I’m a technologist. I love technology. Whether it’s automating my ceiling fans or tinkering with my router, I’m into it. Not only have I been to a Star Trek convention, I dressed up as a member of the crew. And so did the family, including my ten-year-old daughter. Yeah, that’s right. We’re a geek family.

My daughter inherited the geek gene early on. When she was four, she started to ask existential questions about the Universe. When she was six, she taught herself origami and balloon animals. Now, she’s learning HTML. I didn’t teach her that. She’s just a curious kid like I was.

I’m also an information security professional, so when she showed me that someone asked her how old she was in a game chat window, it made Daddy proud. You see, we have had these discussions before and she is already aware of the many risks online.

If there is one thing I have learned in my career it’s that technology can only go so far in protecting you, your company or, for that matter, your children. Just as a seatbelt is useless unless you actually take the action to buckle up, the way in which technology is used has far more importance than what is used. Staying safe online requires education, practice, mentoring, diligence, and awareness.

How do you protect your kids online? In the same way that you do in real life: with a combination of tools and lessons to teach right from wrong, and safety from danger.

Let’s start with the threats. We have to know what we’re up against.

  • Bullying. I was picked on when I was a kid. Lots of us were. But I didn’t have to worry about it when I got home. I had a refuge. Today, things have changed. Online bullying has sadly led to several suicides. Social media amplifies the effect and the schools have limited ability to take action outside their walls. In my opinion, this is the number one threat.
  • Inappropriate content. “Hey Mommy, what’s a ____?” It’s one thing when the only damage done is a little embarrassment. It’s quite another when a curious kid has Google at his fingertips. Typos happen. Unscrupulous websites capitalize on innocent search terms. To say that there are things on the Internet kids shouldn’t see is quite the understatement.
  • Child predators. We’re all aware of this one. There’s no adjective I can even think of to effectively describe these people. Suffice is to say, they are out there. They masquerade as kids and know all about social engineering. This is the one that keeps most of us up at night.
  • Computer/online addiction. Although not currently recognized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, it’s clear that too much computer use can have deleterious effects, not unlike those associated with excessive gambling or shopping.
  • Phishing, spam and viruses, oh my! This is a problem for any age, but children may be particularly susceptible due to their trusting nature. It’s good to start educating them early on.

That should cover many of the situations your child may find themselves in. So, what tools and technologies can we put in place to minimize the risks?

Parental control software. Listing all of the options here would be well beyond the scope of this article. Instead, let me give you a few high-level requirements of features to look out for as you search for a solution:

Don’t forget non-traditional computers. Does it support IOS or Android? How about that Xbox? How about the Internet-connected dishwasher? On second thought, better not block that one.

Does it include time-limiting? Whether it’s one block of time that can be used throughout the week, a specific set of time per day, or some combination, this helps to keep obsessions from forming.

Web filtering. An effective solution will handle HTTPS (encrypted), as well as HTTP traffic. An even better one can block parts of web pages, as well as entire domains. Sometimes only a comments section might be troubling (ahem, I’m looking at you, YouTube), but the overall domain is OK.

Social media monitoring. Knowing who your child’s friends are is a concept that pre-dates sliced bread. Online bullying is real and it can be dangerous to mental health.

Alerting and logging. It may seem obvious, but make sure you can actually see the online activities.

Backup, antivirus and patching. While not specific to children, it pays to practice Security 101. Keeping your computer backed up, patched and running a current antivirus solution goes a long way.

Those are the technical solutions, but how do you actually set or change behavior? After all, that’s why we’re here, right? This is about security awareness. This is where effective parenting comes in. And that’s what we’ll cover in Part 2 of Parenting a Geek!

Michael Starks

Michael Starks is an information security professional with more than fifteen years of experience in the industry. He is an Information Systems Security Association Fellow and President of the Fort Worth Chapter. He also serves on the International Ethics Committee and has written several articles on ethics and privacy for ISSA Journal. When not writing, speaking, tweeting or otherwise geeking out, Michael enjoys semi-futile attempts at gardening, B movies and really bad jokes.

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