I've written before about protecting our children from inappropriate web content and other online dangers, but this is not a problem that is going to go away any time soon. And at this time of year with our children scanning the internet for the latest Christmas toys, it seems like a good time to reiterate how even the most innocent of online activities can put them at risk.
It was great to see the recent decision by companies such as Google and Microsoft to take responsibility to filter unacceptable content - making it harder to find child abuse images online. We are heavily dependent on the search engines these companies provide from the minute we, or our families, go online, so if they're able to block this content 'at source' it's a very good thing.
This is by no means a complete solution, of course. Those intent on finding or sharing such images are more likely to use the 'dark web' or peer-to-peer services than mainstream search engines. But the move by Google and Microsoft will at least reduce the risk that the rest of us will inadvertently stumble upon such images. If you do encounter such images, you can report them to the Internet Watch Foundation https://www.iwf.org.uk/report.
However, on top of illegal content, there is plenty of other - legal, but age-inappropriate - material that we don't want our children exposed to. Recent research by Kaspersky Lab reveals that even when children search the web for toys and gadgets predicted to be the biggest sellers this Christmas they might be exposed to inappropriate adult content - including sexual, violent and drugs-related images.
Of the 12 toys predicted to be best-sellers this Christmas, web searches for five quickly led to content that children could find disturbing or upsetting.
The first page of search results for these top toys revealed the following, inappropriate images:
- Furby - searching for the interactive toy brings up an image of a Furby smoking a marijuana joint
- Sesame Street Elmo Hugs shows an image of Evil Elmo, depicted as the devil, smoking, drinking spirits and toting a gun
- Teksta Dog brings up an image of a woman posing suggestively in a bikini
- Monopoly Empire - searching for the board game designed for children aged eight years and upwards, reveals a man in a Monopoly character mask pointing guns at the heads of two women in bikinis
- Disney Talking Sofia shows a less than Disney-like picture of a topless Sofia Coppola.
Parents also need to play their part in safeguarding their children's online activities. Most good Internet security products now include a parental control module that lets you put a protective barrier around your children - reducing the risks they're exposed to online. Smartphones and tablets typically include parental control filters too - so if you're buying one for your children this year, be sure to investigate before you wrap it up and put it under the tree. But it's also essential to underpin this by developing an online safety mindset from a young age. This means sharing what they do online, discussing the risks and explaining the measures you've put in place to protect them.
Here's our list of top tips for keeping your children safe online.
- Talk to them about the potential dangers.
- Encourage them to talk to you about their online experience and, in particular, anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened.
- Set clear ground-rules about what they can and can't do online and explain why you have put them in place. You should review these as your child gets older.
- Use parental control software to establish the framework for what's acceptable - how much time (and when) they can spend online, what content should be blocked, what types of activity should be blocked (chat rooms, forums, etc.). Parental control filters can be configured for different computer profiles, allowing you to customise the filters for different children.
- Protect the computer using Internet security software.
- Don't forget their smartphone - these are sophisticated computers, not just phones. Most smartphones come with parental controls and security software providers may offer apps to filter out inappropriate content, senders of nuisance SMS messages, etc.