By Muthoga Kioni (Published in the EAStandard 23rd July 2008)
Some time back parents were content to leave their kids in the hands of domestic workers. They would be fed, educated and entertained with dubious songs and games initiated by our child minders. A few years later the television (with even more dubious content) substituted one key activity, entertainment. No longer would our domestic workers have the entertainment monopoly.
Today we are witnessing a move away from the television to the internet, especially in urban centres. Parents are increasingly leaving their children with the internet as a source of education and entertainment. This is a security issue.
One might argue that internet penetration, in Kenya, is negligible and subsequently the risk to our children is minimal. This is a false assumption. According to the Internet World Stats, Kenya is currently among the top ten countries in Africa in internet usage.
Latest data on the number of internet users in our country indicates that approximately 3,000,000 Kenyans use the internet frequently (as at March, 2008). Most of these users are the youth. Proof of this can be found in the ubiquitous cyber cafes where a vast majority of internet users are aged below 23 years. It is not uncommon to even find ten year olds ‘surfing’ in these cybers.
In a few decades they will become parents and will invariably have internet access at home. Their children will be exposed to technology from a very early age. Currently, a significant proportion of the 30-40 year old middle class segment in Nairobi has internet access at home. Their children are internet-savvy and are able to exchange ring-tones, download movies and play online games with alacrity. They are sometimes home alone, unsupervised and unmonitored as they explore the digital jungle.
This digital jungle is as equally dangerous to unsuspecting youngsters as the more familiar forests in Kenya. This is because parents considerably underestimate the risks their children are experiencing online. These risks range from exposure to pornographic and adult material and giving out of personal information. Children are also exposed to receiving unwanted sexual or nasty comments, meeting unsavoury online characters and unwittingly exposing their home computers to hackers.
Our youngsters have impressionable minds and just as you would restrict television content, one should also restrict which websites your children access. It is however important to appreciate that the internet is a treasure trove for our children. They use it for various activities for example, as a research library for their homework, playing games that develop cognitive skills and for communication through e-mail and chat rooms. It is therefore not reasonable to fully restrict access to the internet. Our children’s future is intertwined with ICT and availing them the opportunity to access this technology early equips them with a long-term competitive edge.
As a parent you are obliged to securing the internet for your children. There are a few measures, social and technical, that you have at your disposal. The first is the need to raise awareness among the children and your fellow parents on the risks that can be encountered online. These discussions should respect children’s online privacy and should be aimed at raising awareness and educating all concerned.
You have a number of technical options available to you as a parent. One of them is requesting your Internet Service Provider to filter adult content to your home computer(s). A more specific measure would be setting up permissions in your browser (a browser is a computer application program that is used to view and navigate the World Wide Web and other internet resources. Popular browsers are for example Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox). Internet Explorer has a feature called Content Advisor that can assist parents control the type of content a home computer can gain access to in the internet.
With Content Advisor you can view and adjust rating settings to reflect what you think is permissible content in each of these four areas: language, nudity, sex and violence. You can adjust a slider to specify what users are allowed to see for example, in language, Level 0 ensures access is allowed for web sites with no profanity. Level 4, on the other hand, means that the internet user can access sites that contain extreme hate speech or crude language.
Apart from Ratings you can also specify which web sites are always viewable or never viewable, regardless of how they are rated. This means that you can prohibit unpleasant websites and prevent your children from getting exposed to offensive material.
Ensuring that your children safely navigate through the digital jungle is a security concern and a fundamental responsibility of every techno-savvy parent.