Protecting you child online

Computers & TechnologyInternet

  • Author Stuart Mitchell
  • Published December 13, 2011
  • Word count 1,325

The potential of the internet is staggering; its potential as a means of finding information, shopping, socialising, relaxing and generally making our lives easier and richer. It has therefore become a perfect place for all of us, but particularly our children, to express ourselves and flourish. However, its potential also extends to those looking to illegally exploit the billions of us logging on, so it’s vital that we know how to protect our children whenever they’re online.

There are perhaps more risks that can potentially affect children when they’re online than adults, but on the other hand it should, in many respects, be easier to keep these risks at an arms length. In addition to the threats that adults encounter, children may also have to be protected from issues ranging from inappropriate content (such as ‘adult’ sites) to the more sinister threats that some other users pose younger individuals online.

A Safe Environment

Before allowing your child to access the internet, your first step should be to set up a controlled environment in which your child can get online. That might mean specifying the times of the day in which they can access the computer (some operating systems now have built in controls to help you with this) but should definitely include setting up a unique account for your child which can then be set to have only limited permissions - for example, not the ability to download and install new programs.

Inappropriate Content

There is a forum for pretty much anything on the internet and that includes many subjects (and therefore much content) that would be inappropriate for young children to be exposed to. Ideally, as your child grows up you would want to educate them as to these dangers and encourage them to make their own sensible decisions when browsing the web, however it is also sensible to create a safe environment for them using parental controls so that they will not stumble into inappropriate areas by accident.

Parental controls can come in the form of special software or the built in functions in later versions of Windows and Mac OS which will allow you to specify which websites your children will be able to access as well as what activities they will be able to perform on your PC. It is worth spending some time familiarising yourself with these programs to ensure you create a safe but still rewarding environment for your child.

It is also worth keeping your browser up to date and ensuring that it is set to block pop up windows so that your children do not see anything they weren’t expecting to and setting your home page to a child friendly site so that they at least start browsing in a safe environment.

You can if you wish also install internet monitoring software which will track your child’s online activity if you have any concerns over what they might be seeing or doing.


Before anyone connects to the internet on your PC, you or your child, you should always ensure that you have taken steps to protect the computer against the threat of malware, or as they tend to be more commonly referred, viruses.

Viruses are basically pieces of computer code which can find their way onto your computer and then perform actions that you wouldn’t want them to such as gleaning personal information from your hard drive, disrupting the running of your computer and attacking other people’s computers. The internet offers many ways for them to get around and to propagate and it is a constant battle to keep them at bay however, a few basic steps should give your PC enough protection for you to sleep easy - activate your firewall (most operating systems will have a built in firewall), install antivirus software and run scheduled scans - there are plenty of reliable and free antivirus programs available.

Viruses can hide themselves in files and emails that you download to your PC so you should also make you child aware that they should only download and open files and emails that they know are from a reliable and trusted source. Again parental controls can be used to restrict a child’s ability to download content which could potentially harbour viruses regardless of whether it is appropriate or not.

Many antivirus programs will come with scanners which can verify the safety of emails and files before they are opened. Email providers, such as Hotmail and Google, and desktop clients such as Outlook and Thunderbird, will attempt to filter out any messages that it thinks might be dangerous as Spam. However, your child should be encouraged to mark any messages that get through the filters as spam if they can’t verify where they have come from, and to raise any concerns with you.

Information/Identity theft

One of the biggest areas of cybercrime is that of identity theft, through either legally or illegally harvesting personal information. This is an issue for children using the internet just as much as it is for adults - criminals don’t mind whose information they can get.

The key thing to remember is that once you have put your information into the public domain you have no control over what happens to it. Therefore, you should only submit information to sites and services you trust to keep it secure. Your children should be made aware of these risks and if necessary limited to sites which can be trusted to handle personal information responsibly.

By having antivirus software installed you should be protected against the risk of spyware which would attempt to grab personal information from your PC but you children should also be made aware of the risks of responding to emails with personal information or following links back to websites which then request personal information. Emails that appear to be from a trusted source may or may not be a scam but emails really from trusted sources will not request personal information anyway as it is usually an unsecured method of submitting it.

Social Networking

Often the key driver for children wanting to be online is the opportunity that it offers for them to communicate with their friends and share their interests with them. Children are more likely to be familiar with how these social networking sites work than their parents but they may not be so aware of the potential risks.

Bullying (cyberbullying) on social networking sites is a growing concern and it is hard to proactively protect children against it. They should therefore be encouraged to report any instances to you as soon as they happen so that you can either report them to the site administrators and/or remove your child from the site.

A key lesson which applies to the whole of the web, but particularly social networking sites is that people may not be who they pretend to be. Children need to be acutely aware of this as they may encounter individuals posing as potential friends who have more unhealthy intentions.

Social networking sites encourage sharing and there is a risk that children will share too much information if they are not aware of the consequences. Before allowing a child on a social networking site it they should again be made aware of these risks and it may well be worth working with them to ensure their privacy settings are set to an appropriate level before they start using the site.

With all the risks, the key is to have an open dialogue with your child so that they are aware of internet safety, understand the potential threats and feel encouraged to report any issues to you. You cannot prevent every threat but if your child is educated on the dangers and has an open channel of communication with you, you can steer a safe course and your child will get the most out of the internet.

© Stuart Mitchell 2011

I'm a small business owner. If you are interested in finding out more about keeping children safe online then visit Internet Safety.

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