Parents warned on effectiveness of filtering software packages
Parents who bother to install some kind of control software on their children’s computers should bear in mind that, although of some help, such packages can offer a false sense of protection.
The use of parental control software was encouraged but it should not be considered a “total solution against harmful content and practices”, the Malta Communications Authority said.
A Eurostat ICT survey, published ahead of Safer Internet Day that was marked on Tuesday, showed Maltese parents were still underestimating the potential risks of children’s use of the internet and just nine per cent installed the control software , according to the study.
Several such packages could be purchased from any IT hardware store and easily installed on computers, the MRA said. It quoted a European Commission study, released last month, showing that while a healthy 84 per cent of the software programmes tested enabled parents to block access to certain websites, they were less efficient at filtering social networking sites and blogs.
Moreover, only a few products on the market are able to filter web content accessed via mobile phones and game consoles, which one child in every four in Europe resorts to.
In view of the problems related to internet safety, a national consortium was being set up to promote the smarter and safer use of the internet by minors, the MCA added.
The aim of the project – BeSmartOnline! – is to raise more awareness on how one can use the internet as a learning tool while being aware of the existing dangers.
Various stakeholders, including Appoġġ agency, the Children’s Commissioner, the Educational Services Directorate, the Catholic Education Secretariat and the police, are joining forces and engaging in a 20-month project, which includes setting up a helpline to offer support and advice on internet safety and a hotline to report online abuse.
The programme, coordinated by the MCA, involves an education campaign through the media and events that target minors, parents and educators.
A National Advisory Board had already been set up to facilitate discussion between the stakeholders and a youth panel would give a voice to youths, the MCA said.
According to an MCA study on the use of ICT by minors, released in October, 97 per cent of those aged seven to 15 have an internet connection at home with 70 per cent using it for gaming and 66 per cent for social networks.
Many children under 13 use social networks, such as Facebook and MSN, despite the fact such sites do not accept subscription of individuals who are so young.
The study also exposed generation gaps, pointing out that “parents often find themselves helplessly unequipped and unskilled to oversee the well-being of their children online”. They are mostly unaware of the potential risks and a third of minors have a computer in their bedroom, with minimal opportunity for effective supervision.
“The internet is a wonderful resource and can be a great tool if used properly but while children should have online access they should also be made aware of the existing dangers,” Children’s Commissioner Helen D’Amato said.
She raised the need to question why only nine per cent of Maltese parents used software that controlled their children’s access online. “Parents are usually very cautious not to let their children handle dangerous objects for fear they would get hurt, so why is this not also practised in the case of internet use?”
She said parents should also monitor the time their children spent online, taking into consideration their age and maturity. They should ask their internet service providers how filtering software programmes could be obtained and installed. Information was also available online.
Appoġġ, the national social welfare agency for children and families in need, also encouraged parents to involve themselves while their children used the internet.“Installing filtering tools and software may help protect them from illicit content they may encounter while browsing. However, these are not totally reliable and should not replace supervision and education,” the agency said.
Service provider Go strongly urged parents to download parental control software, a range of which is freely available online. However, it said it believed smartphones posed a much greater risk as they were used by children outside the home and, therefore, away from their parents’ scrutiny.
Go product manager for data Mark Farrugia said anyone who signed a post-paid contract for data over mobile had to be 18, adding the contract provided an instant barrier for minors.
In the case of pre-paid contracts, the company took further precautionary measures by ensuring customers register and prove they were over 18; otherwise, the registration had be countersigned by the parents or legal guardians, he said.