Use talk not tech to tame your children's online habits

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Teen using a tablet computerImage source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Many children now spend more time online than watching TV

Like many parents, I am the unofficial IT manager in my house. And, like many IT managers, my users are never happy with the service they get.

The complaints have got louder over the past few months as I have tried to manage how much time two of them (my teenage children) spend online and to restrict what they see.

A patchwork of different technologies help me do this. It includes:

  • rules on the router to limit net time
  • apps on tablets to watch content
  • software on PCs to spot malware and filter searches

It works, after a fashion, but I know it has holes and that is why I also use a lot of sneakernet.

This involves me walking around the house, kicking my kids off the game console, tablet, phone or TV (delete as appropriate) they are using when they should be doing homework, cleaning out the rabbit or getting ready for school.

Locked off

Research suggests I'm not alone in using tech to oversee online time - both to limit it and to help them stay safe.

About 44% of parents use apps to oversee online activity, 39% check browser histories and 37% put controls on the router, suggests statistics gathered by security company Symantec.

I use all three of those and want to use more. And it looked like technology was going to get even more useful as electronics companies released products with comprehensive parental controls onboard.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Talking to children about their online habits can help limit cyber-bullying

It's perhaps no surprise that parents are keen to turn to technology to help manage time online, says Nick Shaw, European general manager at security company Norton, because it's one area where they struggle to find help.

"When people have a parenting problem with their children, they might go to their own parents for advice," he says, "but this is the one area where your parents are not as clued up as you are."

And, he says, children are even more clued up and easily capable of running rings around their parents.

"A lot of parents are very naive about this," he says.

Even I got complacent because none of the tech I had put in place was sending me alerts. I thought it was all working fine and my children were browsing and gaming in an impenetrable bubble of safety.


Slowly I found out that by fiddling with system clocks, using safe mode and putting home PCs into sleep states, my two teenagers could avoid most of the locks and blocks.

My schoolboy error, says Mr Shaw, was to let the hardware do the heavy lifting.

"Technology is going to help you," he says, "but it's not going to get away from the fact that you should be having more conversations about this with your kids."

Image source, Symantec
Image caption,
The parental controls of Norton's futuristic looking Core router are controlled via a smartphone

What I should be doing, he says, is helping them to understand why the controls are needed.

Explaining the reasons, he says, can help to defuse some of the objections.

It is fair to say that my children and I have had some of these conversations. But they have been more of the "play-less-games-and-do-more-maths" type rather than the "anti-virus-stops-your-YouTube-account-being-stolen" sort.

Rights and respect

Tony Anscombe, security evangelist at anti-virus company Avast, says talking to children about safe ways to use the web is better than just imposing restrictions.

"Sure," he says, "set some rules about how they should use it, but you should also educate your kids about basic security principles.

"A lot of parents just do not have the conversation, talking to them about what is acceptable and what is not."

This should cover not sharing passwords and thinking before they share personal data such as contact information, images and videos.

Naivety puts many children at risk, he says, and it is worth reminding them about what can be done with that information and who might want it.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Ofcom suggests UK parents are doing more to protect their children online, but threats remain (stock photo)

It might not just fall into the hands of cyber-thieves, he says, it might also expose them to cyber-bullying or just be inappropriate to share.

Warnings about the hidden features in popular apps are worth passing on, he says, as they often seek to scoop up more information than they really need.

"The biggest and most important thing that parents can do is run the apps their children do," he says.

This will help parents understand what information children might share and uncover any hidden features the apps possess.

Some, he says, look innocuous but are designed to help children conceal what they are doing.

"Gadgets are only half the story, if that," says Dr Sonia Livingstone, from the London School of Economics, who studies how children use the internet, as part of her work with the long-running EU Kids Online project.

Companies should concentrate on doing less selling and more on designing services that do not need the protections they peddle, she says.

In addition, she says, parents should encourage children to do the right thing by doing it themselves, rather than just by dictating terms.

It's about respect too, she says, helping children make good decisions instead of arbitrarily imposing rules.

If they can see the benefits of the rules, they are more likely to follow them.

"I am not very keen on the idea that parents have lots of control over their children," she says. "Children have rights too."