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Friday, 6 September, 2002, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Keeping children safe online
As our children grow, we need to think about how to keep them safe online, says technology consultant Bill Thompson.
My daughter starts secondary school this week, and we're all very excited about it. She has already acquired her uniform, pencil case and calculator and has negotiated a deal for how often she is allowed to have pizza for lunch in the self-service canteen.

It's a time of change for me too. Now that she is older she expects to be given more freedom and more autonomy, and I'm having to come to terms with these demands.

But letting go is still one of the hardest things about being a parent, and we are all acutely aware of the dangers that our children face.

I'm doing my best to extend the boundaries. Lili and her friend Lauren now take the bus into town together. From next week, Lauren will be taking the school bus every weekday and some practice over the summer seemed like a good idea.

Lili's brother Max goes to the local shop alone. Denying them this freedom would be to deny them the skills and understanding they need to survive and be independent in later life.

Online safety

Online I try to apply the same principles. Lili spends time online exchanging e-mail, playing games, looking at her favourite websites or doing research for school.

Children surfing the net
Children become more curious as they grow
Now she will probably make much greater use of the net, particularly since the local comprehensive school she will be attending was one of the first to see the real potential of the web for education, and had one of the earliest school websites.

Homework details are posted on the school's internal website and students can log on from home to do research or check details.

The system even allows for online chat between students or, as the older brother of one of Lili's friends discovered, between students and staff.

Logged on late one night to finish a homework assignment due the next day, he was rather disconcerted when he got a message from the head teacher asking why he was working so late.

Her need to use the net more extensively means that I have been thinking hard about how to keep her safe online.

She already has two e-mail addresses - one known only to her close friends which is private and read only by her, and a public one which actually comes to me so that I can filter out any spam before she sees it. She uses the public account to register on websites.

Apart from this, I have relied on the fact that Lili's surfing interests are limited and the computer is in the living room to keep her safe online.

She is never on the web when I'm not there with her, and if she's doing complex searches she asks me for help anyway.

Net controls

But this week I am finally installing a filter program on our home computer so that many websites will be blocked to her.


I do not want her inadvertently clicking a link to a collection of sexually explicit pictures

It is not that I do not trust her, because I do, and I also believe that part of growing older is exploring the things your parents tell you to avoid.

It is simply that as she uses the net more extensively the chances of her coming across material which could upset her increases to an unacceptable level.

I do not want her inadvertently clicking a link to a collection of sexually explicit pictures. I do not want her to find racist or homophobic nonsense. Putting the filter in place reduces the chance to what I think is an acceptable level.

I have told the children about the filter program, and why it's there. I have also told them that I will not install anything like a key logger or any spyware that records children's use of the net and lets parents read it all later.

That sort of monitoring is designed to make children feel as if they are not trusted and have no privacy, and is more likely to lead them to find ways to break it, like using the local internet café, instead of teaching them good online sense.

Adapting to change

Of course, there are always new challenges. She has just asked me to set up a chat account for her so she can talk to her friends if they are online.

I'm happy to do this, but before I let her start using it I'll make sure that the security settings are tightened, so that nobody except her friends can contact her or even tell if she is online.

No doubt she will soon want to start downloading music files using a peer-to-peer system and I will have to explain the security implications of that.

When we get online gaming for our Xbox later in the year the player-to-player chat feature could be a problem.

But we will find ways around these and other issues, and she will grow to understand the risks and know how to deal with them. That is far better than denying her access to the net when it can offer her so much, in and out of school.


Read your comments on Bill's article:

I am only 14, I know full well the dangers of the net, yes I do get junk mail, it's easy to recognise and I don't open it because I just can't be bothered bothering, parents complaining about the net being unsafe just makes me sick, They seem to think that around every corner is a virus or a danger of porn or what ever. I just have a virus checker on my computer which is on all the time. So I say just get a good virus checker for your kids, and find out what junk mail looks like and inform them of that, then they will be safe.
Gerka, UK

Surely stopping children seeing these images/ideas/views is not the way forward. By all means, educate children in the ways that you desire to see them grow, but do not limit their frame of reference. If you really feel the need to check up on what they are looking at, then the info is stored on the PC after they have logged on, and you can discuss it in an adult manner with them then. We're going to end up with a whole bunch of extremely uneducated and (lets face it) boring kids if we continue this kind of nannying. And also don't forget, they'll see more explicit images in a Hearsay video than they're ever likely to 'stumble' across from a web link.
Paul, UK

Filtering software is problematic, both for the well documented problems with blocking acceptable sites (either erroneously or for political reasons decided by the software creators.) When considering using a commercial filter product, one must be mindful of the fact that they are designed to over-sanitise the web. How can we expect our children to become interested in current sociological and political issues if their access to the debate is censored? Perhaps the key is to teach discernment - both to parents when deciding what to filter, and to the children themselves when evaluating information downloaded from the internet.
Chris James, UK

You obviously don't trust your daughter. Filtering systems don't work and catch far more in their collateral damage than you seem to realise. Your daughter will now be unable to look at sexual health information, information on breast cancer and even political parties that don't suit the interests of the right-wing bible belt Christians behind these filtering programs.
Simon Rumble, UK

The other week we received our quarterly BT telephone bill, everything looked fine except due to a mix-up with payment of a refund from our last bill it meant that we started this quarter with a credit of £30, and this time we had a credit of £16, either the phone had been used a lot more during this period or the bill was wrong.

On closer inspection of the charges for this period there was an amount for a premium rate number on August 3rd when my wife and I were outside mixing concrete for a new patio. So who was using the phone?

My 15-year-old lad had asked to use the internet whilst we were outside, we believe that he had inadvertently stumbled into a website that he knew he should not be in, but it dialled into this site using a premium rate number.

After phoning BT and getting the phone number for ICSTIS and finally getting through it was confirmed that it was indeed an adult site. Looking closer at the computer to check that the number dialled was indeed the free number for my ISP, checking things like cookies and temporary internet files and clearing those, I did a search for all files that had been downloaded on that day and was shocked to find half a dozen locations where this XXX application had been placed.

To my wife and my shocked to find that the site asked for no credit card ID or proof that the user was over 18. When the application was opened it changed the dial up connection to that of the premium rate number and overwrote the users preferred home page. We have recently taken steps to bar all premium rate numbers from our phone.
R Tingley, UK

I am a father of a young daughter. She's just started primary school. I think the precautions you describe are quite fair and reasonable however, I am not entirely sure that I would choose to fully implement them. I absolutely recognise the need to protect children from people who might try to contact them while online. My issue would be preventing them from accessing sites which may contain information or images which could be termed offensive. She will have to become aware of them sometime and denying they exist helps no-one. I would rather that, if she stumbled across them that she could discuss them and her feelings about them with me. That way I would hope to be able to express the alternative point of view and allay her concerns without cocooning from reality.
Ian Clifford, England

Picking an e-mail account that is not one of the more well known ones (such as Hotmail, AOL, yahoo) is one of the best ways to prevent your child from receiving porn spam - such e-mail accounts have always been, and will always be a target for spammers, and even if you don't give out that e-mail address you will still receive that sort of unwanted material.
Matt, UK

Some of the ideas I would agree with since I use them myself. However, much of this article is an infringement of a child's development and their right to learn. So what if they come across porn? Ensure that they understand what it is, why it exists. By stopping the child from dealing with the emotions and issues arising from things like this and race hate or homophobic attitudes, they will never be able to argue against or understand the insecurity that those who espouse feel. This move towards over-protection is one of the reasons for the phenomenal growth in counselling in this country. We and our children are incapable of dealing with things because we have never been given the opportunity to deal with them as we grew.
Jim, UK

Pay attention to how much time you spend protecting your children from the dreaded internet and how much time you spend educating them with common sense. Internet's peril to children is sensationalised to massive proportions, when the real tangible dangers of everyday life are much more likely to touch your child. Remember what you saw and did as a child and then decide how much you need to protect.
Alex, Germany

It would be like denying a child all knowledge about wild animals because they are a threat. They need to have the full knowledge so that when at the zoo they make the correct decision and not climb into the cage. In the same way children need to have the full knowledge about the subject of how some people (mainly men) can be dangerous to children and why, including the worst aspects, so that they do not 'climb into the cage'. Blocking parts of the web out won't work as these people are so deceitful, often known to the children, and will find other ways in. Knowledge is the key to children making good decisions. It is a shame they need to know about these dreadful subjects but that is today's reality.
Rog Gibbs, UK

My eldest daughter who is 6 has already been introduced to the net by the school she attends. At the moment she only asks to see things like Barbie.com and sites of programmes that she likes to watch.but i know within the next 3-4 years that she will want (and need) greater access, i have already installed a filter so no accidents can occur. When reading Bill's article I found myself nodding in agreement throughout all of the article, children do need to express themselves at some stage of their lives, but at the sometime they do need protection.
Jason, Manchester,England

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The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



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03 Sep 02 | Technology
05 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
16 Aug 02 | Politics
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