We all want to keep our kids safe, and keeping up with the changes in our society can be challenging, balancing the desire for children to have freedom, whilst keeping them from harm.
The new battlefront for parents to navigate is Online Safety, driven from the rise of the World Wide Web as a disruptive technology that has gone from a geeky research tool to a normal part of our everyday lives within 20 years.
That fact in itself is astonishing, that whilst the Internet has been under development since the mid 1960’s, the World Wide Web wasn’t invented until 1989. Since then it has heralded the Information Age, disrupted pretty much every industry on the planet, and changed the very fabric of our society.
The new generation will be the first to grow up with the Internet and the World Wide Web in their lives from day one.
With such a young technology moving so fast, it’s not a wonder that the Internet is a “Wild West” playground, allowing rapid innovation, but also allowing the not so nice parts of our society to thrive. Safety systems, governance, accountability and law are all playing catch up.
Which leaves parents in a predicament, how can children get the best out of this technology whilst remaining safe and secure, free from harm?
No Silver Bullet
Unfortunately there is no simple solution to this problem, no magic box you can press a button on that will keep children safe on the Internet, it takes layers of systems, policy and training to provide something close to a solution, and the goal posts will be constantly shifting.
But this doesn’t mean that we should just go to the router and rip the cables out the back of it and live like we were in simpler times. The Internet is here to stay, and children are going to be using it one way or another.
Better to be regulated in a designed framework, than underground and out of sight.
About Search Engines
The humble search engine is the tool that most people use as a starting to point to discovering information; they take our search queries and sift through their indexes of the World Wide Web in a fraction of a second.
They wield great power as the connectors of users to content - as a content publisher, your search engine ranking for the keywords you want your page to be found for can make or break your content.
Of course users are not always central to what results are delivered to you, all that indexing and query searching costs money, and has to be paid for - we are now the product and our valuable data is brokered to advertisers just as quickly as our search results are delivered.
Catering to a wide audience, advertisers vying for your business, and data being collected about you with every click of your mouse are the norm in search engine land.
This is full fat, unadulterated Web.
What about the kids?
This complex mechanism that defines our relationship with search engines is way above the minds of most kids, especially the younger ones who are just starting to take their first steps into the World Wide Web. Our duty as parents is to guide them into this new world, show them its power, whilst alerting them to the pitfalls.
Any tools that can take some of this complexity away and provide a safer environment for kids to discover this new playground are exactly what is needed.
Set up a Safe Environment
As mentioned earlier, there is no silver bullet, there is no truly safe environment. Your kids will stumble upon things that are not meant for them, inappropriate or low quality content, content with an agenda, possibly things that shock them, they may even circumvent technical barriers that you put in place.
A combination of technical restrictions and education will allow you and your child to learn how to navigate the Internet safely, and will ultimately be a much better mechanism for preparing them for becoming a full fat user of the future internet, which will have developed and iterated even more by the time they are adults.
So make sure your Internet connection at home and on your mobile is filtered by your provider (You can test it here), control the access your child has to internet connected devices so you can monitor what they are doing, and limit their screentime.
Talk to your child about how to evaluate content for quality and appropriateness, and what to do if they stumble upon something that is not suitable for them.
Keeping up with the Latest Trends and Threats
Online safety moves very fast, new trends appear all the time, and the media loves to hype them (sometimes to the point that schools are contacting parents).
Some of them require some parental management and child education, for example loot boxes in games, some are hoaxes like the infamous “Momo” challenge.
So keeping up with latest info and doing your own research is essential.
Use Trusted Tools and Resources
Using the Internet with your child and making sure they are with you when they are browsing the Web will ensure you can guide them towards fun and informative resources that are appropriate for them.
This will help you both learn what resources are suitable, so if they ask to use that website again, you can trust that they can use it with a little less supervision.
Back to Search Engines
One critical tool that needs to be suitable is the search engine you use, and there are a number of "Child Friendly" search engines available to use, but how do you evaluate which one is best to use?
Firstly lets clear something up - There is no such thing a "Safe Search Engine for Kids", without manually curating all the content you see (Which with nearly 2 billion websites is no small task), it is impossible to get all the results right. What we need is a search engine that cuts out the totally inappropriate, and provides tools and information to manage the rest.
This may not be a bad thing though, as parents we are training our kids to become adults. In the adult world, we stumble across inappropriate, low quality, and irritating content all the time, but we have learnt strategies to evaluate and filter the content we don’t want, and find the content we do.
So having children learn how to evaluate content through the child friendly tools we want them to use is giving them valuable skills for the now and the future. The key is teaching them how to assess content, and give them tools and reporting routes to handle content that is not.
They need to experiment and fail in a safe environment.
Experts in Online Safety
We (SWGfL) are a not-for-profit charitable trust, with a mission to ensure children benefit from technology, free from harm.
As lead partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre, we drive Online Safety policy with governments and industry across the globe, as well as disseminate best practice to teachers, parents and pupils up and down the country.
We have taken our knowledge in this sphere to create our own child friendly search engine called Swiggle. Swiggle is designed for children aged 7 - 11, is completely free to use, and is completely ad-free.
Swiggle has been designed as an environment that enables young people to explore the Web in the safest way possible, whilst providing them with guidance to keep them safe whist they discover the Web, and tools to keep you informed if they stumble upon something inappropriate.
- Keyword filtering to stop inappropriate search terms being used
- Google Safe Search filtered results, with a bias towards UK educational resources
- Browser extension to cover your screen if your child finds something inappropriate, through Swiggle or not
- Reporting tools to notify us of any content you think shouldn’t be indexed, or for schools to notify their system administrator to block particular websites
- A friendly character that can guide kids through how to search, report, and customise Swiggle
- Ad-free experience
There will always need to be more safety, research, policy and tools to keep our children safe on an ever growing, ever changing Internet, and we will continue to work tirelessly towards making the Internet the safest place it can be.
We hope that this article and the Child Friendly Search Engine we have created are a part of that solution, and help you take control of your child’s journey as they become part of the Information Age.