How to 'child proof' any gadget - from PCs to smartphones to games consoles

Rob Waugh
Children can be at risk online - thankfully, most gadgets make it easy to block certain websites, limit the time spent surfing or prevent access to videos not suitable for their age group. (Image (posed by model): Fotolia)

For many parents, leaving a child in front of an iPad or laptop offers a much-needed break from parental duties.

But any gadget or app with an internet connection can put children in danger  - children can be exposed to adult content, and are at risk from cyber-bullies, hackers, and unscrupulous games which can rack up thousands in ‘in-app purchases’.

Complaints about such apps have risen 300 per cent in the past year, according to UK regulator PhonePay Plus.

Responsible use of online technology, particularly for children, will come into focus once more on Tuesday, February 5, which is the tenth Safer Internet Day.

Furthermore, up to 70 per cent of teenagers also hide what they are doing online from their parents, according to security company MacAfee.

[Related: Tips for staying safe online]

It is possible to ‘child proof’ gadgets such as smartphones and games consoles - whether to block certain websites, limit the time spent surfing or prevent access to videos not suitable for their age group.

Other gadgets such as handheld and living room games consoles also come with controls built in, but many parents complain they can be confusing to understand and set up - despite the fact that many consoles allow strangers to speak directly to other gamers using microphone headsets.

Research by Ofcom has showed only 16 per cent of parents would install controls for games consoles compared with 31 per cent for mobile phones and 46 per cent for PCs, laptops or notebooks.

Apple's iOS for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad contain a range of settings to restrict access based on age. Adults can set up a monthly spending allowance on iTunes for youngsters.

Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 includes Kid's Corner, which transforms the handset into a phone within a phone so children can use some parts without being able to make in-app purchases and rack up big bills.

The new Windows 8 PC operating system also has upgraded security controls for parents within its Family Safety area. It can monitor internet use and deliver reports each week on where they've been surfing.

At the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, they see parental controls as a key tool and have a page on their website dedicated to providing advice for adults.

A spokesman said: "As a parent or carer, it can be difficult to monitor what children get up to when they are using the internet or their mobile phone. It can be easy for a child to stumble across things that might upset or disturb them.

"Filtering and moderation packages are a good way to stop the majority of inappropriate and harmful content coming into the home or mobile devices. They can also be a great tool to help parents set and change online boundaries in line with their child’s development."

Norfolk-based mother-of-two Nina White has just configured parental settings for the Nintendo DS she bought her son for his fourth birthday.

[Related: The risks your children face online]

She explained: "I have never been keen on gaming technology for young children but I realised that I needed to move with the times.

"However, I have activated the parental controls, so I have to type in a passcode each time he plays. That way I can control when he plays and how long he plays for. It also stops him secretly playing it when I am not looking."

At John Lewis, bosses have seen an increase in requests for information about parental control settings and software from confused customers - so it has trained staff in the different options available.

Matt Leeser, head of buying for communication technology at the department store, said: "Most household gadgets now connect to the internet in this 'always on' age and it can be difficult for parents to keep track of what their kids are up to online. In the run up to Christmas, tablets were flying off our shelves at a rate of eight per minute.

"The operating systems on a lot of products come with certain degrees of control, however we would always recommend using additional software and security products."

One such piece of software is the new Norton Family, a free service that can monitor children's usage across a range of devices and platforms including Android but not Apple's iOS.

By installing an app on their smartphone, which does include iPhone, parents can then monitor what their children are doing, tweak time limits, grant access remotely when a blocked site is attempted and see what social networks their kids use - although this is limited to just viewing their username, age and profile picture.

A paid-for version adds video monitoring for sites such as YouTube along with more detailed reports and text messages on Android.

Emma Jeffs, of Norton, denied the company were acting like 'Big Brother' and said their software encouraged parents and children to discuss problematic sites that have been visited and then subsequently blocked because there is the option to unblock them remotely within seconds.

She said: "We help parents treat the internet in the same way they would the real world. It is honest because every time their children log on it is very clear they are being monitored by Norton Family."

Father-of-two Mark Hardisty, of Nottinghamshire, has been using Norton Family with his seven-year-old daughter for the past three months.

He said: "It was a direct response to my daughter's expanding computing skills and her desire to pursue her own goals and development without any hand-holding from me. This obviously left me in a quandary having an open laptop that before had no controls whatsoever applied - apart from my own secure login and password.

"We use a range of devices within the household, a Windows laptops, iPad, iPhone, Android phone and a Galaxy tablet. I needed something that provided comprehensive and configurable protection to work across all of these platforms beyond the basic, primitive and quite frankly, lacking parental controls that come as part of the standard operating systems.

"Norton Family covers everything from web monitoring and filtering through to social network control and text and 'app' monitoring on smartphones.

"So far the experience has been good. The installation was seamless and while my daughter's activities don't yet go beyond those that she exercises in school, I get the odd e-mail informing me of blocked adverts or sites that have usually been inadvertently visited or opened."

He added: "Having a range of pre-defined rules for children based on age is a great idea. You can move your child up the age scale allowing more access or manually adjust the settings yourself and another great feature is the ability to warn children about certain sites, but still allow access on confirmation.

"It allows you to enter into a dialogue with your child about why they have accessed them and I think putting trust in your children, and giving them the responsibility, is vital. Children shouldn't be scared to use the internet, they should be encouraged to explore technology in a positive way.

"After all, they may be researching drugs, or gun crime, or something else for a school project that with a less flexible control may have been categorically blocked."

Mr Hardisty said he will eventually use the package for his four-year-old son, too, explaining: "There's a parental sixth sense where you know it's the right time to loosen the apron strings a little - much like allowing them to cross the road on their own but always using the pedestrian crossing!"

The tenth annual Safer Internet Day is organised by Insafe and co-funded by the European Union.

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