Jacquie Disney looks at what steps can be taken How safe is the safety on offer?
Internet safety has to be of paramount importance to all those with responsibility for children. Too often we hear of children at serious risk of damage or worse, whether that be bullying by email, children arranging to meet strangers first encountered via the Net or having access to unsuitable material. Teachers are an obvious port of call for parents seeking advice and reassurance. However, it's a tricky one to deal with as there is no simple or single answer.
As an extension to our software evaluation scheme for parents, PIN has been testing a wide range of Internet filtering programs to establish just how useful, user-friendly and effective they really are. This type of product is often identified as the only possible answer to the type of protection sought by many parents, which is to block things out, create a screen beyond which children cannot go and within which others cannot encroach.
The family experience The experiences of the families helping us to evaluate these products, and the results themselves, clearly demonstrate that there is no single easy solution. The products vary enormously in quality, effectiveness and approach. Ultimately, the decision about what to buy depends on how high a wall parents want to create, the age of their children and their own relationship with them.
Many are Web-based products and downloading them creates the first barrier for many as this is often not quick or straightforward. In the main, once installed, most of the products managed to block access to sexually explicit content but anything other than this (such as violence, racism, religious extremism, nudity) was subject to considerable variation and ranged from very ineffective to the distinctly over-cautious.
There are those that monitor by stealth, giving no hint that every move is tracked, recorded and reported. A teenage boy's nightmare - while quietly exploring the mysteries of the forbidden world, they are blissfully unaware that mum and dad know all about it! The biggest dilemma, I would suggest, is what do mum and dad do about such a reelation? Do they admit their clandestine surveillance? They would need to weigh up whether their intervention will simply send him further underground or straight round to a friend's house whose parents don't take such measures.
Another tack is to use those programs which create a total block - the Factor 30 approach. Here parents have total control over what a child can access on the Internet, achieved by only providing access to sites which parents select from a provided list and through their own research.
In between these two extremes are variations on a theme, all promising safety and peace of mind.
Filtering is no guarantee From our tests it is clear that, if Internet filtering software is an option parents are considering, then they should know that it is not a guarantee of complete safety. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the Internet is something that all children will be using during their lives and we cannot always guarantee supervision or protection every time they use it.
While filtering might give some degree of safeguard, parents and children do need to understand the safety issues related to Internet use and develop strategies for dealing with unwanted access to materials or contact. Parents need to be encouraged and supported to get to grips with all of this - it will never be enough to rely on any form of blocking device as a total solution. Their relationship with their children, where they place the computer in the house and their understanding of the issues will influence the extent to which filtering software is an effective option. Parents are the most important factor in the filtering game.
The Internet filtering software test results are available on the PIN website www.pin.org.ukSee also the DFEE's Superhighways Safety guidance http:safety.ngfl.gov.ukVisit PIN on Stand L44 at BETT 2001 for more informationJacquie Disney has an ICT background as both teacher and teacher trainer. She is the director of PIN (Parents Information Network), an independent service for parents who want to help their children learn using computers and the Internet.Email: Jacquie@pin.org.uk