Newswise — MISSISSIPPI STATE -- As students head back to the classroom, parents should remain aware of their children’s online behavior -- whether for school assignments or socializing.
Jamie Varner, an instructor with the Mississippi State University Extension Service Center for Technology Outreach, said parents should warn their children about digital dangers and take practical steps to help keep them safe.
“The No. 1 thing parents can do is communicate with their children about what they should and should not do when they are online,” Varner said. “The Internet can be a good source of information, but it poses some risks. Innocent searches can bring up websites with harmful malware, software, viruses or inappropriate content.”
Varner recommends setting up the computer in a central area of the home, such as the family room, where the monitor is visible to others.
“Think about when your children will be using the computer,” she said. “If the computer is a desktop and homework gets done while the adults are preparing dinner, maybe the computer should be near the kitchen.”
Other options to help control content when children are unsupervised are Internet filters and passwords.
Internet filters reduce the possibility children can access inappropriate material. Filters can be customized to meet individual needs. Some filters can also manage instant messaging software and social media sites and provide a detailed activity log. Internet filters can be purchased or downloaded for free from the Internet, Varner said.
Mariah Morgan, an assistant Extension professor with the Center for Technology Outreach, said passwords can be set up through a computer’s internal settings to control what content children can access. No special software is needed.
To password-protect sites in Internet Explorer, use the Tools tab to access Internet Options and then select the Security tab. Highlight Restricted Sites, and left-click on Sites. Then, in the available field, type the restricted website. Press the Add button. Repeat these steps for each website that should not be accessed.
Child-friendly search engines, such as Google’s Safe Search and KidZui, can limit children’s ability to stumble across explicit material, Morgan said.
The same safety features can be implemented on mobile devices.
“Keeping kids safe on Smartphones and tablets can be a bit more difficult, but it’s not impossible,” Morgan said.
Both Apple and Android operating systems allow parents to limit online activity and app purchases on phones and tablets. Parents can set content filters in both the Google Play and iTunes stores to prevent the download of apps that cost money. To stop the download of free apps, parents can block access to both stores entirely by installing a password or personal identification number. App downloads from websites can be disabled in the settings menu. Most devices with newer operating systems allow different profiles for different users.
Apps also can help parents enforce limits. Kid Mode keeps child-friendly apps in a locked area on the device. Net Nanny and Funamo apps filter content and provide email reports on the child’s activity, Morgan said.
Many children interact with friends routinely on social media. Ellen Graves, Extension social media strategist, suggests parents set limits and discuss ground rules before allowing a child to join a social media network.
“Children should be mature enough to make sound decisions about what they post and who they communicate with via social media before they join any network,” Graves said. “Make sure they understand they should never post personal information, such as a phone number or an address, that could put them, their families or friends in danger.”
Encourage children to create a private profile, which allows only approved individuals to interact with the child. Parents should know the usernames and passwords of each social media account their child has, Graves said.
“Be open with your children and make sure they know you will be monitoring their social media activity for their safety,” she said. “It is also a good idea to define the amount of time they can spend on the Internet. Of course, these rules can change as the child becomes more mature and demonstrates good judgment.”
Software, such as Net Nanny and My Mobile Watchdog, can help parents keep track of a child’s social media activity, but these and some other programs charge fees. Apps, such as Screen Time, help restrict the time spent on iPhones and iPads. Parents can also follow or friend children as an additional way to monitor their behavior, Graves said.