Canadian parents “involved” in kids’ digital lives

Most Canadian parents have at some time talked to their kids about online threats, and are way ahead of parents in other parts of the world, in this respect, a recent report indicates.

As many as 87 per cent of Canadian parents have spoken to their children about practicing safe online habits, in contrast to the global average of 70 per cent, according to the 2009 Norton Online Living Report.

This annual report — based on a survey by security firm Symantec Corp. — seeks to provide insights into the social impact of rapidly changing technology and Internet usage on individuals and families. 

One finding of this year’s report is Canadian parents participate in their kids’ online life by “friend-ing” them on Facebook and instant messaging sites.

Parents polled here were fairly Net savvy.

Seventy-three per cent were extremely or very knowledgeable about Web sites frequently visited by young people, and 84 per cent well versed with sharing personal information over the Internet.

As many as a third of Canadian kids have a parent as a contact on their social networking Web site.

A key reason for this survey was to identify a potential gap between parents’ perception of their children’s online activities and what kids actually report they do, said Rhonda Shantz, senior director, worldwide consumer PR at Symantec.

This gap is shrinking, she said, especially in Canada.

However, the report found kids are still doing things online they know their parents would not condone.

One-third of Canadian parents polled said they caught their child engaging in online activity they don’t approve of. 

The Online Living report surveyed 9,000 adults and kids in 12 countries – the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, China, Japan, India, Australia and Brazil.

Key objectives were to measure the online activity of adults and children, examine how these relate to consumers’ lives, uncover perceptions of online confidence and Internet safety, and evaluate how online users protect themselves from security threats.

While parents polled believe they are doing their best to protect children against online threats, the report suggests many parents are over-confident about their security knowledge.

For starters, the survey found a disconnect between the amount of time parents think their kids are online, and how much time the latter actually spend on the Internet.

Globally, parents report their kids spend 21.5 hours per month online, when in actual fact they average 39.3 hours per month online.

Sixty-two per cent of adults worldwide say children spend too much time online, while fifty-one per cent go even further, saying kids are waste time online (interestingly, 38 per cent of kids agree with this assessment).

Apart from being unable to track their children’s online behaviour, they survey results indicate parents may be overly confident about their ability to combat cyber crime and online threats.

Ninety-nine per cent of adults said they are taking appropriate steps to secure their personal information online, but 50 per cent also admitted to unsafe Internet behaviour at times, noted Janice Chaffin, group president, Symantec’s Consumer Business Unit.

They think they’re taking the steps, but these evidently aren’t adequate, she said. “One-third gives out personal information online in questionable situations, and about 25 per cent aren’t confident their personal information is secure.”

According to Symantec, a big reason for the unjustified optimism in the area of online security is that today’s threats are less visible and explicit.

While security threats have increased a whopping 468 per cent between 2006 and 2007, according to a recent Symantec security report, most of them are personalized, affecting individuals – and consequently less publicized.

The report also found most people don’t understand what security software does for them. Many believe anti-virus tools prevent all kinds of threats – spam, botnets and Trojans. Only 20 per cent use an integrated security suite.

The threats are far more serious than many adults are willing to acknowledge, Symantec executives say.

For instance, Chaffin notes that 33 per cent of respondents admit to being hacked, while 50 per cent of respondents from China experienced a remote break-in attempt.

To protect their family from financial phishing and spam attacks, she suggests parents use comprehensive security products with data back up.

Apart from products, she said, families should take common sense steps, such as creating safe passwords that aren’t names or a series of numbers, and ones that aren’t used for several different programs.

Parents should also teach children not to click on links, especially in messages or e-mails from people they don’t know.

Symantec has many suggestions for parents looking for new ways to make the family computer safer. Chaffin recommends they start with  “the talk,” – not about the birds and the bees but the “bits and bytes.”

The talk should be a two-way dialogue, not an interrogation, she said. Ask kids about their favourite sites and about issues such as cyber bullying.

Parents, she said, should also set parameters around computer usage — such as how much time kids should spend on the computer, what times of day they are allowed to use it, and whether they (the parents) need to be around at those times.

Parents should also ensure their anti-virus software is up to date, parental controls are being used and all computers in the house are secure, Chaffin said.

Last but not least, she recommends that parents learn about and participate in their children’s online lives.

And that’s a strategy highly recommended by other experts as well.

To protect children against threats, shutting off the computer may not be the best option, suggests Michael Bradley, author of When Things Get Crazy with Your Teen.

Instead, he urges parents to take a look at what their kids are doing online and learn how they interact with the Internet.

“Introduce technology to children at a very early age,” Bradley said. “Don’t wait for kids to come to you and ask you about it … bring it to them as soon as possible and explain privacy rules immediately. The concept of online privacy should be ingrained at a young age.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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