Online Kids Need a Guard Dog With a Big Bark

Architechnologist Columns Computing Internet Tools
Little Kid Online
Photo by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

This piece contains sexual content and descriptions of child sex abuse that could be disturbing to some readers.
The messages and conversations included here are real.

There is the one simple, important thing to remember about kids’ online experience: any device that is connected to the internet can cause just as much benefit as harm. Weighing the benefits against the possible damage can be tough. Even though we call these “smart” devices, they are tools just like a hammer or screwdriver, which means they have no intent of their own. As parents and caregivers, this makes it our job to guide children and give them best practices—whether they like it or not.

As the responsible adult, it is important to realize that you might not be able to stop kids from getting online. Most have access at school; many will find ways on their own devices or by sharing friends’ devices. There are means of “locking down” computers, smartphones, and gaming devices (more on that later), but let’s face it… kids are smart, and most will try to get around those safeguards.

In today’s very, very connected world, parents and caregivers need to be ready to talk to their kids and help “decipher” what they will inevitably see. If we are fortunate, then the kids are both comfortable enough to and able to report back to a responsible adult about what they and their peers are exposed to online. Depending on where they explore online, there is a wide range of potential concerns, including cyberbullying, adult content, sexual predators, drug use, depression, suicidal ideation, threats of violence, and more.

There are a number of tools that parents and caregivers can use to help protect the children they care for. Parental controls can limit screen time, installation of applications, specific content/websites, and device services. Software solutions monitor web-based content, email, messaging, and, perhaps most importantly, social media. I use both types of tool in my attempt to safeguard my own children, even though I very much trust them, because I know there are people out there who would seek to do them harm.

That concern, along with my experience in consumer technology, led me to collaborate with Bark, one of the most respected monitoring solutions. I feel that my work with Bark has been, and continues to be, one of the most valuable contributions that I have made to protect my children because I know more about the risks they are exposed to by using these devices and media.

A Cautionary Tale

Recently, a special team at Bark published a story on Medium about a project they had been working on—a real-world sting operation with law enforcement. In the Medium post titled “I’m a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old Girl. Here’s What I Learned,” the author writes:

Knowing the pervasiveness of predation on the internet isn’t a burden. Not really. It’s a gift. One that helps us turn the tables on abusers. Our work has resulted in arrests of people who have shown the propensity and willingness to harm children. Technology has changed and so too have the methods by which predators find, communicate with, and harm children. If they can use technology to abuse children, we can use the same technology to help stop their crimes.

As a caregiver, reading the post terrified me. I have children who are old enough to be online, and while I have “a very particular set of skills” when it comes to online interactions, I still discussed it at length with my wife and then with my children. Even families like mine, who are proactive when it comes to online content, need to be on guard, all the time, every time.

Just as I was about to send this post to publish, the author of the Medium post released a follow-up with answers to a few of the most asked questions that they had been receiving titled “A Note From Sloane.” You may find answers to your questions in the follow-up.

Now that we know that even if you have amazing, smart, kind, wonderful kids there are dangerous, horrible, criminal deviants out there… just waiting.

What Can Be Done? The Software

Since Bark put out the Medium post (and, again, I have a relationship with the company), it is worth mentioning the service itself as it is available to provide parents and caregivers with insight into what the children in their lives do online.

The algorithms that Bark uses to analyze online activity are based on advanced artificial intelligence that can understand some of the nuances of language, even if it is the constantly evolving slang of youth. The system does not block or filter content, instead issuing notifications to the adults which allows them to decide what needs to be acted on within their families. The application even provides suggestions and talking points for those situations where a discussion is necessary. Bark monitors email (Gmail, Outlook, Hotmail, Yahoo, Comcast, and AOL), text messages, websites, searches, and more than 24 social media platforms—all in the background.

Why Not Just Block Content?

The idea of involving the adults in the process, rather than simply blocking content, is worth commenting on. Creating a dialog with children about their online habits and behaviors has become a necessity. There has never before been a time when content of every possible topic was readily available, and caregivers must make our very best efforts to guide children on how to deal with what they see and who they interact with. Just as you cannot prevent your children from ever being on the road with bad drivers, you can give them the skills and tools they can use to be the best traveler they can be.

Furthermore, because Bark only notifies adults when there is a potential issue of concern, parents and caregivers can respect the child’s privacy while saving time that would be spent manually monitoring online activities. Additionally, Bark wants to help caregivers understand how and why they can protect their children. If you and your family would like to get started with Bark, please follow this special Ambassador link that will get you a free trial and 20% off the subscription cost for life. Monitoring kids’ activities doesn’t need to be difficult or expensive, but it’s an important part of raising today’s children.

What More? What Next?

Future posts in this series may cover other monitoring services (with different focuses and methodologies in protecting children online) and hardware-based parental controls (restrictions that control screen time, installation of applications, and blocking of specific content and device services) for all the different mobile devices, computers, game consoles, and more.

The online safety of our children is an issue that will continue to evolve rapidly, and surely will require revisiting all the points regularly as new types of media and software are developed. Please leave thoughts, comments, and questions—I will endeavor to answer, but please understand, this is a sensitive subject and I will not acknowledge any offensive or insensitive remarks.

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