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Secure Your Cyberspace

Posted on May 24, 2023 by FEED Staff

Many potential question marks surround cyberspace and online safety. But there exist increasingly sophisticated ways to prepare children for what’s out there

Since its launch, the internet has come with baggage. Fearmongering has been deployed on a constant basis by governments, media orgs, schools and parents. 

As a result, the world wide web has been seen from the beginning as a frightening new global enigma; it was (and still is) considered an infinite abyss of knowledge, with an unlimited level of access and a capacity to breach privacy on both micro and macro scales.

Looking at the landscape in 2023, a lot of that fear has diverted its course towards the metaverse, another digital puzzle for the older generations to be afraid of. In actuality, the fear of the internet is more than justified. The web (particularly the dark web) is proliferated with child pornography, fraudulent schemes, cyberbullying, extremist propaganda as well as misogynistic, homophobic and racist movements. Need I go on?

Of course, it’s a sure statement that the positives that come in tandem with the online landscape outweigh the bad. Truthfully, society as we know it today couldn’t function without the web, having been shaped into its current model by it. Excluding the obvious pros surrounding the knowledge, communication and financial gain it offers; one of the sole reasons the world was able to withstand a global pandemic was thanks to remote working – something that wouldn’t exist without the internet.

However, the safety concerns are ever-present – and continue to snowball as online existence becomes crucial to human development.

That’s also paired with the fact the news media is burgeoned with public congressional reviews, scandals and court cases featuring those at the top of the online food chain. We had Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica crisis, recently with TikTok boss Shou Zi Chew – and then let’s not even get started with Elon Musk’s drastic and controversial takeover of Twitter.

Safety techniques and tools like parental controls have been emerging at an increasing rate to help combat the issues of online safety. That is combined with the next generation of parents having grown up with the internet themselves, and are therefore wise to its dangers and preparing the next generation to cope with them.

Jenny Radesky, who studies the intersections of child development, parenting and technology at the University of Michigan, takes issue with the phrase ‘parental controls’ itself in an interview for a blog by Mozilla.1

“Parental mediation is a better term, parental engagement is another – and probably also better because it implies meaningful discussion or involvement to help kids navigate media, rather than using controlling or restricting approaches,” she explains.

So, how can you mediate as a parent? And what tech exists to support you?

Parental controls

Despite Radesky’s rebranding of the concept of parental controls to ‘parental engagement’, we’ll stick to the original label they are known by for the purposes of this article.

Parental controls are usually offered by your internet service provider and can be installed across an entire household. This allows you to choose what type of websites you allow your child to visit – and having the router block access to other devices.

This is flexible in the sense you can be selective – you can make sure it’s just your child’s internet access that has prohibited access, rather than the wider family.

An alternative option is to buy or download parental control software. This allows you to filter inappropriate content like pornography and violent material, so there’s less chance of exposure to it.

Doing your homework

Getting a solid understanding of what the dangers of the internet actually are is only going to help you adopt healthier online practices. According to a lesson on VLS2 , once you’ve got that covered, you’ll understand the importance of adopting the following steps:

Children younger than 18 months are strongly encouraged to avoid screen media, other than video chatting with loved ones.

No solo media use under the age of two. Creative, unplugged playtime is the best.

For older children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting entertainment media to no more than two hours of high-quality content a day.

Media use during meal time is discouraged, with statistical evidence linking to childhood obesity.

Choosing wisely

You may not have any control of what your child may stumble upon in the realms of the world wide web, but you can at least ensure you choose devices and apps designed with child-friendliness at their centre.

How many times have you had to endure the tinny and insanity-inducing sounds of Peppa Pig on an iPad when trying to have a nice meal in a restaurant? 

That’s right, touchscreen devices like iPads or tablets are some of the most popular among children by a landslide. This is largely due to their ease of use and durability.

But it takes just one dodgy search term that a child might think is innocent to land on explicit content.

Some child-friendly apps are catered to those aged under five and can keep your kids safe online. Examples such as Shape Arts: Geometry Creations, Moose Math and LetterSchool make learning both enjoyable and interactive.

Pair those with a device like the iPad Mini, which was designed with a number of parental features in its operating system, including abilities to restrict adult content and prevent users from downloading apps without approval. 

Age-restricted content

One of the biggest critiques of any online space that requires an account is how to mandate age-restricted platforms when all you have to do is plug in a date of birth.

It’s hurdles like this that are particularly problematic for the future of the internet: children’s unbridled access to virtually anything. While platforms try to come up with ways to better mandate their underage protocols, parents need to accept that children are going to have access to prohibited content. In the meantime, they must look at ways of preparing their children for what they might see, as well as fully comprehending how their children are encountering and employing tech and social media.

In an article for The Huffington Post,3 Andrew Rogoyski, VP of cybersecurity services at CGI UK, claimed that the main dangers parents need to be aware of are people masquerading as children and then forming inappropriate relationships with a child – as well as criminals acting to defraud, run scams, or clone an individual’s identity.

“There are plenty of services and softwares that promise to keep your children safe online. None of them are substitutes for good parental supervision and knowledge,” he says. It’s crucial to establish ground rules: “When and how long they have ‘screentime’, what applications they can use, what you, as parents, expect to have access to.”

Later in the article, Rogoyksi recommends that parents look to websites such as cyberstreetwise.com and getsafeonline.org to become more tech-savvy and educate themselves about installing security software and strong passwords to prevent hackers. They offer detailed information on topics from online gaming to identity theft prevention so that parents can assess risks and take precautionary measures.

There’s also the affirmative approach to the issue. “Encourage positive use of these technologies,” Rogoyski goes on. “If you can get your child interested in subjects like programming, digital art, game design, music production, filmmaking and writing, to name but a few where technology excel, then the darker side of the internet will be much less of an issue.”

Additional resources

We’ve discussed identifying the dangers posed by the web, but what about any supplementary tech?

Apps like Zoodles are a great example. Instead of sitting your child in front of an iPad and hoping for the best, this app was made by parents who want to integrate technology into educating younger children – without putting them into unsafe environments.

Based on the age and learning level settings you choose, Zoodles controls which websites children can access. Your kids can then watch videos, play educational games and read interactive books, all of which are thoroughly vetted by Zoodles. Parents are also kept up to date with how much time kids spend on each site.

It’s not going anywhere

The threat posed by the online world, especially for future generations, is not disappearing. Especially now the world is turning its gaze towards the metaverse, perhaps an even scarier threat that comes with as much of
the unknown as the internet first did.

Rather than letting the fear take over, there are always methods you can utilise to help protect the next generation of decision-makers, who will ultimately be faced with the same challenges themselves one day. 

Originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of FEED.

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