High tech gifts bring new concerns about Internet safety

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Photo by Rebecca Norris

For many children, the Christmas gift list included one of any number of items that provide access to the Internet. Smart phones, netbooks, ebooks, GPS, online game systems, laptops and desktop computers all pose a series of challenges for parents who may not be as technologically savvy as their kids.

While protecting young users on the Internet once required firewalls and separate programs, and the time and computer knowledge to set them up, most devices now have parental controls built into their operating systems.

Computer experts advise parents to set up these controls to help make it safe for their children to be on the Internet and to be aware of how their children use their devices.

Many electronic devices now access the Internet, according to Rick Mello, The Times IT administrator and father of two children under 11. “And when you’re online you’re not on the Vineyard anymore,” he said. Being able to help kids stay safe while using the myriad of devices that access the Internet is an important part of raising children, he added.

Mr. Mello said that helping protect children from Internet abuse is really just a part of parenting. He recommends open communication with children and other parents as a way to keep abreast of issues that might arise. The Internet changes daily and it is important to keep on top of those changes, he said.

It is safe to assume that almost everything we do on the Internet will become public information, according to Mr. Mello. Companies collect information on our surfing habits and Internet purchases to create personal profiles that are used to target advertising to us.

Mr. Mello advises using parental controls on the device’s operating systems not only to limit the programs children can access, but the Internet sites as well. He keeps a “white list” of sites that he allows his children to visit. This list is entered into the parental controls in the system preferences on his home computer.

He said that the search site Google and many other online sites can be configured to block out undesirable information as well. There are also sites geared specifically for children. For example, he said the Disney Internet site, Club Penguin (clubpenguin.com), is designed to give younger children a safe Internet experience.

Email, texting, and the use of social media are areas of particular concern to people who work with or have children because of the opportunities to give out private information unwittingly and the inability to take back what has been broadcast to the world. Mr. Mello said that he has set up email accounts for his children and that their email is routed through one of his email accounts for review. He does not yet allow his children to use social networking or photo sharing sites like Facebook and Instagram. He said that texting can be turned off on most devices that have a texting feature.

Brian Athearn, owner of MV Tech, Inc., a computer business in Vineyard Haven, said that there are basically two ways to protect children from the Internet. “You can either child-proof your computers or computer-proof your child,” he said.

Computer-proofing your child involves teaching them about the issues of permanence, and personal safety and is more effective than child-proofing computers, he said.

He also uses device-based parental controls and firewalls, which can be either physical devices or software that limit information flow, to child-proof his home computer. Several computer experts advocated using both approaches.

Having the home computer in a family space, a central location where parents can easily monitor what their children are doing online was one of the first things Mr. Athearn recommended. “The best parental control is to have the parent around, to having a parent in control,” he said.

Mr. Athearn said that using parental control functions built in to most devices to limit children’s online access is an important first step. On a PC he said the parental control function is accessed through control panel-tools-internet options-Internet Explorer. To learn how to set these up he said Google is the first place he goes. He pointed out that there are YouTube videos that walk parents through most anything they want to learn.

Computer safety in Island schools

Island schools teach computer safety along with computer skills, and most have programs to help parents as well. Island schools require students and sometimes parents to sign a form about appropriate computer use in the school, and students are not allowed on computers before attending computer use classes.

Knowing how to limit the amount of information we give out is an important life skill that needs to be taught to our kids, according to Rebecca Barca-Tinus, the computer technologist at the Chilmark School and a parent of two.

Ms. Barca-Tinus said that computer education begins at her school with students learning how to use the iPad in kindergarten. She said that when students graduate from the school she expects them to understand the difference between going to a website and going to a program and to know where they are going when they click on an icon on the computer.

Students are not allowed to use the school’s computers until they have attended a class that includes Internet safety and “what it means to be on the Internet as yourself or somebody else,” she said. “It’s like borrowing somebody else’s shoes from their locker. You don’t so that. You don’t sign in as someone else.”

The Chilmark School has a webpage (chilmark_school.mvyps.org) devoted to computer safety with links to articles and other web safety information sites.

Ms. Barca-Tinus offers a series of parent classes through the year covering proper computer use and how to help their children use computers. She encourages parents to contact her at the school if they have any questions.

Woody Filley, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School computer technologist, said that the high school has occasional special events when parents are invited to the school to learn about computers and computer safety.

Mr. Filley said that the Island’s school’s computer networks are subject to The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), enacted by Congress in 2000 to address concerns about children’s access to obscene or harmful content over the Internet. CIPA requirements include that that school networks be protected.

He said that the Island school network uses filters that are managed by an off-Island business that monitors the ever-changing web landscape to keep the networks safe and to limit what students can access through the network. These filters are designed to give different levels of access to staff and to students at different grade levels.

The federal government stepped in years ago to help protect children from Internet abuse. Two weeks ago The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) adopted amendments to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA) that strengthen kids’ privacy protections and give parents greater control over the personal information that websites and online services may collect from children.

The amendments are designed to keep up with evolving technology and changes in the way children use and access the Internet, including the increased use of mobile devices and social networking, according to the FTC website, www.ftc.gov.