For a modern child, the Internet is nothing new. It's always been there, like television. Kids are way more comfortable with online communication and entertainment than many of their parents. And being kids, they're just as likely to do something risky on the Internet as they are to stick a toy in a power socket, or dare to venture on an unsafe climb up a shaky tree.
You baby-proofed the house when the kids were tiny, and you've done your best to keep them safe as they grow. But what can you do to steer them away from risky behaviour on the web? Here are five tips for parents.
1. Keep it open
Don't put the family computer in a child's room, or even in the downstairs study or den. Put it somewhere out in the open, so you can keep an eye on what they're doing. Make a point of walking past and shoulder-surfing from time to time.
2. Get modern
In many households, the kids – even young kids – are the technology experts. Have you ever gone to the children for help with a tech task? If so, you really need to get with the program. Technology is a big part of their lives, and you must understand it to understand them.
3. Have a conversation
Sit down with the kids and tell them what you expect of them when they're online. Let them know when it's okay to use the computer, and for how long. Explain that there are websites they shouldn’t visit. Let them know that the rule "don't talk to strangers" applies here too.
4. Meet their friends
In the real world you have plenty of opportunity to meet your children's friends and even parents of friends. "Meeting" their Facebook friends and IM contacts is tougher. Friending your child on Facebook is one way to get a peek, if they don't mind having a fuddy-duddy parent as a friend. This is an area where software can help. ZoneAlarm Extreme Security (£33) gives you parental controls to monitor Facebook and other social networks closely, for example.
5. Install parental control software
Parental control software such as AVG Family Safety can force certain protective measures, and keep a record of what the kids have been doing. For example, it can prevent kids from accidentally or deliberately visiting inappropriate sites, and limit their time on the Internet. Some products will track IM conversations or control IM contacts. Be wary, though, of imposing so much control that the child simply connects at a friend's house, or at the library.
Kids play, online and off, and kids get hurt. We can't insulate them from every possible threat. However, with a little thought (and maybe a little software) we can keep them away from truly threatening dangers.