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Family Accountability

How Can I Keep My Kids Safe Online?

by Ali Royann

Dear Ali,
How do I keep my kids safe online? There’s so much bad stuff just a click away, and I don’t know if I can trust an Internet filter to protect them. What do you recommend?

Watchful in Texas

Dear Watchful,

I’m glad to hear that you’re paying attention to your kids’ online safety and not trusting too much in a web filter!

Many companies have done a great job of convincing parents that their software will keep our families and children “safe” and “protected” online. While blocking, filters, and monitoring can help children by keeping them accountable for their actions and decisions, no software will ever keep them safe and protected. Such statements are over-promising what they simply cannot deliver. This type of advertising has prompted many parents to forgo active involvement in how their children use technology and place their trust in a software as their children’s guardian.

It is vital that parents understand the limitations and shortcomings these programs have. A study was done using four popular filtering programs to test the claim that filtering is the best way to keep children safe from dangerous content online. The conclusion of this study reported that

...filters are not a particularly effective technology for protecting children from objectionable Internet content. Further, such programs also block a substantial percentage of web pages with no objectionable material. Overall, filters failed to block objectionable content 25 percent of the time, while on the other hand, they improperly blocked 21 percent of benign content. Given these problematic results, parents and legislators should rethink their current support for the use of Internet filtering technology.

Content-filtering software solutions work in different ways. Some approaches work by blocking content based on keywords that have been flagged as objectionable. Other applications block content based on the URL or by the category the website is classified under (e.g., gambling, pornography, or business).

Consider the following questions to determine how reliable these types of software are for the protection and safety of your family:

  • How often does the software update its list of objectionable sites or words? With thousands of new pornographic websites added daily, there are bound to be some missed through blocking software. Objectionable words also continually change as new abbreviations and substitutes replace common words and phrases.
  • How do you know which websites or words are blocked or considered objectionable? Providers protect the process for categorizing websites and their list of objectionable words and sites very closely. The only way to discover if a website or word has not been included in the list is by your child stumbling upon it.
  • Does your filter accommodate different age groups? What is objectionable for a 7-year-old may not be objectionable for a 17-year-old or a parent in the home. How well tailored is the software for each individual in your home?
  • Who determines what is considered harmful content? Determining what is objectionable is a very subjective matter. Parents have different convictions regarding what is acceptable for their children to view. Filters represent the opinions of the people interpreting and judging the content as objectionable or offensive. Relying on filtering or blocking software gives this determination to the provider and not to the user.
  • How easy is it to disable or circumvent the software? Putting barriers and restrictions in place tends to have a negative effect on kids as curiosity can entice them to find ways around the software and “beat” the system. Filters are relatively easy to break and children are very adept at outsmarting and overcoming restrictions.
  • How does the filters or blocking software address internet searches involving harmful behavior? Bullying online is a common activity that cannot be addressed through filtering content. Without triggering an alert to parents, searches involving destructive behavior such as suicide and eating disorders can go on without being addressed. How-to videos that educate or encourage children to participate in harmful activity can go unnoticed.
  • How does the software protect against interaction with strangers online? The statistics are scary concerning vulnerable youth who fall prey to predators online! New apps are constantly being developed that allow online interaction with strangers. Many are free, appear harmless enough, and require little information to set up a profile.

Training your children how to use technology properly will serve them far into adulthood.

Filtering and blocking tend to give parents a false sense of security. They can mask the need for parents to be on guard and train their children how to use technology properly. Handing over this type of responsibility to software will not benefit children in the long run.

The solution is to nurture your children’s hearts. Parents need to cultivate a desire within their children to make the right choices and hold themselves accountable for their actions. There are several ways to introduce this concept at a young age, but it needs to be a purposeful, deliberate, and consistent part of their growing up.

Training your children how to use technology properly while they are in your home will serve them far into adulthood. Temptation will only increase, accessibility to content becomes easier, and advertising and media continue to push the limits on what is acceptable and “normal” behavior.

Teach your children to understand why certain behaviors are destructive. Make them aware of the dangers that can be found on the internet and what they need to avoid. Instead of using barriers to prohibit destructive behavior, use accountability to nurture appropriate, healthy behavior.

Accountability will help children develop self-control while building a trusting relationship with parents.

Accountability tools like Accountable2You provide a solution that can equip parents to monitor their children’s device and internet activity. This promotes transparent conversation to direct future behavior for their personal growth. Accountability will help children develop self-control while building a trusting relationship with parents. As they learn the benefits accountability offers, it will become a lifestyle that they can apply to all areas of life, even when you are not around.

There may come a time when content-filtering software is useful in your home, but filters can never be a substitute for the parental involvement required to train children toward an attitude of accountability.

You have much influence on your children’s behavior. Help mold their hearts to desire integrity online. Use these precious years wisely to raise responsible individuals who regard accountability as a necessary and valuable quality.

Yours in accountability,

“Ask Ali” is an op-ed column answering common questions about accountability and related topics.

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