Parental controls: protecting kids and mobile devices

Yesterday, at the Internet Governance Forum, MP Alun Cairns chaired a fascinating discussion on how best to protect our children online.

The discussion focussed largely on how best to prevent children being exposed to inappropriate sexual imagery. Other forms of inappropriate imagery such as violence were not discussed and there was also hardly any discussion of what I feel is a larger problem – sexual grooming online. But despite that it was an excellent session.

The UK Government’s proposals to implement “family friendly filtering” as the default option in UK households was central to the discussion. This is obviously controversial and as Javier Ruiz from the Open Rights Group pointed out this approach could result in giving parents a false sense of security as well as being wrong from a freedom perspective. In addition he pointed out that families who “opted in to porn” might end upon a database that could leave them open to blackmail.

And yet. As the father of two teenage boys I am certainly worried about how best to manage my children’s access to online content. The Government’s Family Friendly Filtering might well make life easier (or less worrying) for me. Or would it…

At present I use the Family Safety features of Windows on my home computer backed up by further protection from my Bullguard online security package. It is pretty crude in that suitable sites are frequently disallowed. And it is difficult to “tweak” the settings so that for instance my wife can buy everything she wants to from e-commerce websites (why would a webpage selling school shirts be blocked?)

But while it is crude, it is (I think) effective, especially as the children are not yet particularly tech savvy.

The difficulty comes with the explosion of devices in the home. At present I have three computers that are used regularly all of which are protected by Bullguard and Microsoft.
But we also have several smart phones and Kindle Fire tablets in the house.

The Government’s proposals for default filtering would protect the family when they were at home as it would filter sites accessed via the home wi-fi. But when using mobile devices outside the home they will remain unprotected. The devices don’t run Windows so I can’t protect them via Microsoft settings. There is protection of a kind on the Kindles – you can switch off web access. But that is an all-or-none solution and not at all appropriate.

So what is the solution?

Well, obviously parents have a part to play. Education is important (for parents and children). And so is proactivity – such as purchasing/downloading and implementing security software for mobile devices (yes, I need to do that).

But I do think industry has to play a stronger part as well. And this will involve two main approaches.

First, there must be a better understanding of the experience ordinary users get when setting up family protection. Parental Control systems need to be made more flexible so that it is far easier to set them up and far easier to modify them (so that for instance we can buy school shirts!) If Parental Control systems (and I include here the UK Governments Family Friendly Filtering) are crude and hard to personalise they will eventually simply be switched off by a lot of people. At the moment I would score the Parental Control systems I use at about 4 out of 10: there is a long way to go to make them really usable.

And second, mobile device manufacturers must implement better Parental Control within devices that are not running Windows so that these devices as well are better protected. These should be easily accessible via systems settings rather than depending on people to download apps.

Relying on the UK Government’s Family Friendly Filtering proposal will I feel give people a false sense of security and allow a lot of children to have unfiltered access to inappropriate content outside the home. And that is something that needs addressing.

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