17:18 16 February 2013
February 5, 2013, was Safer Internet Day, an initiative designed to raise awareness of our online rights and responsibilities and how to make the internet a safe place for our children - but should our children even be allowed online?
The internet is undoubtedly a great learning resource with a mind-boggling array of information available at the click of a mouse. But it's also a largely unregulated space that is impossible to police and which can expose our children to inappropriate material and potentially link them to individuals who seek to take advantage of them.
Whatever your thoughts on the matter, the fact is that our children are becoming more computer literate from an earlier age - my seven-year-old is as equally proficient using PowerPoint as he is playing Pokemon. The online world is getting increasingly accessible thanks to the rise in popularity of smartphones and tablets - and we can add more reliable and faster wireless connectivity to the pot as well.
With computers now a fixture in most primary school classrooms, keeping your kids offline could be putting them at a distinct disadvantage - it's all about finding the right balance.
So here we'll explain how to protect your kids from online dangers and also ensure that their internet activity doesn't hit you in the pocket.
First off, let's identify those dangers...
Dangerous downloads and corrupting content
The internet is incomprehensibly huge - it houses over 600million active websites and is used by around a third of the world's entire population. So, as with any densely populated space, it's going to attract its fair share of weirdos, intent on corrupting your kids and stealing your money before wiping you from (virtual) existence.
And each time your child goes online, they are at risk of seeing inappropriate images, videos and information that could cause them distress. They are also in danger of downloading files that could corrupt your computer or steal sensitive information stored on it.
There is also the risk, thanks to the popularity of social networks, that they could become the victim of online bullying (more commonly known as cyberbullying) and even the threat of being 'groomed' - contacted and manipulated by an adult, who may well be posing as a child, for sexual purposes.
Children can be duped into sharing personal information or sensitive data with complete strangers or, when taken to its most concerning conclusion, actually meeting up with them.
This risk is increased if your child is part of a social network - but you have to look further than Facebook and beyond Bebo as online games such as Bin Weevils also have interactive areas which, although subject to stricter rules than social networks, still have the potential to be abused.
But before you pack up your PC or trash your tablet, there are some simple steps that you can take to make sure your kids are kept safe when online.
How to keep your kids safe online
The first thing you need to do is to talk to your child, make them aware of the sorts of dangers they could face when online and stress that they must keep all personal details private. They should understand that online contacts may not be who they say they are - tell them to talk to you if they have any concerns.
You also need to let them know that they should never click on any pop ups, download any programs, including any in-game downloads, nor should they ever open any links in emails until you have given them the once over and said it's ok to do so.
Adjust the parental control settings on your browser and search engine; Google users should click here for more on Google's safety tools and Chrome's parental controls while Windows users should follow this link for more on Windows' and Internet Explorer's parental settings. There are also specialist parental control software programs that you can download for free.
When adjusting the parental controls, make sure you block any pop ups, and it's also a good idea to set up a family email account to be used to register for websites and competition pages and make sure you set email filters to block any spam and phishing emails.
If your child uses social rel="nofollow" networking sites you should also make sure that the privacy settings are correct and ask their friends' parents to do the same.
And if you suspect that they are being bullied online or even being groomed by an adult (a horrible thought but you should never rule it out), talk to them about it and contact the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) or your local police force. If the cyberbullying is coming from other pupils in their school you should contact the school and deal with it directly.
Make sure your children are always supervised when online. That doesn't necessarily mean watching over their shoulder - having a shared computer in a family room should be enough.
How online habits can hit you in the pocket
It's not just your children's safety that's at risk online, you could find that their internet use has an impact on your bank balance.
If your broadband comes with a monthly usage limit, or even if it is 'unlimited' but has a fair usage policy, then if you or your kids spend a lot of time online, stream or download music and films or play games online then you can easily exceed your limit, which could result in you being charged for your extra usage.
To avoid excessive internet usage, you can restrict when and for how long your children use the computer, by setting the days and hours when they can go online in the control panel of your operating system. And you should also be able to request activity reports to see who is using the computer and when they are using it.
If your children do use online games that might require monetary top ups, such as Moshi Monsters or Bin Weevils, it could be a better idea to buy gift cards for those sites rather than entering your credit rel="nofollow" card details. The same can be done for music sites such as Spotify and iTunes.
And make sure your children are aware that it is illegal to copy any copyrighted material such as films, music or images and that free download sites and pop ups should not be used as they are often loaded with viruses.
For more on Internet Safety Day click here. These Horrible Histories videos should help to get the message through to the kids.
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