x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Children must be guided on how to use the internet safely, say IT experts

Tools are available that block little ones from accessing the internet, but is it wise to use them?

DUBAI // Parents who wish to keep their children safe while they browse the internet should not rely solely on computer settings that block access to particular sites, according to a school IT expert.

Parental controls settings on Apple Macs and PCs can be used to restrict access to the internet.

"The danger with blocking sites is that the children will access them anyway on a friend's computer or on mobile devices," said Philip Redhead, director or curriculum development and innovation at the Royal Dubai School.

"If we try to control certain environments without teaching children the deeper elements of responsibility then we're doing them a grave disservice.

"I think the default decision in certain parts of society is to block everything, and we know from history that if you ban anything it just goes underground and becomes more dangerous."

Earlier in the week it was revealed that child-protection officers at the Ministry of Social Affairs had put forward a plan to ban children younger than 18 from internet cafes to protect them from exploitation.

Mr Redhead was speaking after Dubai-based businessman Farès Fayad and two partners launched a Mac-only business called Macvita that advises parents who are worried about keeping their children safe when they are online. They can carry out an audit of Apple machines and networks and configure systems to limit what youngsters can view.

"If you're a parent concerned about the safety of your children when they're browsing or accessing Facebook or whatever, we'll show you how to set up your Mac," said Mr Fayad. "There are parental controls settings on the Mac that come built in but not many people are aware of these, so we help the parents to set these in a way that's convenient and puts their mind at ease.

"For instance, if you want to set the specific timing when your kids can use the computer you can, what specific sites they can access, et cetera, it can all be done within the Mac."

The particular settings would depend on the parents' requirements - for example, violence-related sites or brutal online games could be blocked.

Mr Redhead, whose school uses Apple products extensively in the classroom, said: "There has to be a benefit in giving parents that power, but the parents have to be in control of their own children.

"We make an analogy with the swimming pool. Swimming pools are dangerous, children can drown in them, but we don't keep children away from them - we teach them how to swim. We need to make them independent learners and responsible internet users."

Mr Fayad agreed there were limits to the level of protection technology could offer. "If you want to stop your child from completely accessing Facebook this can be done through the settings on the Mac. But if you want to let your child be on Facebook there isn't much the parent can do to prevent grooming from happening except by providing guidance, that's not a technical thing."

Help for parents is also available from Techserve, part of Al Futtaim group. The general manager, Rajagopal S, said staff could help to set up parental controls on browsers and operating systems like Windows 7.

"A combination of parental controls along with guidance on how to use the internet, and for what, is required to ensure safety of children online," he said. "After all, parental control alone cannot ensure what children access on the internet outside the home."

csimpson@thenational.ae