targets. We are susceptible to the same deception techniques and we have to be aware of them and fight back against them. The most common is phishing and spoof e-mails designed to trick us into revealing confidential financial or personal information. Keep yourself educated about the Internet and how it’s changing, for the better and for the worse.

If it sounds too good to be true, you can be pretty sure it is. AppleBee’s is not giving away gift certificates, Bill Gates is not going to pay you for forwarding e-mails, you won’t have bad luck if you don’t tell 10 friends about that e-mail, and missing children notices are not being sent to everyone with an e-mail address in the hopes that you’ve seen them.

If something makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t do it. Your own morality can keep you safe. You know when something isn’t right, and you need to pay attention to that inner voice telling you to be careful. There is no morality higher than your own, so listen to it.

I hope that this article gives you a starting point for keeping your family safe while still taking advantage of all that the Internet has to offer.

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