How to Keep Your Family Safe Online

140 character summary: Depending on the age of your children, the safety scale goes from parental control software to encouraging responsible use of social media.

This is the third in a 3-part series on cybersecurity. In the first instalment, I discussed ways to keep yourself safe online. In the second, I explored the leading edge in enterprise cybersecurity. In this final instalment, I look at how to keep your family safe; and in particular, your children.

There’s no shortage of safety advice online from the big Internet companies. Google has a Safety Center, as do MicrosoftFacebook, Twitter, SnapChat and others. All these sites have pages and pages of information and resources to help keep your family safe online. In this article, I’ll pick out the three most essential safety measures. I’ll also examine what options are available to help you implement them.

Use Parental Control Software

Happily the two leading computing platforms for families – Windows and Mac OS X – both have inbuilt parental controls. But they’re not comprehensive solutions, so you’ll want to consider an additional layer of software – especially if you have young kids.

NetNanny is one of the most highly rated safety software products. With a price range of US$40-90 per year, it claims to protect your family “from pornography, online predators & cyberbullying.” The software is wide reaching and, according to TopTenReviews, includes the ability to closely monitor Internet chat and social networks:

“This parental software can capture transcripts of conversations that occur in chat and instant message applications. It even records Facebook and MySpace instant messaging. During the monitoring of internet-based conversations, the app proactively scans the exchanges for dangerous communications that may include the sexual solicitation of the child, bullying, threats, aggressive language and profanity. Upon identification of a potentially ominous word or phrase, the app alerts parents to the situation by email. It also records the words and keywords used to perform online searches.”

That level of parental control is a bit over the top, but you can dial down the snooping in NetNanny to a level your family is comfortable with. You want your child to be safe, but you don’t want them to feel like a character in 1984.

If you can’t afford or simply don’t wish to pay for safety software, I recommend a service called OpenDNS. It’s basically a shield that you activate for your family’s Internet use, blocking out the bad stuff automatically. OpenDNS offers a couple of excellent and easy to set up free services, including its Family Shield product.

Implement Time Rules

Setting time limits on your child’s Internet use is probably the easiest safety measure. This can typically be set up on your Internet Service Provider’s [ISP] admin page. As long as you know which devices your child is using, you can set time rules on each device so that they aren’t accessing the wifi at night.

Of course, we could all use such time limits! So perhaps we adults should lead by example.

A further measure that some families take is asking your child to hand over their digital devices before they go to bed. This is a good idea, although it does make me wonder about the ramifications of the Internet of Things for family cybersecurity. When nearly everything in your house is connected, it’ll be much harder to isolate devices. When that happens, I suspect that products like NetNanny will become more important in keeping your family safe.

Encourage Responsible Use of Social Media

Sooner or later your child is going to use social media products. They must be thirteen years or over to use two of the leading services, Facebook and Snapchat. So at this age it’s time to loosen the parental controls and focus more on encouraging responsible Internet usage.

It’s interesting to look at how the big social networking companies approach family safety. To their collective credit, they are all proactive about this issue. Facebook’s philosophy is that safety is “an ongoing conversation between parents and kids, teachers and students, companies and the people who use their products and services.” Mighty fine words, although in practical terms it’s clear that Facebook emphasises the user’s responsibility by pointing parents and kids alike to its list of safety tools. My one concern here is Facebook’s notoriously poor user interface, although to be fair it has gotten better in recent times.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for parents these days is understanding newer social media apps that have become popular with teens. Snapchat is a prime example. It’s basically a multimedia chat app for smartphones, used by kids to swap selfies and generally stay in touch with one another. The company has produced a handy Parents’ Guide to Snapchat. Among other things, it points out that the photos and videos that kids swap on Snapchat aren’t archived. Snapchat says this is because its product is “playful and ‘in the moment’ – a nice change from the self-presentation and reputation issues in social media services that display photos and videos indefinitely.” In other words, we adults are too vain! Ouch, but fair point.

It’s true, Snapchat has gotten tremendously popular with kids because it is fun and not too serious. That said, there are cyberbullying issues on the service. The parental guide offers this advice in dealing with that and other safety issues: “As with all social media, respect toward self and others makes us safer. […] It just never hurts to have a conversation (never a lecture) with them about how they use Snapchat just to be sure.” In other words, trust your child to be smart about how they use social media; and talk to them if you have any questions or concerns.


As you can see there are plenty of tools available to help keep your family safe online; whether it be on the operating system itself, a third party software like NetNanny or OpenDNS, or as part of your ISP’s administrative gateway.

But most encouragingly, all the main Internet companies and social media services have active safety policies and procedures. Even for the products that we adults don’t know how to use (or just plain shouldn’t use – I’m looking at you VCs), like Snapchat. As a parent, you can’t ask for much more than that. The rest is the responsibility of you and your child.

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