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BW Businessworld

Baby’s Day Online

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Threats on the internet come in all shapes and sizes — and some of them aim straight at children. For that matter, children come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes, and they head straight for the nearest threat!

The fear of what's out there in the great cyber unknown that could influence or harm youngsters has worried parents ever since the Web went mainstream. Considering most children can be classified as either being too young to know or too old to listen, parents are in a thoroughly unenviable position.

Children today encounter a computer the moment they can sit up. I have had frequent ‘chats' on messenger with a one-year-old. Of course, only one of us knows what's being said, and it isn't me. This little girl seems happy to spend hours on her father's always-online Thinkpad (she won't touch a Dell or Sony), and manages to find her way to a chat window that leads her to me every time. Thankfully, I wasn't a virus in disguise, presenting with a link that leads to a fake site and a few malicious programs such as trojans. The possibility of inadvertent clicks is just one more reason to make sure your antivirus and antispyware is in top shape.

When a child grows to be six or so, it's time to really start worrying in earnest. But it's also when the software you use gives you options for protection. First off, you have various control features built into Windows. In fact, the latest Windows 7 boasts stronger than ever controls. So, create a user profile, and you can define what programs your child can access and use; what games, films, or TV shows and even how much computer is allowed. Every program you use online, of course, has security levels — you can set ad and pop up blockers and sites you can keep out. Unfortunately, not enough people take the time to set these controls.

However, beyond a point, it becomes inappropriate to control or monitor. In any case, a child's computer access is not necessarily limited to the home, and before you know it, he or she has overtaken the parents in tech know-how. That's where it's critical for a parent to be completely aware of the threats, and have frequent talks about the dangers, letting children know what to avoid and be alert for. For example, is it OK to make friends online? Is it a good idea to play online games, buy music, and so on?

Some of the precautions that need to be taken with children online apply to segments of support and admin staff in companies where computers with internet access are accessible to almost everyone down the line, whether they have the savvy to navigate online threats or not. Staff in companies too need to be given some pointers on how to spot a spam, how much personal information to give online and, particularly, how to handle e-mail forwards.

Security advisors think that the chances of children being victims of cyber-stalkers, paedophile and predators are not as high as they are for many other basic problems such as cyber-bullying. The California-based cyber security firm Symantec set up a service at onlinefamily.norton.com to help parents keep track of what their kids do, and talk to them about the internet. Symantec claims the service helps parents set limits on what websites each child can visit, "what terms they can't search, who they can talk to, and how long they can be online". Microsoft, explaining the security features of different versions of Windows, has categorised threats and guidelines as they relate to age groups. A straight search will lead you to these tips. Many security sites online (try staysafeonline.com) offer guidelines and resources.

When kids become teenagers, forget about trying to control anything. There's no longer anything you can tell them about technology. But that doesn't mean the threats reduce. Social networking sites that have brought the world to a new level of connectedness also bring up behavioural and security risks. Personal information now exists to an intimate and detailed level. Even whereabouts are posted online. Kids — and a few adults — need to know how to set privacy rules, and be aware of how what they say and post can become public. Social networking sites are obviously keen to remain user-friendly and safe, and so they take up whatever responsibility they can to alert users (or their parents) when they detect specific threats.

However, the threats that no software will tackle come from children not being aware when they do things that are illegal, or when they wilfully indulge in cyber crime themselves. Care taken when children first go online would go a long way to preventing such possibilities.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.

mala at pobox dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-11-2009)