Monday, November 30, 2009

Time controls: Least-utilized Parental Control feature

In your home, how do you control the amount of time that your children spend on the Internet? I have been asking parents this question recently, and although this cannot be considered a scientific poll by any stretch of the imagination, the answers I have received lead me to believe that “time controls” is probably the most under-utilized technological solution available to parents today.

What are Time Controls?

Time controls allow parents to set some boundaries regarding the amount of time children can spend on the Internet, or even on the computer itself. Time controls can be configured in two ways:

1. Set the amount of time per day or per week that a child can use the Internet.
2. Set specific hours during the day (or night) that the Internet can be accessed.

Even though time controls are freely available via Internet filters and even some operating systems, much of the time parents don’t know they have this capability, and the feature is never configured and remains unused.

Why do we need Time Controls?

Many parents in my non-scientific poll replied that they themselves are the time control – they simply watch their children on the computer, and tell them when to turn it off. They do this for all other activities their children participate in - they say - why not treat computer access the same way?

Natural Bounds

Others tell me that they don’t control time on the computer - they allow their children to naturally tire of the activity itself. I call this the “natural bounds” approach. In years past, many children’s activities were controlled by natural bounds: for example, my parents didn’t need to tell me when to stop playing sports. The environment or the activity itself naturally limited our play—whether it was the setting of the sun, the park closing, enough of my friends going home that there were simply not enough of us left to enjoy a game, or, just being too tired to run around anymore. In the end, we would have to wrap up our activities and plan to meet again the next day. It was the natural order of things.

Unfortunately, this approach breaks down when it comes to technology. Digital activities do not have these natural boundaries. Online games generate the adrenaline rush that helps keep us awake; moreover, our bodies don’t get physically tired from typing on the keyboard and moving the mouse. Therefore, we can spend all night in a virtual world and not even notice the time flying by. When friends drop off, we can continue playing with the myriad of other people who remain online, or we can just play against the computer-generated characters by ourselves. Chatting online with friends can continue well into the night, long after the natural bounds of the physical world would have forced us to disband and return to our homes.

Nighttime Computer Access

Another reason to use time controls is to prevent access to the Internet during the middle of the night. Many children who are searching for inappropriate content will do so during the night, when their parents are sleeping and don’t know the computer is being used. In reality, there are very few valid reasons for children to be accessing the Internet in the middle of the night – so why not turn on time controls and ensure the Internet is not accessible during the nighttime hours? Although the Internet is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, there is nothing that says that our children must have access to the Internet at all times.

No arguments

Using time controls also takes care of the argument from the kids that “I just need a few more minutes to finish this level”, “I’m almost done- just a couple more minutes”. When time runs out, the Internet is no longer available from that computer – the kids can’t talk back to the time control software. They learn very quickly that they need to be aware of how much time they have left and they better save their place in the game, or finish their last email/chat, before their time runs out. I can tell you from personal experience that our children have become self-regulating since we instigated time controls in our home.

Where can I find more information about Time Controls?

Remember that no technology is foolproof, and kids today are smart – they can get around technological barriers placed in their path. No technology is an end-all solution - but time controls are still a very powerful parental tool which is often overlooked by many parents today.

Time controls are easy to use, and are freely available either as part of your operating system (if you have Windows Vista or Windows 7), or as part of a commercial Internet filter- even free filters have time controls.

If you are using Windows, look for time controls under Control Panel, Users and Settings and Parental Controls. If you are using a commercial Internet filter, look at your administrative settings for Time Controls.

I would love to hear how time controls has helped you in your home!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Education and Awareness - not fear

How do we keep our children safe while still allowing them to participate in their digital world?

I believe the answer to keeping our children safe lies in education and awareness.

Our children are the technology natives – we are technology immigrants. They know more about technology than we do – and they are less afraid to learn than we are. There is a real danger in this – our children don’t have the background to understand that there are real dangers in the world, and that there are people out there who want to do them harm. It is our job to protect them, and to help them learn to protect themselves.

I see this is as quite similar to handing them the keys to the car. We would never allow them to drive the car without first teaching them the rules of the road, helping them obtain a license and telling them what we expect when they get behind the wheel. The problem is that parents are less aware of technology and its dangers than the children are, and find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to teaching our children the "rules of the road" for technology.

The truth is, however, that we already have the parenting skills to handle this. Technology has not brought any new dangers or sins into the world – just new ways to access them. Keeping pornography away from our children has always been an issue, long before the Internet. Protecting them from child predators has been a concern of parents long before online chat rooms and online gaming was popular – just ask John Walsh. Technology just provides a new avenue for our children to wander more easily into these dangers – and when parents are not aware, it becomes even easier for our children to find themselves exactly where we did not want them to be.

Technology is not to be avoided – it blesses our lives and provides great miracles for us. Personally, I believe that if we shield our children from technology we do them a dis-service – they need to know how to make the best use of technology to thrive in the world today.

So, we have to find the balance between allowing them use of technology, and the enjoyment that comes along with playing online games, socializing with online friends, and making new ones – and responsibly using technology without becoming so enthralled with it that they lose their attraction to the “real world”, or get sucked into dangerous situations.

It is about parenting in this new, digital world. Communication with our children, understanding what they are doing – both online and in the physical world – is the best defense. And, being aware of what technological dangers exist and how we can prevent them is just as important. And that is what this blog, and my book “Cyber Safety: Maintaining Morality in a Digital World”, is all about.