Safeguarding Our Digital Superheroes: The Importance of Parental Controls in Protecting Children Online
April 30 2024

In today's digital age, our children are constantly surrounded by technology, offering them incredible opportunities for learning, connection, and entertainment. However, alongside these benefits lurks ever-present threats:

Internet Threats Impacting Our Children

1. Inappropriate Content:

Children might stumble upon age-inappropriate material such as violence, pornography, or graphic images while browsing the internet. For example, they might come across explicit content while innocently searching for information or images.

A recent report highlights the widespread presence of such online content, stressing the urgent need for parents to use effective parental controls to protect their children while online.

You might be concerned about which platforms could pose a risk to your children. Regrettably, it's platforms like social media, messaging apps, file-sharing websites, online forums, as well as other digital spaces where content can be shared anonymously or without moderation.

Sharing nude images of underage children is against the law as it constitutes the distribution of child pornography. This behavior is not only ethically wrong but also subject to legal repercussions due to its exploitation and harm to minors. It's crucial for parents and guardians to have these tough conversations about these issues with children, even from a young age.

2. Cyberbullying:

Defined as “purposefully trying to harm another person or be mean to them online, in texts, group texts, or on social media.”

Online platforms provide avenues for cyberbullying, where children can be subjected to harassment, threats, or humiliation by their peers. This occurs daily through social media comments, private messages, and public forums.

Cyberbullying presents significant risks to our children's well-being and can have devastating effects on their mental health. Beyond the immediate emotional distress it causes, cyberbullying can lead to severe consequences for youth, including depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. In the worst cases, cyberbullying has tragically resulted in suicides among vulnerable young individuals who felt helpless and isolated due to relentless online harassment. Addressing cyberbullying is paramount to safeguarding our youth and promoting a safer online environment.

According to the National Institutes of Health article on Cyberbullying: “At a time when young adolescents are spending more time online than ever before … it may be prudent for primary care providers to screen for cyberbullying routinely in the same way that they might screen for other suicide risk factors like depression. Parents and educators should also be aware of this risk factor.”

3. Online Predators:

Children may be targeted by online predators who use social media, chat rooms, or gaming platforms to groom and exploit them. These predators may pose as peers or manipulate children into sharing personal information or engaging in inappropriate behavior.

Did you know that teens are more at risk from online predators? Despite understanding the risks, they may willingly engage with predators online. Sometimes teens develop feelings of love towards someone they meet online. This increases the likelihood of agreeing to a face-to-face meeting, exposing them to unnecessary risks.

Over time, online predators can manipulate and exploit children through grooming, potentially leading to involvement in sexually explicit conversations or activities, and eventually lead to real-life meetings, sexual abuse, and even human trafficking.

A report, featured in a recent article on The Hacker News titled "New Report Reveals Alarming Rise in Child Sexual Abuse Content," underscores the ongoing spread of CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Content) across online platforms. With technology advancements and widespread internet access, perpetrators have found new avenues to exploit and victimise children, making it more crucial than ever for parents to take proactive steps to protect their children (Digital Superheroes) online.

4. Identity Theft:

Children's personal information, such as their name, address, or school details, can be at risk of theft or misuse online. This information may be harvested from social media profiles, online forms, or gaming accounts and used for fraudulent activities or identity theft. As discussed in our previous blog post: Riding the Digital Wave: A Parent's Guide to Starting the Conversation on Online Safety with their Kids, it's essential to reinforce the importance of not sharing any personal information with our children.

5. Invasive Advertising:

Children may be exposed to targeted advertising or marketing tactics that exploit their online activity and preferences. This could lead to manipulative advertising practices or the promotion of unhealthy products or behaviors.

Advertising directed at children, such as TV commercials, is nothing new. However, in today's digital era, marketing messages reach young audiences through subtle, more direct ways.

Children and teens are prime targets for marketing messages and they come in more subtle ways such as endorsements from social media influencers or through "gamified" advertisements, also known as "advergames."

Advertising persuades children that their happiness depends on acquiring certain products or services. For instance, children might believe they need the latest toys, gadgets, or fashion items to feel content.

What Measures Can You Take as a Parent or Guardian?

Parental controls serve as powerful tools in the arsenal of guardians seeking to safeguard children's online experiences.

1. Content Filtering:

Content filtering allows parents to restrict access to inappropriate websites, ensuring that children are shielded from harmful content such as pornography, violence, and CSAM. By setting up content filters, parents can create a safe online environment that promotes their child's healthy progress and development. For example, filtering out explicit search results and blocking access to websites known to host CSAM can prevent accidental exposure and deter potential predators.

Blocking inappropriate websites on your child's computer can be done using various methods, depending on the level of control and monitoring you want. Here are several approaches you can consider:

1.1 Use Parental Control Software:

There are many parental control software options available that allow you to block inappropriate websites based on categories such as adult content, violence, gambling, etc. Some popular (and free) options include Qustodio, Kaspersky Safe Kids, FamilyShield by OpenDNS, Norton Family, and Microsoft Family Safety. These software usually offer features like website blocking, time limits, and activity monitoring, with each company offering different features and functionalities.

Before choosing a parental control software, consider your specific needs, such as the devices you want to monitor, the features you require, and any budget constraints. Additionally, it's essential to review the privacy policies and terms of use of any software to ensure they align with your values and preferences.

1.2 Built-in Parental Controls:

Operating systems like Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android come with built-in parental control features that allow you to restrict access to certain websites. You can set up user accounts for your child and configure the restrictions accordingly. These controls are often found in the settings menu under "Family" or "Parental Controls."

1.3 Router Settings:

Many routers have settings that allow you to block specific websites. You can access your router's settings through a web browser by typing in the router's IP address. Once logged in, look for options related to "Parental Controls" or "Website Blocking." You can then add the URLs of inappropriate websites to the block list.

1.4 Browser Extensions:

There are browser extensions available that can block access to certain websites. Extensions like Block Site (for Chrome) or LeechBlock (for Firefox) allow you to specify which sites to block and when to block them.

1.5 DNS Filtering:

DNS (Domain Name System) filtering services like OpenDNS or CleanBrowsing allow you to block access to inappropriate websites at the network level. You can set up these services on your router or individual devices by changing the DNS settings.

1.6 Safe Search Settings:

Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo offer safe search settings that filter out explicit content from search results. Make sure to enable these settings in your child's browser to prevent them from stumbling upon inappropriate content accidentally. Activate this feature on your computer's Google account by accessing preferences. Tick the Turn on SafeSearch box and scroll down to the bottom of the web page to click Save.

Combining multiple methods might provide the most effective protection for your child while using the internet. Additionally, regularly monitoring their online activity and having open conversations about their online experiences can further enhance their safety.

2. App and Game Controls:

With countless apps and games available on app stores, it's essential for parents to vet and monitor the content their children engage with. App and game controls empower parents to review and approve the apps and games their children download, ensuring that they are age-appropriate and free from harmful content. Additionally, these controls allow parents to set spending limits and restrict in-app purchases, preventing children from inadvertently making unauthorised transactions or accessing premium content without supervision.

A firm favourite amongst South African families is Family Link. It offers tools tailored to each family's tech preferences to help foster positive digital habits. Its user-friendly features allow monitoring device usage, sharing location, adjusting privacy settings, and achieving family balance.

The rise in child sexual abuse content, cyber-bullying, and identity theft highlights the need for parental controls. By implementing robust safeguards such as content filtering, time management, app and game controls, and privacy settings, parents can create a safer online environment for their digital superheroes to explore, learn, and thrive.

Together, we can empower our children to navigate the digital landscape with resilience, knowledge, and confidence, ensuring that their online experiences are both enriching and secure.

If you're keen to delve deeper into any of these essential tips, you can discover more information right here:

  1. The Hacker News (2024). New Report: Child Abuse Content.
  2. National Institutes of Health (2022). Cyberbullying linked with suicidal thoughts and attempts in young adolescents.
  3. GCFGlobal (2024). Staying safe from online predators.
  4. Healthy Children (2020). 5 Unhealthy Ways Digital Ads May Be Targeting Your Child.
  5. Interexcel World Connection (2024). Riding the Digital Wave: A Paren’ts Guide to Starting the Conversation on Online Safety with their Kids.
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