Protecting children online: How far is too far?

Children are spending more time on the Internet than ever before, enabling them to become web savvy, exposed to new ideas, and often better equipped to negotiate the online world than their own parents.

But if today’s children are anything like I was growing up, way back in a time my generation affectionately calls “the noughties”, they’ll be spending more time dossing around on social networks than making productive use of the web. Particularly for children below the age of 16 or so, this opens them up to a fair few dangers that rightly concern parents

Even wily privacy-conscious users end up surrendering a fair amount of personal information once they enter social media. Your account bio doesn’t have to be awash with details to give much away; the messages and images you and friends post will ultimately do that for you, making you easy to profile for outsiders.

So in the case of children, who are usually far less aware of the privacy issues associated with social networks, the amount of information they give up online is potentially huge. On top of the hobbies, opinions and general life documentation that is presented through basic 'social' activity, the increasing use of location-tracking applications like Foursquare adds an alarming dimension to children’s online exposure, supplying miscreants with more data than they could ever wish for.

The traps children can fall into from connecting with strangers online scarcely need going over again, but in the worst case scenarios the implications are undeniably serious – as demonstrated by the three rape allegations that came from users who’d met via the US social network, Skout (left).

It is therefore clear that parents should at least be playing some role in monitoring what their children get up to online. But how easy is it to strike the balance between keeping an eye out, and plain spying? This week, Conservative MP Claire Perry, who acts as the government’s adviser on ‘the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood’, said parents should be actively connecting with their children on social networks so they can monitor what they do and who they interact with.

"I'm not in any way suggesting that we should be like the diary-reading parent from hell,” Perry told the BBC’s Newsbeat. "But I think parents do have a responsibility, particularly with younger children, to potentially discuss these things with their kids and make sure they're friends with them on Facebook."

The MP’s comments came a month after David Cameron outlined his support for stringent checks on the content children can access online, arguing the UK needed a system that allows parents to “tailor exactly what their children can see.” What’s more, the Prime Minister said the power to filter content should be taken out of the parents hands if they do not take action. "With our new system, every parent will be prompted to protect their child online,” he said. “If they don't make choices, protection will be automatically on.”

Many parents are very much willing to take action unprompted, however, as exemplified by ITProPortal reader Mark Miller, who this week commented that, “Everyone should use technology to monitor what kids are up to on the web. For example, I use a free app called Qustodio to monitor who my girl talks to on Facebook as the app allows me to watch the profile pictures of accounts she interacts with. My way of ensuring that she stays safe.”

It could be argued that barging in on your child’s online socialising as Perry suggests, or using surveillance tools like Qustodio overstep the mark - or at least toe the line - when it comes to striking the balance between protection and outright spying. Having the feeling of being watched can make children behave even more secretively and be inclined to do things they shouldn’t in a kind of rebellion - thus putting them in more danger and achieving the exact opposite of the parent's objective.

But, in fairness to Perry, other points she touched on in her comments this week possibly take us to the key of the whole debate.

"Parents seem to feel very helpless about this [child safety online],” she said. “We don't feel helpless about teaching our kids about road safety or trying to get them to eat healthily. Somehow the technology has terrified us.”

The notion that parents fail to deal effectively with the protection of their children online because of a lack of knowledge and confidence with the technology is something that was borne out in a recent study by security firm ESET. The report found that a quarter of parents felt their child had a better grasp of the Internet than they did and were therefore reluctant to offer advice and take action over their protection.

As ESET's Technical Durector Mark James said on the report, “Online safety is the modern day ‘birds and bees’ conversation; it evokes dread and nervousness in parents who feel ill-prepared to teach their child the dos and don’ts of the online world.”

This nervousness and lack of understanding can lead to two polarised, and equally unhealthy tendencies among parents; either letting their children run amok online, oblivious to any dangers they may be falling into, or taking the over-zealous approach of spying on their every move and actually causing more harm than good.

Of course there will be plenty of parents that do understand the ins and outs of the web and just like the idea of checking up on their children very closely. But for others, knowing how to strike the balance between healthy monitoring and undue nosiness may lie in their own understanding of the Internet, and identifying when children are under threat, and when they're just enjoying being young.

Image credit: Top, Flickr (Lars Plougmann)