A guide to keeping your child safe online

The Internet is absolutely loaded with content and activities that are entertaining and educational for children. Modern kids have access to resources vastly beyond what their parents had, and beyond what some grandparents even understand. You've surely heard, though, that you need to protect your kids from the Internet's dangers. Just what does that mean? Here are five ways that your offspring could get into trouble.

Nasty websites. When home video players first came out, the pornogrpahy industry roared right in to supply porn videos. Likewise, as soon as the Internet population reached critical mass, porn sites popped up like mushrooms. Young kids may encounter these by accident; hormone-crazed teens may seek them out deliberately. Gambling sites, sites promoting drugs or weapons, school cheating sites? There are a lot of places on the Internet your kids shouldn't go.

Dangerous contacts. Email, instant messaging, and social networking allow your children a rich opportunity to communicate with friends and family even when they're not nearby. They also expose them to contact from absolutely anyone at all, including people you'd never let near them in person. Paedophiles groom contacts, establishing trust and possibly leading to a disastrous real-world meeting.

Too much information. Social networking is so much fun! Kids love to share their thoughts and impressions with friends. When they share your home address with the whole world, that's a problem. And do you really want everyone to know that your house will be empty next week during your family trip?

Internet overdose. There’s a stupendous amount of content on the web. Your child could stay glued to the monitor day and night and never see it all. Staying up all night playing games leaves kids too tired to think in school, and sitting motionless at the computer for hours won't help their physical development or health, either.

Cyber-bullying. It's fun for kids to connect with friends and family through social networking and chat, but this ability has a dark side. Kids can be insulted and bullied online, sometimes to the point of feeling suicidal. And unlike physical bullying, parents can't see cyber-bullying when it happens.

What can you do?

As a parent, you model proper behaviour for your kids and instruct them in how they should behave. This nurturing education should extend to their behaviour online. Let them know when they're allowed to use the computer and where they're allowed to go on the Internet. Tell them you want to know right away if anyone mistreats or insults them – it's only common sense. For additional protection, especially if the kids are home alone while parents work, consider installing some form of parental control software.

Traditional parental control

The simplest parental control utility – sometimes included as a module in an Internet security suite – should prevent access to inappropriate websites (parents can decide which categories are inappropriate). It should also limit the amount of time spent online, set a schedule for what time of day Internet use is permitted, or both. And of course it should be hardened against hacking, so a clever teen can't disable it.

Advanced products do more, much more. AVG Family Safety (which costs £30 per year) is one of our favourite products for parental control. Among many other advanced features, it can limit access to games based on ESRB ratings, monitor instant messaging conversations, and even push control up into the home router so that all devices, PC and otherwise, are covered.

McAfee Family Protection (for £31) is another good option. Parents can access it from any PC, and the settings apply across all PCs that the kids use. That's an important feature in modern multi-computer households.

Hardware-based protection

I mentioned that AVG can push its settings into supported routers. This blocks inappropriate sites on all connected devices, whether they’re PCs, Macs, game consoles, tablets or smartphones. That's definitely a good thing, since modern kids are just as likely to access the Internet on other devices.

A few parental control tools come in all-hardware form. For example, if you own a supported Netgear router, Netgear Live Parental Controls will add hardware-based parental control.

A hardware-based solution can definitely apply web content filtering and Internet time scheduling to all the household's Internet-aware devices. However, it can't offer the detailed level of control and monitoring that a software solution can, and per-user configuration is difficult.

Mobile parental control

Parental control apps that install on smartphones and mobile devices are becoming more and more common. As with PC-based parental control, these apps can give parents a higher level of control and monitoring than that obtained by filtering at the router level. Check out Norton Family (which offers a solid free option) and eBlaster Mobile for Android handsets (it’s £45, but offers a very comprehensive range of services, including the ability to check on your child’s location).

Features in mobile parental control apps vary widely, as do prices. Most are available either for iOS or Android, and sometimes both.

Social network safety

Some parental monitoring tools specifically aim at preventing cyberbullying and other social networking dangers. ZoneAlarm Extreme Security (£33) offers parental controls to monitor Facebook and other social media sites closely. If you’d rather not fork out any cash, Avira Social Network Protection is a free option which polices cyber-bullying and other social dangers.

Just plain spying

There are a few parental monitoring tools that are nothing short of spyware. They install in stealth mode, log keystrokes, snap screenshots, capture passwords, and generally record every little thing that happens on the PC. Spector Pro (£64) is a prominent example, as is PC Pandora (£42).

These master spy programs aren't appropriate for most parents. Sometimes, though, they're absolutely necessary. If an at-risk child is possibly communicating with a paedophile, for example, records of the communication may be just what the police need.

A range of choices

One form of parental control uses no software or hardware. You situate the family PC out in the open, keep an eye on the children's activity, and talk with them about appropriate behaviour. If you feel you need more, there are many choices with a wide range of features. Some parents may choose a full-scale control and monitoring tool for the PC, smartphone, or both. Others may focus on social networking protection. And very occasionally, parents may need a stealth installation of spy software.