Many parents do not know that controls on children's browsing can be activated, experts say

R. Guna is all set to leave for home from office, when her eight-year-old son calls asking her to unblock the internet, as he has to start his project on ‘Medicines.' “It takes just a minute, and I can help him continue when I reach home, for I get minute-by minute details of what he would look into,” says the mother. Ms. Guna uses net nanny, a parental control software that sends mobile alerts on internet usage; one might term this as being cautious, protective or intrusive but parents like her seem to still be a minority in the city.

In a research survey titled ‘How safe are Indian kids online?' conducted by McAfee recently across 10 reputable schools in 10 cities including Chennai, it was observed that 77 per cent of parents in the city were reportedly unaware of security software that can monitor kids' online activities. Incidentally, the study revealed that the number of children with e-mail accounts in Chennai is next only to that in Delhi which tops the list. While 68 per cent of these children said they shared personal information online, only about 6 per cent of these children were reportedly aware of cyber stalking and cyber bullying threats.

The internet security market is now filled with applications that claim to facilitate parental controls and suggestive internet usage, but parents are yet to be aware about them, say experts.

Though many anti-virus packages have parental control applications, many parents do not know that they can be activated, says Martin Selvaraj, information security consultant. “Most of them just send alerts to parents that can be bypassed. The professionally dedicated ones have categories such as gambling, alcohol, abuse among many others that can be chosen to be blocked,” says Srinivas Maharaj of PC Chimp that distributes net nanny. “Such applications not only help in making the internet safe for children, but also help check malware threats and stop irrelevant pop-ups,” he adds.

“Most search engines filter only websites, not images. Often, users are directed to unwanted content under Disney and Hannah Montana labels. Family protection applications work, but you can take care of that only in your house hold,” says S. Raghavan, a software engineer and a parent. It is necessary, however, not to send a message of mistrust or suspicion to the children. “It is care and caution, not control that we need to exert,” he adds.

“These filters are controlled through the administrative account, so parents must operate it while the child can be another user's. In a household with a common account for all users, the controls can be easily manipulated,” says Mr Martin.

But while it is necessary to be cautious, it is also important that the children are acquainted with the productive use of the internet, and are not overwhelmed with the fear of it, says M. Sivasubramanian, president, Internet Society Chennai.

Vidya Reddy of Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, asserts that the responsibility of the parents does not end with just installing the filters, for they need to provide “a non-judgmental space for children to come and speak to them.”“What we need here is a larger safety culture that involves schools encouraging safe internet activity. Also what parents need to do is orient the children to the potential risks online, without curbing their freedom to grow and explore.”

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012