Today, the computer is as much a part of a kid's daily life as TV, phones and junk food — perhaps even more so. That's mostly a good thing, as the online world delivers incredible access to useful information and imaginative entertainment. Unfortunately, though, there are dangers lurking as well, and young kids may not recognize the warning signs until it's too late.
See also: How to talk to children after a tragedy.
Here are some tips for making your child or grandchild's online experience as safe as possible.
The first step is one I hope you've already taken: Install security software on your computer. You'll find both paid and free antivirus software available online and through retailers. The paid versions have more elaborate features and offer technical support if you run into problems, but for many users a free program is perfectly adequate to protect against common problems.
Fortunately, three of the top providers of paid security software offer free downloadable trial versions, so you can see whether they fit your needs. These include Symantec's Norton products, the McAfee line and Kaspersky security software.
A Team Effort
It's important that children understand the potential dangers lurking on the Internet. Kids will inevitably be inclined to do what they're not supposed to do from time to time, but if they realize the consequences of unsafe Internet usage, they're less likely to get into trouble.
Of course, your explanation should be geared to the age and personality of the child you're speaking with: Your goal here isn't to scare them off the Internet entirely, but to help them understand the types of problems that can occur if you don't take precautions. Specifically:
- Some material found online is not appropriate for young people to see — in fact, there's quite a bit that's inappropriate for anyone to see.
- There are people who use the Internet to find kids and teenagers whom they may try to locate, meet and harm.
- If someone finds out too much about you, they can make believe they are you online, buying things and causing trouble in your name.
- There are many ways you can infect your computer with bad software, which can make the computer unusable and be difficult and expensive to fix.
In the online booklet The McAfee 10-Step Internet Safety Plan for Your Family (available free), the security software company recommends the following reasonable rules to discuss with kids and post near the computer:
- Never log in with user names that reveal true identity or that are provocative.
- Never reveal your passwords.
- Never reveal phone numbers or addresses.
- Never post information that reveals your identity.
- Never post inappropriate photos or ones that may reveal your identity (for example: city or school names on shirts).
- Never share any information with strangers met online.
- Never meet face-to-face with strangers met online.
- Never open attachments from strangers.
- Never download software without permission unless you're absolutely positive it's coming from a safe source.
One of the simplest and most effective strategies when it comes to keeping young people out of Internet-based mischief is to locate the computer in a room where you can see it — a desk in the den, for example, rather than the guest bedroom your grandchild uses. That's not to say you need to keep peeking at the screen constantly, but the occasional casual glance serves as a reminder that bad behavior may be detected at any moment.
There are plenty of software solutions for monitoring and controlling a child's use of the Internet. While not foolproof (particularly when confronted by a wily teenager), they can be useful tools in your online safety arsenal.
One of my favorites is available free for Windows and Macintosh computers. Norton Online Family, from leading security software creator Symantec, is available for download in both a free and a paid version.
The Norton program is easy to install and to customize. Every computer user will need his or her own user ID, so you can tailor the program's security settings to match that individual's needs. You start by indicating an age range for each user; that gives you basic controls over what Internet sites are appropriate, whether or not the user can access social networking or chat sites, control over searchable words and time limits for using the computer. You also have the opportunity to block specific information from ever being entered into an online form, such as Social Security numbers, email or real-world address, phone number, school name, etc. You can always tweak these settings, allowing access to sites the software questions (for some unknown reason, this included Amazon.com on my machine), for example, or blocking specific destinations.
You can also access a full report on what sites the child visited, or attempted to visit, along with search terms that were used. And both the settings and the reports are available from any computer, via a password-protected website, so you don't have to use the same computer as your child to know what he or she has been up to.
The paid "Premier" version of Norton Online Family (regularly $49.99, reduced to $29.99 at this writing) adds a few potentially useful features: video monitoring, time summaries of the child's Internet usage, weekly and monthly emailed reports and an activity history that goes back 90 days (versus seven days for the free version). For most of us, though, the free version will probably suffice.
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Remember to go to the AARP home page every day for tips on keeping healthy and sharp, and great deals.