What Every Parent Should Know About Using Technology
By: James Banks
From the Viewpoint of an Educator
I first encountered the influences technology can have on students several years ago, during my first tenure as a technology director in the Texas public school system. At that time, the Internet was beginning to emerge as a major educational resource that held the promise of removing the four walls of the classroom and opening up a world of learning through such resource rich activities as webquests, search engines, and email.
The inaugural test run of our school's new broadband line was an exciting event; twenty four students sat eagerly in front of their computers ready to go online for the first time.
Before letting the trial class online, I reminded the students that we were watching them, and to avoid doing anything inappropriate. Satisfied that the warning was sufficient, I taught the students how to logon. Soon, all were surfing the net. Our new system was a success! Or so I thought...
Within minutes of going online, and despite my warnings, two students found their way into a chat room and engaged in an inappropriate conversation. I couldn't believe it. Even with adult supervision in the room, these students brazenly ignored the consequences and plunged right into unacceptable activities. I was shocked — the idea of using an Internet filter to limit student access had not yet even occurred to me.
While the benefits of technology are obvious, the dangers often prove to be more subtle. The perversion of a medium that has such great potential for good is undoubtedly one of the great tragedies of our day.
Too often, as parents, we are aware of the potential dangers of using these new tools, but we do not understand enough about them to know how to protect our families. Nor do we know what danger signs to look for. And, children in our homes often possess a greater understanding of technology than we do.
So what do we look for? How do we protect ourselves? How do we as loving parents but novice users fight back against the flood of filth being produced by companies with seemingly endless resources and world-class technological talent?
The Dangers of Pornography
While the Internet has a vast amount of useful information available, it has also become the playground for pornographers and pedophiles. As parents, you need to be aware that is not only available on the Internet, it is deliberately being targeted towards both you and your children.
Recently, a company in Florida that provided pornography on the Internet was the target of a federal investigation which led to the indictment of several company officials. The reason: the company was conducting research to find out what website names were regularly being accessed by children (such as "Nickelodeon") and which misspellings of these website names were common. The company would then buy up the domains for these misspelled website names so that when the children accessed them accidentally, they would be led to pornographic sites. Clearly, those that claim pornography is a "victimless" crime have an agenda, and it is often aimed at children.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Internet Filters
Internet software filters can help protect our families from these predators. Internet filters are designed to block access to or exposure to predefined types of materials that can be found online. Some Internet filters work by using keywords to block access to sites, some block by assigning sites to categories that can then be blocked as groups, and some block based on website names.
Be aware that many users and groups post information out on the Internet explaining how to defeat or disable software filters. Often, those who are addicted to the use of pornography are also adept at disabling these filters. Parents or spouses of those struggling with a pornography addiction may feel safe because of the presence of a software filter without realizing how easy it may be to disable them.
Here are some suggestions regarding the selection and use of software filters that can help you to feel more secure about letting your family access online materials:
- Many filters use anti-tampering features that prevent them from being disabled or prevent users from covering their tracks by altering history or log files.
- Many filters allow you to block access to inappropriate websites not just by site name but by domain. This prevents access to the entire area.
- Filters can be used to block the IP addresses of website domains. This helps to prevent user circumvention as well.
- Almost all filters contain a feature that will allow you to set the days and times that you will allow access to the Internet on your computer. Don't leave access wide open. Take control.
- Be aware that many organizations, including national library groups, view the use of Internet filters as a violation of free speech. Many public school districts follow the same policy. Check with your local school district and library. Ask them what policy they use.1
- No filter is going to be 100% effective at blocking everything. In the end, the best method for filtering Internet content is parental supervision.
Additional Areas of Concern Involving Technology
One area of concern that receives far too little attention is the use of chat rooms. Often, chat rooms are seen as an innocent method for communicating with others without understanding the hidden dangers they contain.
For example, if the name of the chat room suggests something innocent, such as a children's chat room, parents may assume that only other children or other acceptable users are accessing these sites.
But the Internet provides the cover of anonymity for any user. Regardless of how they portray themselves, you ultimately have no way of knowing who it is that your children are talking to. Further, the conversation in chat rooms can quickly turn explicit and pornographic. Blocking access to chat rooms may be the best answer.
Free Online Email Accounts
Another seemingly innocent tool that is available on the Internet is free email. Literally thousands of sites offer users access to free email accounts. This may seem like a wonderful arrangement, but the danger lies in the fact that providers of these accounts make their money from advertising revenues. Since many companies that provide free email accounts have no restrictions on the type of advertising they will accept, users often find themselves bombarded with a variety of inducements that often lead to pornographic sites. The best policy to follow may be to avoid online email accounts altogether, and only subscribe to those email accounts provided by your Internet Service Provider.
One of the fastest growing areas in technology is the use of wireless networks. Many homes now utilize wireless technology because it is a convenient way to provide multiple points of access to the Internet quickly and inexpensively.
However, because they are inexperienced, many users are not aware of the need to properly secure their wireless networks so that they cannot be accessed by hackers or rogue access points.
I recently purchased a laptop computer for my teenage son. The computer included an internal wireless network interface card. When we turned on the computer for the first time, I was surprised to find that we could access a wireless network that apparently was being broadcast from a neighbor's home. The signal was completely open and accessible to anyone.
If you use a wireless network, follow these simple suggestions:
- If you install a wireless network, use what is called "WEP" (wired equivalent privacy). Basically, set a password on your signal.
- Be sure that you have an Internet filter installed. Regardless of how you gain access to the web, if you have a filter, your ability to surf is limited.
- When not in use, shut off your network. You do not need to broadcast continuously.
Additional Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Family
Finally, here is a simple list of suggestions that you can follow as a parent to properly monitor your family's access to the Internet:
- Be aware that there are sites on the Internet called "portals" that you can access to bypass filtering software.
- If you do use filtering software, checks the usages logs on a daily basis.
- Run a search regularly on your computer for the word "cookies." Cookies are files that are downloaded to your computer that tell you what sites have been visited on your machine.
- Run a search regularly by date to see what files have been created on your computer. Check these files for inappropriate content.
- Even if you take the proper precautions, don't assume that other parents will do the same. Know where your children are and what is available there.
More information is available now than at any other time in history, with just the click of a mouse. As such, technology can be a great benefit for each of us. The key is learning how to use it wisely and effectively.
James Banks is the Executive Director of Technology at Barbers Hill Independent School District, located near Houston, Texas. He has 22 years of experience working with educational technology in both a classroom and administrative setting. If you would like more information regarding this topic, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.