September 7, 2007

FOR DADS ONLY - Thoughts on Internet Security and Kids, from a Dad's Perspective

Hey All. This is Serona, DH of Tenn. I wanted to chime in on the topic of internet security for kids in our homes is concerned. Lots of folks in our small and large circles of friends and spheres of influence are asking about this. As a techie and early adopter of internet technology I think my $.02 is worth about $.04 or so.

This missive is intended for folks with kids who are increasingly using the web for school, play, and friend interaction/maintenance/generation. The questions I hear a lot are along the lines of "what internet filter should I buy?" or "how can I protect my youngster from < insert appropriate scary internet thing here: naked pictures, naughty words, creepy older men posing as 12 year olds etc. >?"

Gang, it's not that complex when you think about it.

Family internet security is like sex. Rather it's like sex ed.

Let me explain.

First, you should know more about it than your kids do. If you don't get this about sex then something is probably seriously amiss and you should stop worrying about internet and take your son/daughter out for some quality re-get-to-know-you-again time. In the tech industry we say, "RTFM" (look it up)

The same applies for understanding web technology as it pertains to your kids' usage. Here are some (but only SOME) of the basics you should know (because your kids already do):

Common Browsers: MSIE, Firefox, Opera, Safari, etc. They all have tutorials, help files, etc. This is the basic biology - the parts of the body.

Browsing/ web mechanics (e.g. how scientific diagrams of flowers, sonnets by Shakespeare, and naked girl pictures can all appear on your computer screen) You need to understand THE BASICS of how web pages, images, chat/IM dialogs are transported through the aether to your screen. I'm not talking about knowing the guts of HTTP or how IP packets are routed through hops. I'm talking about things like the fact that the "internet" is a series of "request" and "receive" commands that display on your screen. This means you cannot receive anything that you did not ask for. (now it gets complex - because you can actually "ask" for things that you are not aware of - even without being "hacked"). This is like understanding that babies don't come from kissing but usually as a by-product of certain frictions between humans of opposite sex (don't bother me with the exception cases right now).

If the kids in the family understand that they cannot accidentally see something they shouldn't without having asked for it - even if they don't realize they're asking for it, they will

A) be more careful in what they ask for ( e.g. careful with multiple-meaning search terms, etc)

B) be less likely to try to bamboozle you with teen-techno-web parent-N00b speak. (e.g. "that web site must have been H4X0r3d Mom!")

Second, Communicate. Give age-appropriate information that is designed to be built upon. You don't give your 5 year old daughter all the ins and outs < irony / > of sex. You do give your 5 year old daughter an understanding of privacy, good-touch vs bad-touch, and how to care for her young healthy body. You do give the mechanics and maybe some general rules of sex and sexuality to your (insert family-determined appropriate age here) year old daughter. In between those ages you gradually provide detail/additional information
exception cases, strategies for avoiding (insert bad sexual behavior here), and strategies for encouraging (insert good sexual behavior here).

It might be Judo that you teach, or how to call mom for a ride home from a bad date, or how to keep the boyfriend at (insert 1st, 2nd, 3rd base here as governed by parent) or maybe more Judo. Similarly, teach your kids how to tap the plethora of information available in age-appropriate manners. This also involves giving them gradually increasing measures of freedom and privacy, but only as they earn that privilege from proving that your trust in them is warranted. You don't let your 9 year olds go alone on a skinny-dipping blind-date (duh!). Why in the world would you let your 9 year old have text-chat sex on the web? The answer is that you wouldn't! "I DON'T!", you exclaim. But how much do you know about what they're doing online? "YOU DON'T!" I exclaim. That's why you are asking about software filters instead of asking about how to be a better parent.

Remember, it's not "spying" if there is no expectation of privacy.

Third, realize that, like sex, the web is FUN! But it is only SAFE when you 1) know what you are doing and 2) are doing "it" according to the standards that govern healthy behavior. For us Christians, that means sex is good and fun when it's between a man and woman married to each other. For us web surfers/users it means the web is great when we follow the rules and expectations set by our families - not some software program. But by jebus it is a blast! Where else can you chat in real time, for free with friends / family on the other side of world/country/town? Where else can you find the answer to ANYTHING (and usually a video to go along with it)? Where else can you publish your creative thoughts, engage people smarter than you in conversations on topics that interest you, verbally spar with people with whom you disagree and explore the side tracks that hyperlinks provide (if you don't know what a hyperlink is, see the First thing, above). But, like sex, the web can be used appropriately and inappropriately. Like sex, there are certain things that simply should not be done with strangers or friends or even best friends forever. Like sexual endeavors, using the web alone can be a stress relief, or a tension creator. If you've talked with your (older) kids about masturbation (yes, I SAID IT!), good grief, why are you NOT talking to them about when and how it is appropriate to use the web.

Gang, there is lots of technology pitched and sold to parents that preys upon fears of kids seeing pictures of naked people or reading dirty words or getting raunchy or profane or simply annoying emails. The reality is that this will stop some stuff but never all. So what do you do when those words or pictures, or emails get through? There is no substitute for being a parent. If you web experience is currently inundated and overrun with NSFW images and content, or your kids are web-camming with strangers at odd evening hours chances are your issues go deeper than a filter.

I'm not down on filters (really) but I'm down on technology as nanny or parent or overseer. Be a parent first. Use technology as a tool, to your advantage.

You use your knowledge and experience of sex to inform the ways and methods you use to teach your kids about it. Use your knowledge and experience of web based technology to inform the ways and means you use to teach your kids about that as well. If your knowledge and experience with the web is behind that of your kids, then by-gum, get some. At least you can't get all those nasty diseases we heard about in health class from the internet.

Thanks for reading.

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