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TECH TALK: How safe are teens spending time in front of the computer this summer?

 
I've heard it said that raising teenagers is like trying to nail Jello to a tree. It's only fair to my adolescent readers to point out that, from their perspective, dealing with parents is often a very similar experience. So, what does this have to do with technology? Well, McAfee just released a report in which they looked at the computer use of 1,357 10- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. While I don't recommend McAfee anti-virus or any of their other products, I definitely recommend giving their report a quick read here.


 
Among their findings:

 
* Almost 80 per cent use the web to do research for school assignments;
* While 91 per cent of kids say that their parents trust them to "do what's right online", 56 per cent of them say that their parents don't know everything they do on the 'Net.;
* Almost a third (31 per cent) say they would change what they were doing if their parents were watching;
* By 16-17 years old, 56 per cent of kids hide what they do online;
* The most common techniques for hiding online activity include minimizing browser windows when parents come near, hiding and deleting text messages and clearing browser history;
* About 1/3 say that they "often" or "always" hide what they're doing online;
* 25 per cent say they wouldn't know how to deal with being bullied or harassed online;
* The stat that I find the scariest is the number of kids who say they've given their cell number out to someone they only know from online. It's up from eight per cent to 12 per cent.

 

 
I think the internet is a useful, powerful tool. But, like any tool, there are hazards associated with it. Would you let your kids operate a chainsaw without any training or supervision? Of course not.

 
So what can you do? Speaking as a former Social Worker, with 17 years in the profession, I believe the most important thing is to talk with your kids. Take an interest in what they're doing online. If it's homework, games or something else benign, then you have a great chance to connect with your teens. And, if they're involved in anything more sinister, it gives you a great chance to derail it.

 
I'd also recommend talking with them about some of the hazards and strategies for avoiding them. Kids (and adults) need to assume that anything they say or post (eg. comments, pictures, video, etc.) anywhere on the internet, including Facebook, in email or on a cell phone, is public information. "How would you feel about Grandma or a future employer seeing this picture?"

 
Talk about limits around meeting online friends. Can they meet someone if you come with them? What about if it's a public setting? What about phoning cyber-friends? Instant Messaging them?

 
There are also technological solutions. One my wife and I have always stood by is all our computers are in open, public areas of the house. Whatever anyone is doing online is visible from the family room, the kitchen or the dinner table. And, yes, I did say all our computers; the computer to person ratio in my house is just over 2:1. What can I say? I'm a geek!

 
One of the many useful features Google offers is SafeSearch. You can set it to Off, Moderate or High. It's very helpful for avoiding unintentionally stumbling across adult content.

 
Parental control software is also widely available. Kidswatch (www.kidswatch.com) has an excellent reputation for schedule control and also has some content filtering. If you have a Mac, there are parental controls already built in. Net Nanny has been around forever and is really well reviewed. For younger kids, KidZui is a full browser with all sorts of games. There is a free version or a paid one that unlocks a bunch of extra features.

 
If you are looking for software, be sure to read independent reviews (PCMag, CNET, etc.). There are always plenty of virus writers who are willing to take advantage of an unwary shopper. If you are looking at something and you're not sure about it, feel free to email me the details at donovan@castlegarsource.com. I would be happy to look into it for you.

 
Position your computer(s) so that online activity is readily accessible, consider technological solutions and, above all, talk with your kids.

 
If you're interested in more detail on this, please let me know. If there are only a few questions, I'm happy to answer them individually. If there is enough interest, I'll do more columns on the nuts and bolts of keeping track of browsing history, preventing kids from deleting chat logs, etc.