How do I keep my kids safe online? You can't.


As parents, it’s natural enough to want to shelter our offspring from all sorts of nasty things, including the online world. I’m not a big fan of the quest to “keep” kids safe online, because I think it’s the wrong goal for parents to strive for.
Image: Intel Free Press
I’m a parent to three children, and a technology journalist. I know my way around computers, tablets, smartphones, consoles and just about everything that bloops, bleeps and gets around on the Internet.
I cannot keep my children safe online.
I’m going to repeat that, because I think it’s important, but also because I have a point to make.
I cannot keep my children safe online.
I need to be very clear about what I mean by those words, however, before somebody calls up the nice people who will take my children away. Wailing about online safety makes for a great soundbite, whether it’s a hysterical current affairs TV program, or a vote-grubbing soulless politician.
A Google search, at the time of writing, returns 73,200,000 results for the phrase How do I keep my kids safe online; I’ve deliberately omitted quote marks around that to trawl in related articles, but even if I do get specific, there are some 7,890 results to be had. It’s a hot topic, rather obviously, and also easy fodder for the sensationalist side of the media, because nothing pulls at the heartstrings like children do.
There are really two problems with the seemingly endless calls to “keep” children safe online.

Problem #1: The Internet is part of everything that we do

I was a child of the 70s, well before networks were anything but the playthings of academics and military types.
It may as well have been the dark ages as far as my kids were concerned, and to be honest, I’d agree with them. I’ve watched — and experienced — the arrival of the public internet and the way it has transformed the lives of people with access to it. It’s changed everything from the way that businesses work to the way that people enjoy entertainment to the development of medicines to.. well, I could go on and on and on. You get the point.
The thing is that this is a trend that started in the mid-1990s for most folk. A trend that started then — but it’s never going to go away. As much as it’s part of our adult lives in 2014, it’s going to be much more so for our children by 2024, 2034, 2044 and when we’re all laid into the ground, whenever that might be.
Usually whenever the topic of “keeping” kids safe online comes up, somebody suggests outright bans. I’m not in favour of that, partly because it ignores issues around access, and partly because it’s a knee-jerk quick fix reaction to a more complex problem that’s better approached through a simple tool.

Like it or not, online access is not going away, and it is something your kids will do. The family hound is a lousy online watchdog, too.
Like it or not, online access is not going away, and it is something your kids will do. The family hound is a lousy online watchdog, too.

Image: Tony Alter
A very simple tool, and one that the Internet was built for, in fact.
Communication. Not so much in the Internet sense, but in the sense of actually talking to your children about risks, rewards and acceptable behaviour.
Now there are limits to this. I attended a launch last week of research into Tweens, Teens and cyberbullying where Dr Justin Coulson presented details of how and why Tweens and Teens will do stupid things online even though they know the risks.
They’re intellectually informed, but they’re not emotionally developed enough to not go with the flow, whether the flow is inappropriate pictures, or nasty online messages, or similar things. One of the core things he stressed was that denying access to technology wasn’t a good solution, a story I wrote up here.
I’ve been thinking about that all week, because at the time I wasn’t sure I entirely agreed. An absolute blow-up parenting reaction with lots of shouting and “you’re never getting this back again” response? Yeah, that’s a bad idea, but a small break with explained consequences could have some impact, as long as you understand the limitations.
The limitations can cover everything from whether or not they’ve got access elsewhere to actually explaining in a positive way why their choice was an inappropriate one. It comes back to communication and, to a certain extent, accepting that young adults — and the focus of that discussion was in the slightly-nebulous area of “tweens” and teenagers — are going to make mistakes. My own kids are either in or rapidly approaching those ages, so it’s something I do give a lot of thought to.

Problem #2: “Keep” implies a permanent solution — and that’s problematic

I cannot keep my children safe online, because “keep” implies a permanent solution, and there’s no such thing.
Yes, vendors of security software, and filtering software, and locked down children-only tablets will swear blind that their solution is the only one you need, but that’s simply not going to be true, nor is it ever likely to be. Firstly because everyone’s tolerances around material varies wildly.
Some parents swear like troopers in front of their kids, because it’s only language in their eyes, while others are as prim and proper as a Victorian schoolmaster. Some will be entirely comfortable discussing matters sexual with kids, while others would faint at the suggestion. Some would happily let their six year old watch Predator while others would prefer that their sixteen year olds were still only watching Playschool.

Amusing, but not exactly accurate

Secondly, because the Internet is a moving feast. Spent some money on a filtering app for websites to stop them looking at the naughty bits of men and ladies? Great… as long as your kids never use tablet applications, or online chat, or bittorrent or any other solution. Equally, with a generation of tech-savvy kids, there’s always the spectre of them bypassing your filtering solution. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try, and indeed technology can be part of the solution, but no solution is going to be bulletproof in and of itself, technological or not.
To one extent I think that’s a healthy thing, because kids are always going to push the boundaries of what their parents think of as acceptable, because that’s what being a kid is all about.
If you cottonwool them on anything, including the Internet, you’re removing the ability for them to learn from their mistakes, or pushing them into situations where they’ll make those mistakes away from any guidance at all from you, because they’ll access material outside the home.
Before I get misquoted on that, there are clearly mistakes online that are bigger than others, and I’m not advocating for a free-for-all in the darkest and seediest parts of the Internet. Equally, though, while no parent likes watching their children fall, learning about gravity is done exactly one way, and one way only, and that’s face first.
This child (randomly chosen from Flickr) will learn about falling over by falling over, learn about going to the toilet by missing.. and so on and so forth. Might be an idea to wait before crawling behind him, now that I think of it.
This child (randomly chosen from Flickr) will learn about falling over by falling over, learn about going to the toilet by missing.. and so on and so forth. Might be an idea to wait before crawling behind him, now that I think of it.

Image: USAG- Humphreys
To give a non-Internet example, one of my kids rather likes eating. He’s not obese to speak of, but he easily could be if we let him eat as much as he’d like to, although he is quite an active kid as well. Like most kids, he likes junk food, and we limit that too. Sensible parenting, and all that.
Where we can’t limit it is when he goes around to a friend’s place for a birthday party or playdate. We’ve talked to him about this, and pointed out that if he eats too much, he’ll feel sick. Most of the time he takes that on board, and there are a few parents of his friends who are aware of his proclivities and tend to restrict him. But not every parent, and he has made the mistake of stuffing his face at a few parties, only to come back a bit green.
He’s learned from that experience in a way that an absolute cotton-wool-must-protect-the-children-at-all-costs method wouldn’t make possible.

So what’s the solution?

Here’s the thing. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, just as there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting generally. We’ve all got our own challenges in our daily parenting lives, and maintaining a level of online safety for our offspring is part of that in the modern world.

Sorry folks -- there are no absolute OR easy fixes to this one. So it's a bit like parenting generally, isn't it?
Sorry folks — there are no absolute OR easy fixes to this one.
So it’s a bit like parenting generally, isn’t it?

Image: Runar Pedersen Holkestad
Thinking, however, that you can and absolutely must keep your kids safe online really just means that you’re either preparing them for an even larger fall sometime down the track, or denying the reality of the online world. Neither is, in my view, a healthy approach to the problem.
By all means use measures — whether they’re household rules or software packages and settings — to create boundaries for your kids based on your own particular preferences. Don’t be too surprised when the kids either breach these, sometimes deliberately, and above all, keep talking to them with an ear to listen. If they think that you’ll listen, you’ll have a much better base to make their online journey a less perilous one.

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