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  • Iain Donnelly

De-toxifying the internet – Mums and Dads searching for the Holy Grail of online safety

I spend an increasing amount of my personal and professional time thinking about, debating and frankly (as a parent) worrying about how, as a technologically advanced society, we can make the internet a less toxic place for our children, our families and for ourselves. The brutal truth is that it’s really hard and it’s getting harder all the time for reasons that I will describe shortly.

I left the police service last year after 30 years, and I now work as an independent advisor to technology companies developing public safety solutions. Some of these technical capabilities are about crime investigation and intelligence gathering, but others are about using technology to safeguard children and vulnerable people. I’m pretty tech-savvy as a user of technology and I understand a lot about how different capabilities work, however, even with all of that knowledge, I really struggle to keep my own kids safe on the internet. I can therefore completely understand why most parents just give up and resort to hand-wringing, sleepless nights or more likely just bury their heads in the sand and try not to think about it.

The statistics are truly alarming. In spite of all the new technologies springing up to try and filter content, monitor devices and in spite of the combined efforts of numerous organisations, charities and NGOs to educate children, teachers, parents and governments about internet safety, the problem is getting worse. Much worse.

Consider the following statistics;

· In 2019, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) assessed a record 260,426 reports of webpages suspected to contain child sexual abuse imagery. Of these, 132,676 were confirmed to contain images and videos of child sexual abuse. An increase of 26% on the 105,047 reports actioned in 2018. Much of this material is now generated by children themselves using their mobile phones. It then ends up in the hands of paedophiles by various means.

  • In the UK, the National Crime Agency estimate 80,000 individuals represent a sexual threat to children, and 400 people a month are being arrested for offences related to online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The UK is no better or worse than any other developed nation in the world.

  • 36% of 12 to 17-year olds in the US reported having been frequently cyberbullied and 17% within the previous 30 days. These figures have doubled since 2007.

  • Freedom of Information statistics showed that, between April 2018 to September 2018, police in the UK recorded 5,161 online grooming offences. Instagram was used in 32%, Facebook in 23% and Snapchat in 14% of those instances.

  • A 2020 survey of 14,000 girls aged 15-25 in 22 countries by Plan International showed that one in five girls (19%) have left or significantly reduced use of a social media platform after being harassed, while another one in ten (12%) have changed the way they express themselves

  • 40% of adults in the US report having been the target of some sort of online harassment.

  • A 2018 Google survey of 2000 parents and 1000 teachers showed that Cyberbullying was their No.1 biggest technology concern.

  • The recent Netflix documentary ‘A Social Dilemma’ reported that the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2009 and 2019 suicides of 10 to 14-year-old girls increased by 151% and suicides of girls between 15to 19-year-old girls increased by 70%. The rate of teenage self-harm in those age groups during that period increased by 189% and 62% respectively. There is a strong correlation between these statistics and the possession of mobile phones by girls in those age groups.

(Screenshots taken from 'The Social Dilemma' Netflix 2019)

My own professional experience fully backs these statistics up, having personally dealt with suicides of quite young children who were being bullied and many hundreds of cases of online sexual grooming when I was running a child abuse investigation team.

It’s truly depressing and shocking isn’t it? So, let me explain just how frustrating it has been for me to try and protect my own children in spite of being tech-savvy and understanding the risks better than most.

I have a second family and my youngest kids are now 7 and 8 years old. So, realistically they are both still very sweet and innocent, but my wife and I were starting to hear the occasional comment coming back from school that made me think ‘Mmmm….probably time to start locking down the internet a bit’. The last time I had to do that was when my two older kids (now in their mid-20s) were much younger, but of course that was at a completely different time, when household technology was a lot less omnipresent than it is today. In those days there were only two computers in the house, both desktops used by everyone. So, it was dead simple to install some protection software that blocks inappropriate content and monitors usage to ensure that they aren’t doing anything that puts them at unnecessary risk. They didn’t have mobile phones and the iPad was still only a twinkle in Steve Jobs eye.

Now it’s a very different story, and in our house we have three laptops, three iPads, one gaming console, three Smart TVs and two Fire tablets. There are also my wife and my iPhones, but we don’t let the kids mess about with them because they are used for work.

So…where does the average parent start? This question assumes that;

a) they actually care about the safety of their kids and

b) they decide to do something proactive to manage the risks

The answer to this question is that it’s very tricky and it also requires money to be spent on a third-party solution and a reasonable level of technical expertise to get it all working properly. Here is what I experienced.

Broadband protection software and browser filters

In an ideal world the home and mobile broadband suppliers would have parental control software that 100% worked 100% of the time, but the reality is that it’s a bit of a blunt instrument that tends to filter content that may not be appropriate for a child but is fine for an adult. This means that you would need a different configuration for every person in the household and that isn’t practical. Also, whilst these solutions may prevent a user from connecting with a specific adult website for example, a more generic search will bring up all sorts of nastiness via the ‘Images’ tab on a typical browser.

I know that you can enable ‘safe search’ capabilities on different browsers, but there are so many different browsers available that this becomes very hit and miss. It also suffers from the ‘blunt instrument’ argument and would require multiple browser profiles to be managed and scrupulously maintained in a typical family. Also, the increasing use of VPNs to protect privacy and prevent intrusions by cybercriminals will mostly render all of these safeguards useless. This issue is now much more likely in a world with Covid where many more people are working from home and are likely to be doing so for the foreseeable future.

The net of all this is that trying to use parental control software bundled with broadband packages or trying to do it at a browser level is unreliable and unrealistic in a multi-age, multi-occupancy household. Life’s a bit short to spend it as some sort of family pseudo-network engineer.

Lock everything down at the router!

Using a solution that checks everything coming into the house or leaving via the router appears superficially attractive, because it gets over the headache of multiple device types, using multiple operating systems and multiple browsers.

However, many of the solutions that promise to filter everything coming into a family home at the router end require a fairly high degree of technical knowledge on the part of Mum or Dad. How many people know how to alter their router settings? How many people know what DNS settings are, where to find them or how to change them? Not many I suspect. Add to this the fact there are scores of different routers out there where the configuration process is different. Even if by some minor miracle Mum or Dad manage to successfully set up one of these solutions it doesn’t get over the problem of nastiness delivered via social networks or the reality that a determined 10 year old will simply switch to 4G or connect to an insecure Wifi network outside the house.

So, unless you’re a whizz at techy configurations it’s not a viable solution.

Third party software solutions at the device level

We now turn our attention to how we might protect our kids by the option of locking down and/or monitoring individual devices. There are numerous issues associated with this option. Firstly, there are a lot of competing products out there and inevitably some will be better than others. Some of them will work well with Windows but will struggle with iOS or Android devices. Others will work well with all operating systems but will not run on older devices with an operating system that is no longer supported. There is also a sliding scale of price depending on how many devices you need to protect and this is likely to be too expensive for families on low incomes.

In the end, I opted for one of these solutions and so far I must say that it seems to work pretty well. I won’t say which solution I used, but it was definitely at the pricier end of the scale. If anyone wants to know which one I settled on I’d be happy to share this information. However….

Locking down your family devices is only a very small part of the solution

So, if you can afford to and can figure out how to, you’ve now locked down your family’s IT as much as you can to protect everyone from horrible stuff and identify threats to their physical and mental health. Remember though, that you still have zero control over what your kids see, hear and are influenced by online when they are at school, in the playground or at a friend’s house regardless of any of the available ‘solutions’ above.

Furthermore, we also have to deal with the reality that regardless of how well you lock things down at home, the toxic content of many social media platforms and video streaming services will not be filtered in any way by what you have done, and this is where responsible parents now have Hobsons Choice. They can either ban kids from all social media and video-streaming platforms (good luck with that one!) or allow them access, keeping their fingers and toes crossed, trusting everything to corporations who in reality see you, your family and your children as little more than opportunities to harvest valuable personal data in order to sell you stuff. The small armies of social media moderators grow in size, but the evidence of communities and nations divided along lines of race, gender, politics, sexuality (as well as ridiculous, trivial issues too numerous to mention) is everywhere and growing.

I’m fortunate to be working with some very clever people who are developing solutions to these problems and I would be happy to share my thoughts with you. In the meantime, please feel to contact me with your own experiences and feel free to reach out to me if you think I can help you professionally.

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