Age-appropriate: a better approach to online safety?

[Image - © 2012 Adam Daly-Gourdialsing. All Rights Reserved.]
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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Chris Puttick, internet entrepreneur, gives his view on internet safety for children and young adults in the age of ever increasing accessibility of inappropriate content. The week of 22-26th of October 2012 is Get Safe Online week, highlighting the risks inherent in the Internet for all who use it. My own interest is in how we can keep the youngest safe while still allowing them to reap the benefits. The Internet is an amazing place; full of fun, games, make-believe and knowledge, and it is a great way to learn about all sorts of things. But the internet is also full of things you should perhaps not encounter until you are older, and some things you’d probably prefer never to know.

However what is inappropriate, whether because it is unpleasant or complicated or dangerous, is not encompassed by the concept of “adult content”, so often the focus of discussions in this area. Inappropriate includes content for older children; there are things you should learn, view or read when you are eight or nine that you are best not encountering when you are four, and things that are best not learnt when you are only seven or eight, that are perhaps more age appropriate to a ten or eleven year old or a teenager.

It’s difficult to ensure age-appropriate content just by setting the same criteria for all Internet users within a family; appropriateness of content is relative to age and maturity. You cannot say that all content that is suitable for a fifteen year old is suitable for a five year old; or allow only content suitable for a three year old to be available on your household broadband, preventing countless numbers of useful, interesting and entertaining web pages from being available for older members of your family. Nor does it make sense to have some household devices that can browse the web protected while providing no safeguards for others.

Yet most solutions available to filter the Internet do just that, planting a staff on the bridge in front of adult content and declaring “you shall not pass”. Those that provide a more nuanced approach do so with a degree of complication justified only by their origins as tools for organisations, where an expert is paid to look after them. Such limitations are fundamental to their design principles, which at their base is an assumption that all is good unless known to be bad; and when you are protecting staff in an office or undergraduates in a university computer suite, such an approach is possibly the best available.

But just as most would not send a toddler out into the city armed only with instructions to avoid specific streets, so such an approach is not the most effective way to let young children grow up on the Internet, and certainly the commonly available solutions do not empower parents to control when and at what age their child can encounter what types of material.

You cannot know what is on a site or page before you have visited. The only way to be sure a site, page or video is appropriate for your child is by having viewed them before your child tries to, or having someone else view them for you. Even if you have time to sit with your child whenever they want to browse the web, and time enough to have pre-searched and pre-browsed (and pre-empted!), you will be removing one of great wonders of the medium, the opportunity to explore.

You can get more information about how to “Get Safe Online” at and if you’re concerned you’re not doing enough about your and your family’s safety online I highly recommend visiting. You can get a reasonable degree of protection for your older children and yourself with existing solutions, such as the excellent Open DNS, but there is no magic bullet and nothing that is focused on providing the level and type of protection that would best suit younger children. For now accompanied browsing is probably the best option for this group, but with a plethora of browsing devices you would do well to ensure password protection is enforced on all of them. We’re working hard to bring you better options!

Chris Puttick is founder and CEO of the Internet startup TwoTen, which, with the help of a duck, is developing an online service that protects and guides younger children on the Internet. TwoTen ensures only age-appropriate material is available, regardless of how the web is being accessed: PC, tablet, laptop, phone or TV.