Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Software, Movie and Music Piracy - Everyone's doing it...does that make it Okay?

Hello Parents,

It occurred to me recently to address the topic of illegally downloaded or copied materials.  I find it ironic how the majority of individuals wouldn't think of shoplifting or stealing from a neighbour etc.  But, how is obtaining music, movies, or software illegally so much different?  I would venture to guess that almost every household has at least a few questionable copies of music or movies around.  Many parents are setting a bad example for their kids without even thinking about it... how would they answer if questioned about their 'stealing' habits by their little ones?

There are also very serious legal implications involved with piracy including hefty fines and even jail time depending on where you live.  The authorities are taking it much more seriously in recent years, likely due to pressures from the industries affected.  Remember, behind every song, movie and game or program is a lot of work and a lot of individuals who count on getting paid to do that work.

Aside from the ethical and legal issues associated with this stealing, there are also some risks involved with the downloading of illegal copies of software etc.  The sites and software used to facilitate these downloads often open your system up to such things as pornography and viruses.

So, check your habits first and then work through the family... check the IPod for songs ripped from a friend's CD or downloaded for 'free'...check the Wii or other gaming system for copied or downloaded games...and check if the software you installed on all 4 computers at home is actually licensed to be used that way...

Hopefully someone finds this helpful in better understanding the prevalence and risks of this problem.  I'd be happy to hear your comments!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Internet Enabled Gaming Systems - Yes Parents, You do have to learn to use that game!

Here's the good news...you now have an excuse to learn that gaming system and 'play'! 

Most gaming systems are internet capable, and while the very young user may not have the ability to set it up, you can guarantee the little bit older one can...so you'll need to take some precautions.  Remember, even though you have a secure wireless network at home (you do, don't you?) and the kids don't have the password, the portable gaming systems can go anywhere...and internet may be available for easy connection.

First, let's talk about handheld gaming systems.  Originally, they were designed such that you simply put in a game cartridge and you played that game.  Then, they moved on to being able to connect with nearby systems and play together.  So, two or more friends in the same room could play against each other on the same game.  Now, they are fully internet capable.  You can play online, download games, but more importantly, browse the internet.  On most systems there is the option to disable each of the connectivity features, but there is no option to put in internet filtering...so for the browsing it is all or nothing.  My thoughts are that you sould simply disable that feature for kids, they can do their browsing on the home computer.  The rest of the features you will want to review individually and decide.

Now, the big systems are internet capable too, or at least anything within the last few of years.  I'm talking about the XBox, Nintento Wii, Playstation etc.  There are some advantages to them being internet capable because this is the simplest way to get updates to the underlying software which can be important, and you can download movies and new games etc. which will really increase the enjoyment the whole family gets out of the system.  But again, with these advantages come the same dangers as the internet anywhere...

For any kind of system you can simply search the internet with the words "parental controls" and the name of the gaming sysem to get the detailed instructions.

How to get started if you don't have a clue?...ask your child!  Get them to show you how to 'play' first...that will get you familiar with how to use the controls and navigate a little.  They'll be able to show you an amazing amount of things.  

So go ahead, play a few games... all in the name of research and learning of course...have fun!

Monday, 18 April 2011

Social Networking for Children?!

Well, I hope you gleaned a little info in my last post about how to take at least a few measures towards making facebook a little less public.  The amount of information out there for the taking is astounding!

But lets talk about social networking and children.  Facebook is not meant for children under 13 years of age... and it is my belief that parents should enforce this.  But even if your kids don't have a facebook account, there are other similar things out there specifically targetted to children.  By the time they are 13, they will be well versed in social networking!

Now, they are not all bad, and several of them have safeguards in place to help protect the children...but as with anything, you need to be involved and aware. 

I will use one example for illustrative purposes, and that one is Club Penguin.  When the child signs up for an account, they need to put in their parent's email address.  The parent is to then read all the fine print, make a couple of choices about chat options etc. and then activate the account.  The children are specifically encouraged to choose an account (Penguin) name that doesn't match their real name.  From time to time they are approached by other penguins asking to be their 'buddy'.  Once they are buddies, they no longer have to log on to the same server and be in the same place to meet up with each other.  They can visit each others igloos and chat, and play some games one on one with these buddies. 

At the very beginning of this experience, my children and I had a chat about talking to penguins that they didn't know.  It was the same "don't talk to strangers" talk that we have with our children anyway... just in a different context.  They understood clearly that their privileges would be taken away if I found anyone on their buddy list that they couldn't tell me the real person behind. 

The site has a lot of very good games and adventures.  Many of them develop problem solving skills.  The nice thing about the games is that they don't go on forever so they can be done within the daily time limit that I give them.  They earn points for the games they play and they can 'buy' things with these points such as upgrades to their igloos etc.

They can also buy merchandise that gives them a code to unlock exclusive items for their penguin.  Finally, they can also sign up for a paid membership that gives them access to more virtual items and pets for their penguin that they don't get with the free membership.

All in all, not a bad site... but parents need to recognize it as a social networking site as well as a place to play games.  They could possibly come across some ill-meaning stranger and need to know what to do in case they do.

Leave me your comments about any experiences you've had in this area, I'd be happy to hear about them!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Facebook - Be Careful Who Your Friends Are!

I finally joined facebook about a month ago.  I really didn't have the time or desire to be that connected before that... but I figured I have to explore these things somewhat before my children ask to for themselves.  I was quite shocked to be honest with you with who was already on there... I really felt like I was the last person on the planet to join!

Last night, I went to a very helpful seminar geared to parents of children who are or will be on facebook.  While I had explored several of the privacy and security settings myself, there were many more that I hadn't come accross yet and likely wouldn't have... so it was very helpful.

The main take-aways for parents:
  • there is no guarantee of privacy on facebook
  • nothing is really ever deleted from the facebook servers
  • schools and employers take facebook seriously when evalutating applicants
  • you're only as 'private' as your least 'private' friend (as soon as they comment on something of your's it's out there for all of their 'friends')
Here are a few steps that I am going to try to get all my 'friends' to take right away:
  • go to Account-Privacy Settings and set everything under Sharing on Facebook to "Friends Only"
  • also under Privacy Settings - go to Connecting on Facebook and preview your profile - make sure you're comfortable with what EVERYONE can see!
  • as a minimum under Connecting on Facebook - make your friends list visible to only your friends - this is really only fair to your friends!
  • check back often because facebook is an always changing forum and the security options and settings may change at any time.  (They already did some months back and some users are not aware)
There was so much more offered at this session, and I would encourage you to try to get to something similar yourself, but hopefully this is enough to spark some interest.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am enjoying my facebook experience... but there have been too many examples of people getting caught in situations they needn't have, so we all just need to be aware and take the measures we can to protect ourselves and those we love.

Happy social networking!


Monday, 28 March 2011

Creating Good Passwords

The topic of good passwords applies to all areas of our lives, not just the area of our children and technology, so I'm going to focus on making sure that you as a grown up have good passwords first.

How many passwords/PINs do you have to remember?  More than you'd like I'm sure... The scary thing is that these passwords are sometimes a thin layer protecting us from nasty things like identity theft, so it's extremely important to get it right.

What is a good password?  Well, technically speaking it is a password that is complex enough that a password cracking algorithm would take too long to figure it out for it to be worthwhile trying.  Humanly speaking, a good password is one that isn't so complicated that we have to write it down... because that of course defeats the purpose of having a clever password. 

There are some simple guidelines and a few tricks I can offer to help.  I'm sure as you read my suggested 'tricks' you will think of some of your own, and that would be even better.

First some basic guidelines:
  • Avoid full words, particularly not names of children or pets!
  • Avoid dates or even partial dates unless it is for something that no-one would know about (like a first kiss or something!) but no birthdays or anniversarys (sorry, you'll have to find another way to remember your anniversary!)
  • Avoid phone numbers
  • If it's a numerical password/PIN, be a little more creative than 1234 or 1111!
  • Make it a little longer than minimum length if possible
Now, some 'tricks':
Try using a phrase and using the first letter of each word.  So "My dad always gave me chocolate milk for breakfast" would become "mdagmcmfb".  Make it a little stronger by capitalizing one or more letters, and even stronger by replacing words like 'for' with the number 4.  So now it is "mDagmcm4b".  Looking pretty random to anyone who might have glanced your way while you were typing it in...almost impossible for them to remember, and because it has no pattern, it is difficult for a password cracker to get it figured out either. 

One step further would be to add special characters...sometimes this will be even required, so you can simply punctuate your phrase and have "mDagmcm4b!" or you can get a little more creative with something like "My daughter likes to be the star of the show" becoming "Mdl2bt*ots" or "I have a number of great friends for life" turning into "Iha#ogf4l"

This will only work if the phrase means something to you so that you can remember it easily and 'say it in your head' while you type in the password.

Another little trick would be to use words where you can replace them partially with numbers or other characters.  B9=benign, 4get=forget etc.  We've all seen them on licence plates.... so I'm sure you'll have lots of ideas.

Here's a link I found with some more ideas http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/create-strong-password-forget/

Well, that should get you started...another time we'll talk about what happens when you click 'save my password' or 'keep me logged in'

Leave me your thoughts or ideas!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Mom, can I have an email?

So, my daughter was the last almost-11-year-old on the planet to get her own email account, I guess I'm a little conservative!  At any rate, all social injustices aside, there does come a time where using mommy's account doesn't work well for either party.  She needs to research and share information on projects with school mates she's working with, and she needs to start growing up and learning how to be responsible for her own email usage.

That being said, there are some things parents can do to monitor and protect.

First of all, there is an appropriate time to allow a child to have their own email… or at least an inappropriate time.  If the child is not old enough to type or remember their own password, then it's likely too early. 

Second, I don't recommend a run of the mill free email account such as gmail, yahoo, hotmail etc. to start off with.  Some of these are better than others at offering mechanisms for creating a safe environment for children, however, I recommend starting with an email account that is specifically designed for children.  There are several of them, usually you have to pay for them and how much and how often you pay varies.  I chose zilladog.net.  It is a one time fee of 9.95 (some have annual or monthly fees).  I haven't evaluated any others in any amount of detail as of yet, but I have some concerns with the one that we chose.  First, I have to log in with my daughter's username and password first before I put in the parent's password and edit the buddy list.  Second, the passwords (hers and mine) are  visible on the password edit screens in plain text.  This is far from ideal, but for the most part, once it's set up it is workable.  I chose one of the cheaper options, so I guess you get what you pay for!

The important feature for a first time user is to have a restricted buddy/contact list.  The parent logs in and sets up a list of email addresses that the child is allowed to send emails to and recieve emails from.  This will virtually eliminate the possibility of receiving unwanted spam emails.  It also offers the ability to have all emails coming to and from the account copied to the parent.  There are differing views on this option… is there a line that is crossed where there is no trust and a breach of privacy?  My opinion is that this has a lot of benefits including protecting the child from bad influences and bullying… even someone on the allowed list could be a questionable influence at times.  For now, I have chosen to turn it on and let my daughter know that I will recieve the emails but not likely choose to read many if any of them unless something starts to concern me.

There has been lots written about such things already.  Do a simple search on safe email for kids and you will find lots of articles and opinions if you want to read more.  I found a good article that compares two decent free versions and zoobuh, an inexpensive one.  Here it is http://www.pcworld.com/article/153381/a_parents_guide_to_safe_simple_kidfriendly_email.html

Please feel free to comment about what you have tried and how it is working for you.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Parental Controls for the home computer

Hello again!

I didn't mean for it to be a couple of weeks between posts, but other mommy chores just kept getting in the way!

Anyway, today we're on to Parental Controls for the home computer (I'll touch on other types of parental controls in later posts).  Parental controls include controlling access to the computer itself (time of day restrictions, total usage time per day, what programs are allowed to run etc.) and Web filtering.

I won't go into much detail on the first part.  If using Windows Vista, Windows 7 or the Mac OS (10.3-10.6), there are some parental controls built in that are usually sufficient for this portion.

As for the Web filtering, you may be familiar with this concept even at your place of work.  Most sizable organisations have by now implemented some form of Web filtering to enforce an internet security policy that they have in place.  What you will implement at home is not really any different, and is suitable for all users of the computer, just with different settings perhaps.

Web filtering can be configured in two basic ways.  It either blocks by category or works with a specific "allowed" list.  The latter is suitable for very young users that will have a limited number of sites to access so that the list is not difficult to manage.  Blocking by category with or without some exceptions is the more common and more flexible way to implement web filtering.  It does however have some draw backs.  New sites and content are created on the internet by the second and the databases and algorithms used to categorize these sites sometimes struggle to keep up.  This means that some sites may get through that shouldn't.  The filtering software may catch up after some time, but it is important to monitor internet usage and not rely too heavily on this important but imperfect tool.

I won't specifically recommend a software package here, but you can check out sites like http://www.consumersearch.com/parental-control-software for a comparison.   You will want to look at much more than the price in any comparison (there are free options too).  Ease and flexibility of configuring is important.  Granularity of categories can be important too.  It will be much easier to be specific in what you want to block and allow using software that has 80 categories as opposed to 10 (a small number of categories with sub-categories is even better).  Once you've configured it, be sure to log in as a non-administrator and try out your settings, try "bad sites" to make sure they are blocked.

When we talk about Web filtering, people automatically envision blocking things like sex and gambling sites, but there is much more to it than that.  Depending on the age of your children, you will want to block different things.  For the younger user ou may want to block social networking, email and chat sites except the ones that you have specifically allowed for example.  You should review all of the available categories and think about them carefully when deciding.  You can of course change your settings as often as you like, but you will likely settle on something and not have to change it very often.

Eventually, your children are going to leave home and be on their own, so you will have no parental controls (not just the computer and internet kind either!)  So, it is important to gradually work toward a solution that is giving the child some responsibility while being accountable.  There are accountability software solutions that monitor internet usage and send a report to an "accountability partner".  This is a good solution for the older teenager/young adult.  You would have this configured to send the report to a parent at first and then encourage them to continue this practice with either you or someone else they feel comfortable keeping them accountable.  We have used this at our house between my husband and myself.  It doesn't mean that you don't trust the other person, it's just a safeguard.

So, to summarize my recommendations are:
  • for the very young, implement an "allowed list" of internet sites
  • once the child needs more flexibility (researching for homework etc.), filter based on good categories
  • as they grow older, put more of the responsibility for their choices on them and use accountability software
Until next time!