girl with laptop

Kids and the Internet: Why parental controls aren’t enough

Ask a parent of an underage child if they are concerned about their child being exposed to inappropriate Internet content, and most parents will, predictably, say yes. Then ask if they use some type of parental control software to protect their kids online, and the majority of parents will say no. Surprised? I was.

family with laptop

In our global survey of 15 countries, 78% of parents reported being concerned about their kids being exposed to content like porn, violence, racism and drugs online. But only 40% said they actually use software tools that ensure safe Internet use on computers their children use.

As the parent of a toddler, I don’t yet have to worry about such questions, but if my kid were school-age, I certainly would. Software with Internet filters and time controls is an easy way to make sure kids aren’t getting into trouble online. So why the disconnect?

Looking for answers

To get a better understanding of the thinking behind the statistics, I thought I’d ask some parents about their use or nonuse of parental control software. Living in Finland, the country with the lowest number of parents who use parental controls on computers their kids use (only 24%) and being from the US, with the highest number (59%), it made for some interesting conversations. I asked mainly Finns and Americans, but people from a few other countries as well.

What I found was that yes, parents do care about their kids accessing inappropriate content. But approaches for dealing with it range widely. I would loosely categorize my interview subjects into three camps.

First camp: Parental controls a must

One mother of an eight-year-old said she plans to use parental controls on her son’s new laptop, and doesn’t allow Internet access on his mobile phone. A mother of four children under ten uses an Internet filter in addition to accompanying her kids while they’re online. And another mom said in addition to using parental control software, she drove her teenage daughters (now grown) crazy with frequent lectures about the dangers of the Internet.

Second camp: Parental control, but not with software

One parent pointed out that parental control software isn’t the only way to protect kids online. For example, placing the computer in a high-traffic area of the home is a good way to make sure kids aren’t getting into trouble. Similarly, a parent of a five-year-old said she doesn’t use parental control software, but her child isn’t allowed to access the Internet without a parent by his side.

Third camp: The liberal approach

Some parents took a more liberal approach. A father of teenagers said he no longer uses parental controls, instead relying on a trust relationship with his children. A mother of a 14-year-old forgoes parental controls also, since her son doesn’t seem to show interest yet in anything aside from a few online games.

A common thread between these parents was that even if they restrict access at home, their kids could still access bad content away from home. And that restricting access might make forbidden fruit all the more tempting. One father stressed that he is always available to talk to his children should they see something distressing online.

Which approach is best?

Parents’ answer to that question depends on, among other factors, cultural attitudes and the age of their children. My personal conclusion? When it’s time I need to think about it, I’ll err on the stricter side by restricting access time, monitoring usage and just to be extra-safe, use some form of content filter for my child.

To me, there’s way too much bad stuff out there that’s way too easily accessible. A lot of it’s not fit for anyone, let alone kids – case in point, Facebook’s recent controversy over videos of extreme violence. Even if you trust your kids, they may stumble onto harmful content without meaning to. Or they may let curiosity get the best of them and see things their young minds just shouldn’t have to think about.

Communication is key

But even the strictest parental controls aren’t enough. In talking to different parents, whatever their stance, the theme that kept recurring for me was communication. Open, realistic age-appropriate communication between parent and child. About what kind of websites are and aren’t okay. About what kind of behavior online is and is not okay.

So even when the child is away from home, he or she will have a basis for making the best choices. And if a child does happen to see something harmful, you can hopefully find out about it and discuss it.

Plus, not every risky thing your kids do online can be caught by parental control software. The lecturing mom who aggravated her daughters? They are now grateful for the talks because they haven’t made the embarrassing mistakes their friends have made, posting compromising selfies and the like.

Family protection for computers and mobile devices

So talk to your kids. And if you’re looking for parental control software, allow me to recommend F-Secure Internet Security.

F-Secure Internet Security allows parents to filter out websites based on what sort of content they want to protect their kids from:

content-blocker

And it lets parents set browsing time limits:

time-limits

F-Secure Internet Security also protects computers from viruses and other digital threats and safeguards while banking and shopping.

There’s also protection for kids’ mobile devices. F-Secure Mobile Security, in addition to protecting from digital threats and in case of loss or theft, offers parental controls, with the added feature of shielding kids from inappropriate apps.

And for under one euro per year, parents can install F-Secure Child Safe to iPads and iPhones. Child Safe is a browser that keeps kids safe from harmful content when browsing the web.

What about you – do you use parental control software? If not, how do you make sure your kids are safe online? Let us know in the comments!

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Girl with laptop image courtesy of Clare Bloomfield / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Parents with kids image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Today is Safer Internet Day – a day to talk about what kind of place the Internet is becoming for kids, and what people can do to make it a safe place for kids and teens to enjoy. We talk a lot about various online threats on this blog. After all, we’re a cyber security company, and it’s our job to secure devices and networks to keep people protected from more than just malware. But protecting kids and protecting adults are different ballparks. Kids have different needs, and as F-Secure Researcher Mikael Albrecht has pointed out, this isn’t always recognized by software developers or device manufacturers. So how does this actually impact kids? Well, it means parents can’t count on the devices and services kids use to be completely age appropriate. Or completely safe. Social media is a perfect example. Micke has written in the past that social media is basically designed for adults, making any sort of child protection features more of an afterthought than a focus. Things like age restrictions are easy for kids to work around. So it’s not difficult for kids to hop on Facebook or Twitter and start social networking, just like their parents or older siblings. But these services aren't designed for kids to connect with adults. So where does that leave parents? Parental controls are great tools that parents can use to monitor, and to a certain extent, limit what kids can do online. But they’re not perfect. Particularly considering the popularity of mobile devices amongst kids. Regulating content on desktop browsers and mobile apps are two different things, and while there are a lot of benefits to using mobile apps instead of web browsers, it does make using special software to regulate content much more difficult. The answer to challenges like these is the less technical approach – talking to kids. There’s some great tips for parents on F-Secure’s Digital Parenting web page, with talking points, guidelines, and potential risks that parents should learn more about. That might seem like a bit of a challenge to parents. F-Secure’s Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen has pointed out that today’s kids have never experienced a world without the Internet. It’s as common as electricity for them. But the nice thing about this approach is that parents can do this just by spending time with kids and learning about the things they like to do online. So if you don’t know what your kids are up to this Safer Internet Day, why not enjoy the day with your kids (or niece/nephew, or even a kid you might be babysitting) by talking over what they like to do online, and how they can enjoy doing it safely.

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Virdem malware, old viruses, Malware Museum

Step back in time to when hackers were just having fun

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February 8, 2016
Asian mother and daughter talking to family on digital tablet

Kids need better protection – An open letter to developers and decision makers

Tuesday February 9th is Safer Internet Day this year. An excellent time to sit down and reflect about what kind of Internet we offer to our kids. And what kind of electronic environment they will inherit from us. I have to be blunt here. Our children love their smartphones and the net. They have access to a lot of stuff that interest them. And it’s their new cool way to be in contact with each other. But the net is not designed for them and even younger children are getting connected smartphones. Technology does not support parents properly and they are often left with very poor visibility into what their kids are doing on-line. This manifests itself as a wide range of problems, from addiction to cyber bullying and grooming. The situation is not healthy! There are several factors that contribute to this huge problem: The future’s main connectivity devices, the handhelds, are not suitable for kids. Rudimentary features that help protect children are starting to appear, but the development is too slow. Social media turns a blind eye to children’s and parents’ needs. Most services only offer one single user experience for both children and adults, and do not recognize parent-child relationships. Legislation and controlling authorities are national while Internet is global. We will not achieve much without a globally harmonized framework that both device manufacturers and service providers adhere to. Let’s take a closer look at these three issues. Mobile devices based on iOS and Android have made significant security advances compared to our old-school desktop computers. The sandboxed app model, where applications only have limited permissions in the system, is good at keeping malware at bay. The downside is however that you can’t make traditional anti-malware products for these environments. These products used to carry an overall responsibility for what happens in the system and monitor activity at many levels. The new model helps fight malware, but there’s a wide range of other threats and unsuitable content that can’t be fought efficiently anymore. We at F-Secure have a lot of technology and knowledge that can keep devices safe. It’s frustrating that we can’t deploy that technology efficiently in the devices our kids love to use. We can make things like a safe browser that filters out unwanted content, but we can’t filter what the kids are accessing through other apps. And forcing the kids to use our safe browser exclusively requires tricky configuration. Device manufacturers should recognize the need for parental control at the mobile devices. They should provide functionality that enable us to enforce a managed and safe experience for the kids across all apps. Privacy is an issue of paramount importance in social media. Most platforms have implemented good tools enabling users to manage their privacy. This is great, but it has a downside just like the app model in mobile operating systems. Kids can sign up in social media and enjoy the same privacy protection as adults. Also against their parents. What we need is a special kind of child account that must be tied to one or more adult accounts. The adults would have some level of visibility into what the kid is doing. But full visibility is probably not the right way to implement this. Remember that children also have a certain right to privacy. A good start would be to show whom the kid is communicating with and how often. But without showing the message contents. That would already enable the parents to spot cyberbullying and grooming patterns in an early phase. But what if the kids sign up as adults with a false year of birth? There’s currently no reliable way to stop that without implementing strong identity checks for new users. 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We will not achieve this during our kids’ childhood. But we must start working now to make this reality for our grandchildren.   Micke

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