Would you trust your children to the babysitter from hell? The issues of online safety

One of the current drivers for censoring the Internet is the need to not only protect children from predators but also from confusing “healthy affection” with “physical abuse”, as a result of being exposed to “adult” content before they are ready to understand the difference. I pick my words carefully so that your all-in-one protection software does not block you from reading this.

A couple of weeks ago I hosted a small workshop on how to help those discussing Internet Safety to distinguish myth from reality: from how the Internet works in practice (as opposed to theory) and the current state of tools for censorship, (including tracking and tracing communications over peer-to-peer networks), to how children get round the controls we put in place to prevent them from exploring the world.

The aim was to select and refine material for presentation to key audiences: not just politicians but the main board directors of major users who have no wish to have their corporate networks misused. Some of the latter have already realised that helping educate their staff on how to protect their children is also a great way of getting them to understand the importance of their corporate information security policies. One of the actions that we agreed was therefore to help promote the Childnet “lunch and learn” programme.

I have since been interested to note that one of the sharpest “hawks” (on the need to make better use of filtering technologies) is also a strong critic of expectations that parents can install these and then leave their children to browse safely on-line use: with the Internet replacing the TV as babysitter. If I interpret his views correctly, those parents who no longer read their children a book at bed time should be helping them to go on-line, exploring the Internet with them and talking through what they find – in a mutual education and bonding exercise.

It is helpful to remember how our ancestors taught their offspring how to handle a dangerous world of predators. The original edition of Grimms Fairy Tales was regarded as unfit for children. The brothers had collected the stories used by parents across Eastern Europe to get their infants to understand, for example, that the woods are not safe (Hansel and Gretel also left a trail of where they were going , the meaning of fear and of courage, the dangers of bypassing controls to protect you (Rapunzel got pregnant in the orignal version) and so on.

The Internet Fairy Tales (see also more Internet Fairy Tales) are simple college humour but we do need similar material (with cyberspace replacing the forest) for parents to talk through with their children, perhaps even material as gruesome and thought provoking as the first edition of Grimms Fairy Tales. In the meantime I commend the relevant Childnet material . It has the advantage that it is very much less likely to give nightmares to your sons and daughters.