Helping parents keep their kids safe online

The Media Development Authority recently called for a public consultation on Internet parental control tools, seeking the view of the public about the provision of these tools by Internet Access Service Providers (IASPs).

The Media Literacy Council believes strongly that access to such tools should be a priority, and that they should be made available by all IASPs in the "default-on" mode.

The Internet provides vast opportunities for people from all backgrounds and ages by enabling them to access useful information. It also brings people together through various forms of communication. Children today take to the Internet easily, whether it is to look up information for schoolwork, play games or listen to (yet another rendition of) their favourite song.

Yet there are also corners of the Internet that are inappropriate for young minds. In a borderless digital world it is difficult to supervise where children go, who they talk to, or what they may stumble across.

Parental control tools are one way this can be done. They include Internet filters that protect children from undesirable online content such as adult or violent content. It is important that busy parents be equipped to know how they can monitor their children's usage and keep them safe in the digital playground.

In Britain, it is compulsory for the four main IASPs to provide and activate Internet filters upon Internet subscription or renewal, with an option for users to turn them off if they wish. According to Prime Minister David Cameron, there is a need to create an online environment where "children are safe, where there's a sense of right and wrong and proper boundaries between them, where children are allowed to be children".

In Asia, IASPs in Japan have been required since 2008 to filter by default Internet content harmful to the young, except where a parent has requested otherwise. Manufacturers of equipment with functions to access the Internet are also required to pre-install software to filter harmful content.

The Media Literacy Council believes that the "opt-out" option is the most suitable in protecting children. This option, currently adopted by Britain and Japan, requires Internet parental control tools to be switched on by default.

With a "default-on" approach, we are raising the level of protection for our young ones and providing additional help to parents who do not possess the technical know-how. The Wi-Fi networks in schools are already filtered. It therefore makes sense for a similar level of protection to be provided for children when they go home after school.

The Government may wish to study the feasibility of such an approach being extended to public Wi-Fi networks, given that children are also accessing the Internet in public places via their mobile devices.

Of course, filters are just one of the tools available to help parents keep their children safe and secure online, and should not be considered as a cure-all. I am confident that as take-up increases and technology advances, parents will have access to more and better tools.

Already today, parental control tools such as Internet filters don't just block out undesirable websites. They also have other handy features for busy parents with children who surf the Internet unsupervised. For instance, parents can use these tools to keep track of and monitor their children's online activities. If there is more than one child in a family, parents can create different accounts and customise the types of content that each child can access. When a child attempts to access inappropriate websites, parents will be notified.

Parents can also schedule time windows during which children are granted access to the Internet, thus limiting the time that they spend online. Furthermore, some parental control tools also allow a child's conversations on social networks to be recorded, thereby alerting them should the risks of cyber bullying and chatting with predators arise. Some platforms such as YouTube also provide their own parental control tools to help parents manage their children's online experience.

More importantly, the council feels that the best way to protect our children is to build trust and a healthy relationship with them, and provide them with a positive home environment. For younger children, some degree of supervision is also important.

Even with parental control tools turned on, parents still need to engage in some old-fashioned parenting. This includes having frequent conversations with their children, and being good role models in the use of their devices and online communication. We also need to take advantage of teachable moments when they ask questions or do something wrong.

Most importantly, we need to inculcate good values and a critical mindset. These are habits and skills that will equip our children to navigate through life, online or offline. Parental control tools are just one component in our efforts to create a safer Internet for our children.

The writer is chairman of Media Literacy Council.

This article was published on MONTH DAY in The Straits Times.

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