Whose (on)line is it anyway?


As a responsible parent, I’ve always held the opinion that it is my duty to protect my children on-line. Of course, I can only do this to an extent, and until they are of a certain age, and given my kids are now young adults, that responsibility has all but left me, however I now find the prospect of Grandchildren being on-line in years to come a little daunting!.

I’m nevertheless fully aware that my forte was IT and indeed not everyone is able to turn their hands to technology so what was a simple enough task for me could be a daunting task for others. It leads me then to a little thinking out aloud about what is happening on-line today and who should be responsible for ensuring our children are not exposed to the grotesque videos and images we all know about and protected from the vile hate speech and targeted bullying that ruins lives, if indeed it’s possible to protect them at all.

facebook-fasting11I’ve written about this subject in the past and met with a lot of resistance and differences of opinions, which is great because that’s what free speech is all about, but I’ve also noticed that since the Facebook explosion things have changed slightly, many kids now seem to think it’s acceptable that videos showing all forms of grotesque acts are easily available on these social network sites, and even Facebook defends “their right” to show these videos, even labeling them as “educational” and “representing real life”. Don’t know about you guys but I can’t remember the last time I saw a beheading on the way to my local shops or some poor soul being burned alive.

It’s easy to understand the motivation behind sites like Facebook, money, pure and simple, but whose responsibility is it to ensure that our children, grandchildren or even us adults, don’t have to worry about seeing such horrific real life scenes of destruction which could, let’s face it, impact children negatively if they are exposed to a network of such imagery for any length of time.

I believe there are 3 key players in the safety of children online:


1. The parents/guardians
2. The governments
3. The ISPs.

Tackling the problem begins with governments and authorities, empowering parents and guardians with the necessary tools to protect themselves, and children, whilst on-line. Educating children at an early age could also be an advantage as it’s only natural that children want to know about the devices we use daily, and will no doubt use them soon enough. My one year old grandson will fall over himself to watch “The Animal Song” on my phone via YouTube and he does this by pointing to my phone and saying “woof woof”. At the ripe old age of only one, he is developing an interest in smartphones and on-line content, albeit he doesn’t understand it but he doesn’t have to, not yet anyway. If he tries to take the phone from me I simply tell him “no no” and so he is used to the idea that I am the deciding factor in his on-line activity, something which I hope will continue with his mum and dad in years to come.

Filters – who, when, and how?

The government’s involvement should remain responsive but not controlling. I would not be in favour of governments stepping in to “control” the internet but instead would like to see them put more pressure on ISPs to help their users put internet filters in place at the ISP level, not router level. The thing with routers is a lot of parents I have dealt with in the past don’t understand them and those who are not technically capable simply shy away from even trying to configure them. I’ve even known some parents who let the kids configure the router!.

A clean internet is a reality beyond our realm!

A clean internet is a reality beyond our realm!

Alternatively, ISPs here in the UK are beginning to offer internet filtering through the on-line account in which the bill payer accesses to pay the bill anyway, a web panel if you like, with a much more user friendly system. A handful of service providers have even enabled porn filtering and other child unfriendly sites by default meaning if any adult within the home wants to view this type of material, they need to opt out of the filter. Additionally, when the ISP is responsible for maintaining and updating its filtering technology, it removes the risk of filters becoming outdated and vulnerable which could happen if parents were responsible for filtering software or as happens regularly, the kids simply uninstall or bypass the filtering software!. Of course, the web filter is only as strong as the password the parents choose in the first place.

Creating such a simple, maintenance free and user friendly method of filtering is a sure fire way to minimise the effort and technical know how required by parents to enable such protection, but until all three responsible parties are singing from the same hymn sheet it’s highly unlikely an effective filter will exist for some time to come, and even when it does, we still have the problem of Facebook and other social media outlets who consider the “up-loader” to be the responsible one and accept most content as “fair game”. The problem with social networking and video sharing sites is you can’t filter content within the sites themselves and so, as I experienced in the past when I had a Facebook account, it’s very easy for a friend of a friend, etc to share a video of something really quite inappropriate and before you know it, it’s on your timeline for all YOUR friends to see!. Easy answer is to stop showing content from that user but others could quite easily share silly stuff as well.


My solution to seeing what was happening on Facebook in regards to my kids was to let them know as soon as they had a Facebook account they would add me as a friend. When they refused to accept my friend request or “de-friended” me, I refused to allow them to use the internet I was paying for. Needless to say, they quickly relented, and became used to the idea that what they couldn’t say in front of me or their mother shouldn’t likely be on Facebook either. There is a fine line, of course, when it comes to respecting the privacy of your children and just as I wouldn’t consider it acceptable to be in the company of my children and their friends 24/7, I have to agree that it is likely unrealistic of me to expect I can see everything they do on-line, and even if I do see something I don’t necessarily agree with, sometimes you have to let it go and adopt the attitude that as long as it’s not hurting anyone, fair enough.  I no longer have a personal Facebook account, but my wife does, and although the kids are grown up now I can sometimes see the one finger shuffle from behind her laptop determined to give one of the kids a ticking off about something they’ve posted or shared, nothing highly inappropriate or anything, just likely a warped sense of humour (bit like their father, ahem!)

Anonymity Fuels Contempt

anonymityAt the end of the day, filtering is only a part of eradicating the problem, people’s behaviour on-line seems to be a growing problem, especially given the anonymity available to most when posting and it’s up to everyone to ensure the on-line community is given the same respect it deserves as our real life communities – for me, if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, you shouldn’t consider it appropriate to say on-line.  Here in the UK, we are starting to see people being cautioned, or even imprisoned because of highly offensive or inappropriate comments left on social media.

So what do we do then if we know there are children using the internet at home but the parent or guardian chooses not to enable an appropriate filter?. Do we give someone the powers to enable it forcefully or do we potentially continue to allow children at that address to access unsuitable material?. I know that example may seem a little interfering, but let’s take another example. Someone tells you they know a household that has a room full of pornographic and grotesque material and that the children living there can access it whenever they feel like it, and the adults in that home know about it and are perfectly fine about it. Would you consider that acceptable?. Would you consider that the same thing as being able to access it on-line?.  Is it anything to do with us?.

It appears that even with the best intentions in the world, we may still be at a complete loss in monitoring or restricting what our kids are exposed to on-line, where there is a will, there is usually a way. And whilst most of us can understand viewing certain material on-line is likely part of growing up these days, it’s the age at which they are able to access it that is primarily the concern, plus some of the content can undoubtedly be inappropriate at any age.

So, I suppose my ramblings lead me to the same question that I started with, who is responsible for ensuring our children don’t access inappropriate material on-line, and if those people or that person fails to protect a child from such inappropriate material, what can be done about it? Do we have the right to force protection onto such children, or should we just simply mind our own business and accept that sometimes, just sometimes, s**t happens!? As my good friend Jimbo once said in a previous post, “you just can’t legislate for idiots“.

Should be an interesting discussion …

 

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About the Author

Mark Williamson

Since the early days of computing, using tape machines to load software, right up to the very latest in computing and network infrastructures, I have been fortunate enough to experience both personal and business computing and the various technologies between the two. Having been involved in the IT industry for nearly 20 years I've enjoyed witnessing and embracing a great amount of technological progress, yet still wonder sometimes if we are indeed on the right track! I'm very much a family man from Bonnie Scotland and took very early retirement to look after my disabled wife. We enjoy nothing better than spending what free time we have with our beautiful grandchildren. I look forward to helping out and contributing wherever possible here on the site.

16 Comments

  1. Great read Marko! Salient points well put.

    Our Australian government, in true over-the-top fashion, tried to introduce a compulsory universal filter with zero opt out. Thankfully, the bill was defeated by sheer weight of public outcry – hopefully, never to raise its ugly head again.

    I really like the idea of the opt-out filter, it protects the innocents and sensitives while still providing full access for those who choose.

    • Thanks Jimbo, compulsary or blanket bans never work because that mentality is one cap fits all. Its not about removing material from everyone’s reach, its purely about doing our best to safeguard young eyes and minds. I know its likely to be an impossible task, and I for one don’t have the answer for everyone, but I do know that more needs to be done to protect children online, maybe a voluntary education program for kids, parents and grandparents once a week at school or something?! Anything is better than nothing surely 🙂

  2. Hell Mark. Not having kids, I don’t have these worries. As for your 3 points,
    “1. The parents/guardians
    2. The governments
    3. The ISPs.”
    I can only agree with the first. I know children out there who have Facebook and other accounts and are under 13 years of age. How does anyone really police children’s age? Asking the government or ISPs to police, is more paper work than reality, (imho). Children will explore, we did that, so it’s only normal and rightly so. Teaching and communication in both schools and at home is the solution (imho), Mindblower!

  3. Howdi MB .. it’s a difficult one, if not near impossible one to tackle. Thing is, if there is ever going to be anything done about it, it needs all three groups on board – the parents to be responsible for their kids, the ISP’s to be responsible for providing the parents with the tools at a functional level, and the government to make sure they are able to put pressure on both the ISP to provide said tools proficiently. The intention is to put together a system that makes it almost foolproof for parents and turning on the filters and restricting the content by default is one way to protect a lot of kids all in one go. If the adults of the house then decide they want to watch material which is blocked, they simply log into their respective ISP account and disable the relevant category or the ISP allows them to set up a browser password which allows them through the filter for their current browsing session, basically something that would work for everyone and something which would take minimum technical know how.

    I understand trying to mess around with content filtering on the net is always a hot potato but we need to remember that someone has to be responsible for the kids who are failed by their parents, although for a lot of kids they have the right kind of parents who will deal with the issue of content filtering adequately and sensibly, but my concern is those kids who have parents that either don’t know what they are doing, turn off the filters or those who simply don’t care.

    There is no sure fire way to deal with the matter of children viewing inappropriate content but as more kids lock themselves in their bedrooms and surround themselves with material that wasn’t available when you or I were children (our curiosity was likely more to be along the lines of how many of us can swing off this rope before it snaps – hence the many broken bits and pieces, or where did dad hide that dirty book!), we just don’t know what long term effects this will have on children today. And I’m not just simply talking about the typical teen and the odd porn site, I’m talking about young children who may stumble across this stuff or kids of any age stumbling across horrific things.

    Simply saying the governments or ISP’s have no place or right in this matter is almost nearly where I am on the matter, but we can’t just keep saying it’s none of our business or shouldn’t be anything to do with the government because this doesn’t take us any closer to tackling the problem, we are simply dismissing idea’s then, not generating them.

    I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the solution is either, but I wouldn’t consider it unreasonable for the governments to start legislating about the matter soon because it really is becoming that big a problem and parents are really allowing their kids on the net, unmonitored, at ridiculous ages these days so it’s only a matter of time that the governments criminalise parents for failing to adequately put in place filters protecting kids at home or on their phones, and if they are well warned in advance about the matter and given every opportunity to put such filters in place but still fail to do so, would we have any sympathy with such parents?. I realise there would likely be holes in such a plan too, but with a little creativity and co-operation between ISP’s, governments and parents, the internet doesn’t have to be something most of us parents fear for our kids or grandkids.

    Facebook on the other hand …. well !!

    • Those apps do look as though they are on the right track, especially locking the phone so they can only phone the parents, and its hoped that by blocking out the nasty stuff, being able to monitor what they are doing on social networking and everyone aware that mum and dad can be watching that any bullying or nasty contact to or from the child in question is picked up and dealt with before things get out of hand.

      I remember when MSN chat was quite big, I kept chat logs but told the kids I wouldn’t look at them unless I had reason to. One day the school sent a letter home about my daughter bullying another girl via MSN and the girls father was a policeman so the school asked us to attend a meeting with said parents to discuss the matter as the allegations were serious and bullying wouldn’t be tolerated.

      Long story short, chat logs were printed and taken with me and after the other parents had told us how upset and distressed their daughter was about the whole ordeal I asked if they had ever bothered to keep chat logs of their daughters conversations to which, surprisingly, they didn’t. When I produced a print of the conversation between the two girls, it was clear the instigator was their daughter and that she was, for want of a better word, spoiling for a fight but couldn’t get the better of my daughter so made up a whole load of nonsense. Just shows how when some people think monitoring is only to prove someone is doing wrong or is to prevent someone from doing something wrong, it can actually work in favour of those innocent people even more so.

      And yes, I did give both the parents of the girl and the headteacher a little piece of my mind lol !!

      • Thanks for sharing, Mark. I, personally, believe that responsibilities such as this lie directly with parents and your story is a perfect example of responsible parenting. It also shows that “supervision” (i.e., logging) is a sword that can cut both ways and be helpful to the user or child.

        • Totally agree with what you said David. You look younger than Mark, so I’m sure his parents had other problems to deal with, like availability of pornography and drugs. The internet has made these more easily available, yet it’s still parents and teachers which have the most influence over kids.
          Having laws only to see them poorly enforced, due to too many laws, is frightening, Mindblower!

        • I agree that the responsibility SHOULD lie primarily with the parents, and that’s all well and good in theory, but the fact of the matter is there are plenty of irresponsible parents who don’t supervise their children properly or teach them right from wrong – and believe me, I know that from first hand experience.

          How do we protect the children who are being failed by their parents? That’s the question.

          Don’t get me started on modern day parenting and schooling practices which, thanks to the do-gooders and civil libertarians, are largely devoid of any effective discipline. It’s a pet peeve of mine and you may never hear the end of it. 🙂

  4. Jim, many might fall into that category. Parenting is a learning product and very few hit the mark. Just as there are parents who don’t teach and protect, there are over-protective parents who hinder the growth of children. A vicious circle (so to speak). Each generation is subjected to different obstacles, and only years down can tomorrows children decide how well they were raised. You might say there is a force that helps us, when others fail, Mindblower!

    • I’m still not really getting your angle MB? .. I completely understand the over legislating because that is exactly what happens with little recourse, the current social work setup in the UK is grossly overstretched and grossly underfunded which is one example of how laws meant to protect vulnerable people are often useless.

      We also have no end of political correctness across the world which does nothing to protect children or victims and normally only serves to complicate matters or just frustrate issues no end.

      Personally, left to me, political correctness would be a thing of the past and laws would be brought in to deal with real issues and they would be enforced rigouressly, I know I’d take a reasonable hike in tax output if the governments of our countries started growing a set and deal with the no users, abusers, do gooders and law breakers. There is no such thing as a perfect world, but with the average joe calling the shots instead of corrupt politicians, we would likely see an end to pointless laws or bills passed around for back handers.

      Children should be protected at every stage of their lives, unfortunately the generations coming through at the moment are witness to an age where technology puts them on front of all kinds of bad things, and because of that we, as a responsible society need to react to that, its absolutely no use saying we had our own issues when we were younger, although we did they weren’t that we were potentially being exposed to hardcore pornography or other potentially damaging material, of course some kids were exposed to problems of their generation but that was up to the generation before us to fight for the vulnerable and exposed.

      At the end of the day, some people don’t care, they drag their kids up or take very little interest in their activities, and as you say, some people go over the top and create an unrealistic world for their kids, striking a balance is what we should all aim for but most at risk as far as I’m concerned right now are those children being left to their own devices on the internet and thus left wide open to all manner of grooming, indescent material and god knows what consequences. If someone isn’t prepared to be responsible today, who pays the price tomorrow?.

  5. Have you ever tried K9 Web Protection? It is free for personal use and highly configurable. We have been using it for over a year and it works great!

    • “K9” is a great bit of gear Steve but, unfortunately, it’s entirely reliant on the parents installing it in the first place. Responsible parents such as yourself will likely install K9 or something similar but that still leaves children of irresponsible parents vulnerable.

      That’s why I believe a universal filter imposed by ISPs, including password protection and opt-out, would be beneficial.

  6. For me parents need to take a bigger role when it comes to protecting their children. There’s already been issues with the joint government and isp’s filter program with the wrong things being blocked and the right things not being blocked. New sites and new ways to get around things crop up daily. I remember when I was at school, we’d keep finding ways to get online messenger programs using multiple proxies. The school would block one but we’d find another.

    The problem I have is it seems a lot of parents want the government and isp’s to do all the work and parents are relying on them too much. If a filter doesn’t work as one site isn’t blocked they will blame anyone else but themselves.

    I suppose the problem is a lot of parents are in the position with their children knowing more about technology than them. Maybe as well as educating children the government and schools should be investing in educating the parents. There’s nothing wrong with using an ISP filter but parents need to understand it won’t be perfect so they can also monitor their children aswell

    • I think I’d still be happy with the wrong thing blocked temporarily than the wrong thing not blocked at all but you are right Peter, there have been issues with filtering but if we start somewhere I’m sure we can work on it and improve whatever is put in place such as ISP filtering over here in the UK, as I say, nothing is foolproof and normally where there is a will, etc.

      Its always going to be a game of cat and mouse but I’m still talking about protecting younger children who may not yet possess the necessary skills or desire to bypass such intervention but the age of the technically apt has fallen significantly over the years so we have to try and stay one step ahead, if and when possible !!

      • A very good topic and sensible suggestions, especially those relating to the parents who don’t use a great deal of discipline on their children.
        Another angle on the problem is the environment, in Queensland where Jim and I live, because the year-round warm weather is conducive to outdoor activities.
        Every school day, school-children in uniforms can be seen in groups in one of the many small parks with seats and tables, or just sitting on the warm footpath from 7 – 7.30 am before school starts, and after 3 – 3.30 pm.
        It is very difficult to single out one of them who doesn’t have an iPad, iPhone/Android ‘phone, notebook or lap-top in their hands, and it is not hard to cringe at some of the language used between boys and girls when in earshot.
        Irrespective of parental instructions relating to Internet content, they are ‘out of site’ from their parents, although some children are taken to and fro by a working parent, the meeting venue is the drop-off place.