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Steps to policing your children's online usage

The Irish Times recently featured the following article, which addresses internet safety for children and the inherent dangers for parents to note.

"From illegal file-sharing to online grooming, cyber bullying and exposure to explicit sexual material, the internet is fraught with potential pitfalls – but there are steps you can take to police your children’s online usage

ONCE CHILDREN are allowed to go out without a parent, they should know the drill: the who, what, where and when.

Up to at least the age of 18 they should be expected to answer: where are you going? Who will you be with? What will you be doing? When will you be back? It is a routine interaction as parents set down ground rules in the real world.

It should be no different when children are venturing into the online world unsupervised – parents need to know what they are doing. Is it safe and is it legal?

The question of legalities is a discussion that may well be prompted shortly in some households by the arrival of a letter from Eircom. Following an out-of-court settlement with the Irish Recorded Music Association (Irma), the broadband provider is beginning to contact subscribers whose accounts have been linked to illegal music file-sharing.

Irma is taking legal action against other internet providers to try to force them to adopt a similar “three strikes and you’re out” system – or, as Eircom likes to call it, a “graduated response”. Its head of communications, Paul Bradley, stresses that the pilot programme is about education, and that the first letter will be followed up with a phone call.

Some parents may be blissfully unaware that their offspring are illegally downloading music in the comfort of their own home. But the threat of having the broadband connection cut off for a year if the activity persists is sure to concentrate minds, young and old.

An estimated one in every seven households in Ireland has been engaged in illegal downloading of music, according to the director of Irma, Dick Doyle. Pirating costs the Irish music business €14 million a year in lost revenue, he says, and this campaign to stop it is about “saving an industry”.

If you would be appalled at the idea of your child shoplifting a CD, maybe it would be a good idea to find out where he or she is getting music from. As only 5 per cent of music downloads are being paid for, according to Doyle, the chances are it is an illegitimate source.

Even if broadband users choose to ignore the morality of the issue, they should be aware that file-sharing carries a high risk of importing viruses or files infiltrated with porn – and there is also the danger that personal files from the computer will be unwittingly exported.

From grooming and cyber bullying on social networking sites to identity theft, exposure to explicit sexual and violent material and illegal downloading, the risks to children in the online world can seem overwhelming to parents.

If you are not web savvy, it can be particularly hard to know how to go about setting the boundaries for your children’s use of the internet. Is it about finding the right technology or a question of parenting?

“Old-fashioned parenting is a key element,” says the director of the Office for Internet Safety, John Laffan. “The better relationship you have with your child, the stronger your response strategies can be.”

It is an approach favoured by Irish parents. Research by EU Kids Online concluded that parents in Ireland were more likely than anywhere else in Europe to set rules regulating their children’s use of the internet. It found 62 per cent of Irish parents used measures such as time limits, direct supervision, restrictions on sites visited or discussions about appropriate use.

However, it seems we are the least likely to enlist the help of technology. Research by Microsoft earlier this year reported that we are the lowest users of parental-control software in Europe.

Children are being held back because of parents’ lack of understanding and fears about the internet, says David Girvan, the director of a new social enterprise that is being launched in Dublin on June 18th. If young people are not allowed to grow up with this, they are going to be disadvantaged.

“Our own generation are not particularly comfortable with the internet,” he says. “Parents should be enabled to get involved in setting the boundaries, in positive parenting.”

Although anxious not to disclose too much before the launch, Girvan says the aim is to give parents “the ability to supervise, not to control”. Working on behalf of the main children’s charities, which will benefit from a substantial percentage of sales, Reassureme.com offers software as part of a drive to enable “parenting of the online generation”.

The hosted parental supervision system, which can be accessed remotely, is a “tool to allow you to do the parenting”, says Girvan. The information gleaned from it can inform ongoing discussions with your children.

Parents are definitely becoming more familiar with the online world, “so their fear is not as profound as it was”, says the manager of Parentline, Rita O’Reilly. It is in children’s nature to be curious, she points out, and you can’t supervise them all the time.

“It is the same as when they go out to play. You can’t police everything. You give them guidelines and you set certain boundaries. They have to play with it. It is part of our world.”

That much-repeated advice of our parents, “don’t talk to strangers”, she adds, is equally valid in our children’s online world.

Young people are becoming wiser about online safety. A survey of children’s use of the internet in Ireland last year concluded that they appear to be significantly more aware of both the risks and the correct response to such risks than they were in 2006.

The main sources for receiving internet-safety information were mothers (64 per cent) and then schools (58 per cent), reported the survey, which was conducted by Webwise, an initiative of the National Centre for Technology in Education.

Just over half the teenagers prefer to get their internet-safety information from school, while 45 per cent want their parents to give it to them. However the majority (59 per cent) of younger children prefer to receive that information from their mother.

Pat McKenna of ChildWatch Ireland believes in educating youngsters to protect themselves. He has been working on a pilot programme in Dublin secondary schools to raise awareness of how sex predators work online and the need for teenagers to safeguard their privacy.

There is also the need to impress on them how what they write online and the photos they put up are effectively public, no matter what privacy settings they use.

Covert surveillance of children’s online activity in an effort to protect them might seem well-meaning and harmless, but it is fraught with difficulties. If you are worried about your teenage daughter’s behaviour and you do not have a very open relationship with her, monitoring may seem the only option. But if you then see something alarming, how do you deal with it?

“It becomes a very practical parenting problem,” says McKenna. “Once you confront, it’s game over. The child will wipe the computer, or will not use it again and go to a friend’s house.”

Emotionally, the parent-child relationship will also undoubtedly be damaged, at least in the short-term. But all that has to be weighed up against the extent of the danger.

“There is no right answer,” adds McKenna. “Like everything else in parenting, it is a judgment call.”

CASE STUDY INAPPROPRIATE TEENAGE BEHAVIOUR

When her 13-year-old daughter left her Bebo account open one night, Kathy* took a look. The mother of two was shocked to see her daughter had written nasty comments about a girl in her class. “I had to you cannot name a child. At that age they have no concept that you are publishing data on the web that anybody can see,” says Kathy.

Later, her daughter ran up a €278 mobile phone bill talking to a boy in England who she had met online.

Fearful about what was going on, Kathy bought monitoring software, which allowed her to review everything her child did on the computer. It not only recorded every key stroke but also included screen snapshot surveillance. She could see all passwords and every website visited; she also had copies of all her chatroom conversations and emails.

It enabled her to see, “to my absolute shock and horror”, inappropriate behaviour by her daughter in front of the webcam, which she and the boy in England were both using on their computers.

“I sobbed for days, and of course I couldn’t tell her,” says Kathy. She could not refer explicitly to it because, “I would lose my access”.

There are dilemmas in knowing, just as much as not knowing, what your teenager is up to. “I wanted to be able to see what was going on online, so if she was doing something dangerous, like arranging to meet some guy, I would know about it. I wasn’t planning to see this stuff.”

It was a work computer, so she told her daughter to be careful about her use of the internet because the company had installed spy software. She knows her daughter sensed the surveillance as she saw her type to a friend one day: “My mam is watching us. I don’t know how.”

Kathy says: “At least it alerted her and gave her some boundaries.”

Three years later, her daughter is now a “very mature kid”. But Kathy trusts her and no longer feels it necessary to monitor her online.

However, she expects her younger son to be a challenge. She does not allow her children to download music illegally, “and my son goes mental. They may go to their friends’ houses and do it, but they are not doing it on my computer.”

She believes children are most at risk at about 13-15, and that is when parents need to be most vigilant.

“You have to immerse yourself in the technology a bit to stay with them,” she suggests. “Even to talk the language: if they think you are a dodo, they’ll think they have huge freedom.”

* Name has been changed

SEVEN STEPS HOW TO KEEP KIDS SAFE ONLINE

1 Be informed

It is important to understand how children use the internet and to know how to reduce the risks. There is no shortage of advice out there (see the list of useful websites below). Sit down with your children and ask them to show you what they can do.

2 Talk early and often

Discuss responsible use of the computer from an early age, such as never giving out their name, address or other personal details, and being respectful of others. The issues and appropriate advice change with age and the rapidly evolving technology, so keep talking.

3 Site computers carefully

Children should only have access to computers in “common” areas of the house where they can be at least casually supervised.

Keep laptops out of bedrooms – you would never let a stranger go into your child’s bedroom, so why let a stranger go in there via a webcam on a computer?

4 Agree rules for internet use

Negotiate a workable agreement with children on how long they should spend online and what kind of activities and websites are allowed.

5 Enlist technological help

Filtering and blocking programmes are recommended, but a bit of software is no substitute for an informed and involved parent. Check history files to see what sites they are visiting.

6 Discuss the risk of meeting online friends

The use of networking sites, such as Facebook, is now a normal way for young people to socialise, but they should never arrange to physically meet an online friend for the first time without being accompanied by an adult.

7 Stay positive

Your child needs to be able to explore the educational, recreational and social resources the internet offers, so don’t let your perception of the dangers deprive them of the numerous benefits. Encourage them to tell you if they come across disturbing material and stay calm if they do".

USEFUL WEBSITES

Internetsafety.ie

The Office for Internet Safety is part of the Department of Justice and Law Reform, and its site includes separate guides on internet safety for children and for parents.

Makeitsecure.org

This is an easy site to navigate, is attractive to teenagers and informative for parents.

Webwise.ie

Provides internet safety information, advice, and tools to parents, teachers, and students.

Irma.ie

The Irish Recorded Music Association website contains a link to the helpful Childnet’s guide, “Young People, Music and the Internet”

Watchyourspace.ie

Advice for teenagers using social networking sites

Hotline.ie

A site run by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland for the confidential reporting of any suspected illegal content encountered on the Internet.

Childwatch.ie

A fairly basic website, but parents can learn more about the educational and research work of Child Watch Ireland.