How to create a safe browsing environment for children

There is no technology yet which can be compared to or replace parental advice and supervision. Nevertheless, protecting the children while using the computer using software is also very important. There can be two parts identified where the protection should take place: locally and online.

Local Security

There is no online protection when the local computer is infected with malware. Thus the first thing you must do is to install an antivirus product on your computer. Second, keep your operating system always up to date using automatic updates.

Also part of the local security layer is the creation of a special user account on the computer, one for each child using it. This way, even if any damage is done, the impact is limited on that account.

Please try not to give your children administrative accounts, because this way you make sure they can do anything you can with that computer.

Online security

It is important to specify that there is no de facto standard about how to ensure browsing security. Each browser producer has different settings and features (IE8 uses ICRA3, for example. Usually, diversity is good in the software industry, but this time, I don’t know if this is so good.)

For explaining the details of how to configure these settings, I am going to use two of the most popular browsers around: Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox.

Internet Explorer 8

Using Internet Explorer 8, parents can specify to which extent the children may get exposed to websites containing alcohol, drugs, guns, nudity and sexual material, gambling, violence, bad language content and so on. To do this, you have to go to Tools -> Content -> Content Advisor and click on Enable.

You can set a level for each of these settings. Default is “None”. IE8 also has false positives and blocks perfectly suitable web sites; that’s why Microsoft thought that a whitelist would be a good idea.

Unfortunately, blacklisting a website is not possible, but one can configure the browser to block access to any website which doesn’t have a rating. There is no way to report a wrongly categorized website to Microsoft.

There is one more thing which, in my opinion, is at least as dangerous as the content of the websites: these are the Security and Privacy settings of the browser. Under the tab Security, the default of the browser is Medium-High, which for most of the adults is a good compromise between usability and security. For children, I find this a little problematic because the browser asks for permission for several things. I recommend to set the level to High for children. The same applies to the Privacy settings, which controls browser cookies that potentially can collect information that would make possible to identify the user.

Firefox

Using Firefox, there is not built-in control for website content except for websites that contain malware and phishing. However, due to its extendable architecture, it is possible to install third party add-ons which can, at least theoretically, provide the same functions as those of Internet Explorer 8.

Mozilla recommends the “ProCon” Extension for parental controls, which is a simple, but effective keyword and URL filter. It can block certain websites only, but it also can block all traffic except for those websites whitelisted.

Once enabled, you see a small green shield on the right-bottom corner of the Firefox window. When a website is blocked, it displays a line of text on the top of the windows, explaining the reason for which it was blocked.

Regardless of which browser your children are using, it is important to monitor them regularly. Check the “Browsing History”, a feature which any browser has now. Make sure that the kids don’t use “Private browsing” which doesn’t record the browsing history, or that they erase the history. As soon as you notice any strange sites, talk to your children and explain them why isn’t recommended to visit that site in the future.

Use 3rd party security software to control access to the Internet, like Avira Premium Security Suite, which can filter the websites visited for any web browser used and additonally lets you control how much time the children are allowed to spend online, simplifying these tasks greatly.

Privacy and Education

We are experiencing an explosion of the usage of social media websites like Twitter, Facebook, Hi5, and so on. Children, and unfortunately also some adults, don’t realize that they can expose everything they do and say to the entire world, when they only intend to communicate with their friends. There are many articles on the web that explain how to set the security settings for these websites. Please do read them, make your kids understand them and then apply those settings to your children’s accounts.

Understanding the risks of Internet usage is the best method to prevent any problems, because you can be sure that, sooner or later, the children will find a method to overcome that protection, no matter where or how it is installed.

Sorin Mustaca
Data Security Expert