It seems like such an innocent request: Can I use your computer? But before you let your grandchild log-on, you need to think about a few safety precautions — for their protection, and yours.
There are significant risks in letting a child use your computer unsupervised, especially if it's connected to the Internet. The social nature of the Web means that strangers can contact them via e-mail, instant message, or chat room and ask for sensitive personal information or arrange an in-person meeting.
More likely, a child can come across inappropriate Web content or download viruses inadvertently. There are steps you can take, however, to make sure surfing or playing on a computer is a safe, pleasurable, and educational experience.
Precaution #1: Create A Guest User Account
This is for your protection. You'll want to password-protect your log-in, so inquisitive users can't access personal data stored in financial software, bank or brokerage accounts, legal documents or e-mail accounts. It's simple to create a guest account on a Windows PC from the Control Panel: Select User Accounts and create a separate user account for young guests.
Designate the account "Limited" to restrict your grandchild's ability to install new applications or download software that may contain malicious code.
Note: The first time you open the browser in the guest account, it will prompt you to import your user settings into the new browser. Choose "No" to make sure the guest's browser will not autofill account information or passwords you'd rather keep private.
Precaution #2: Online Or Off?
A quick way to remove much of the risk from your computer is to simply disconnect it from the Internet and use it as a gaming station. You'll need to invest in age-appropriate CD-ROM games; check out Children's Software from www.amazon.com or titles reviewed by Children's Software Review. If your grandchild is an infrequent visitor, this may be the easiest and most cost-effective way to go.
Precaution #3: Check With Their Parents
Before you invest in protective monitoring software, check with your son or daughter-in-law and find out what steps they've taken to secure their home computers. Your grandchild may already be familiar with a certain set of tools, such as a child-friendly browser or filtering program, and it would be easiest to reproduce that setup on your machine.
Make sure to find out what the ground rules are at home: If instant messaging is allowed, how far parents want their kids going into social spaces like Facebook or chat rooms, and how long they're allowed to spend on the computer per day. Your kids have likely thought out what works best for their kids, and would not be happy to learn that Grandma is more lax. Get the 411, and then set ground rules that support what's allowed at home.
Precaution #4: Have A Conversation
Talk to your grandchildren about what they like to do online, and make sure they understand that personal information should not be given out, even if they're asked directly by someone they "know" through the Web. Hackers can monitor discussions in social spaces and can also sniff e-mails and web forums. Sophisticated scams can even involve soliciting phone calls or other fishing techniques.
Let your grandchild know that your computer and data are valuable to you and that you expect them to safeguard them carefully. Also, they should understand that they are not allowed to disclose any information to anyone unless they first ask your permission, even if it's just their e-mail address to sign up for a newsletter or register at a new web site.
Precaution #5: Install Protective Software
Your son or daughter may have a good suggestion for the software setup that works and that their child is accustomed to. If they have good advice, follow it. If not, it's fairly simple to find information online about popular parental monitoring and filtering software. A few choices are CyberSitter, NetPurity, ContentWatch, and ChildSafe.
You can find additional resources online for monitoring software and child safety browsers. As a basic protective measure, any computer that's connected to the Internet should also have anti-spyware, anti-virus, and a security firewall installed and up-to-date.
Precaution #6: Surfing Guides
Where do you grandkids like to go online? You can broaden their horizons by directing them to child-safe search engines such as Yahoo!Kids or Ask Jeeves. You can also download a child browser such as Bumpercar for the Mac or KidSplorer for a PC, which automatically limits their access to approved web sites. You can guide them manually as well, visiting sites that offer family-friendly games and educational resources. Try PBS Kids, FactMonster, and the American Library Association's list of Great Web Sites for Kids.
Precaution #7: Stick Around
The best way to safeguard your grandchildren is to be a presence while they are online. Check in with them regularly to see where they've gone, and be within voice distance so you can hear any questions they might ask you. The key is to be readily available, in case they hit a snag but don't want to interrupt their online activities just to check something with you that, most likely, is okay. Stay close and, whenever possible, stay involved.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.