Safe Internet Searching for Homeschooled Students
In this modern day and age, technology is what makes homeschooling a reality. The popularity of online learning has resulted in the need for more online resources. The Internet has a large pool of resources that parents and students can tap into to acquire information they may need. However, we recommend that students develop wise internet surfing skills in order to safely gather information online. As a parent, you might be wondering: “what should I do to make sure that my student is equipped with the right tools to be a safe internet user?” However, not only is it important to make sure that your student is a safe internet user but also, as a parent, you need to make sure that you are well informed and equipped with the right software to protect your student and your computer.
Five things are especially important for your student to keep in mind as they explore the Internet.
1. Know the hosting site you're on.
On the Internet, websites can be carefully curated and filled by their authors, or they can be open places where anyone can post content. The former pose less of a danger to your student. These are usually something like a government website, educational resource, or Enlightium-published page. If you can trust the author of the site, you can trust that the content will be safe; they are not likely to post inappropriate content that would harm your student.
On the other hand, some websites are places where content creators can post whatever they want. Sites like YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, and Vimeo are good examples of this. These sites are like a blank canvas that anyone can paint on. Unfortunately, this means that both good paintings and bad are equally available to a visitor. In addition, the line between the good content and the bad is not always clear. For example, recommendations on YouTube can present your student with unsafe content even from the sidebar of a trusted video. This does not mean that such open hosting websites are bad or should always be avoided. In fact, places like YouTube are home to educational resources, free audiobooks, lectures, and the like. But this does mean that navigating such websites requires additional wisdom on the part of your student.
When your student is on the Internet, they should be aware of the kind of site they are on: is this somewhere where I know every click will lead to safe content? Or is this site somewhere that hosts whatever a user wants to post? The better your student knows the open nature of such websites, the better they’ll be able to say, “I don’t think it would be wise to click on this side recommendation…”
2. Know who to trust on the Internet (and why)
On his deathbed, George Washington imparted some wise words to those around him: “You can’t trust everything you read on the Internet.” Wait, that’s not right. The Internet wasn’t around at George Washington’s time, and we certainly don’t have any record of him saying that. Hmm - it appears George was right. But seriously, this illustrates a good point: just because someone claims something on the Internet does not mean they are right. There are at least three kinds of untrustworthiness that your student will need to be careful of on the Internet.
The first kind of untrustworthiness is simply someone who is wrong but does not know it. This ties in with the second: someone who is intentionally trying to mislead you with wrong information. Your student will find these most often on social media, but these things can also happen on forums or even informational websites. Your student should know how to test claims made by others on the Internet. Here are a few helpful questions your student can ask: “What source is this other person using to make these claims? Do they have any sources backing them up at all? Do they stand to benefit from misleading me?” In addition, if your student comes across a questionable statement that someone else makes, they can quickly cross-check it with a Google search. Finally, knowing your author helps quite a bit. Is this website peer-reviewed and accountable to a group of multiple thinkers? Or is it just the thoughts of a single person who can get away with saying anything they want? Knowing the difference may not entirely determine whether you are reading a trustworthy source, but it is a helpful step in discerning.
The third kind of untrustworthiness is most often found in advertising: clickbait. You or your student have likely seen this at some point. An advertisement claims that someone has discovered a trick for losing lots of weight in just a week, getting really cheap insurance, or defying gravity. The logic behind clickbait goes something like this: “If I present something that looks really appealing to a reader, they’ll definitely click on it!” Unfortunately, almost everything that clickbait claims is too good to be true. Not only this, but clickbait is usually leading you to either viruses or scams. Just behind the promise for that quick six-pack is a place for your credit card information to get stolen, or perhaps for you to download harmful software onto your computer. When your student sees a promise for something appealing and likely unrealistic, they are probably looking at clickbait. Discerning clickbait is a great skill for surfing the web.
3. Don't download files you don't trust.
The Internet is home to tons of useful files. These files can be downloaded onto your computer with just a click, and plenty of them are quite useful. Instead of having to get a necessary program on a hard drive at the store, you can download it from the comfort of your home. But this benefit also comes with a drawback: anyone can put any file on the Internet, and some of them are harmful. These intentionally harmful files, or viruses, can do serious damage to your computer if you install them. Unfortunately, some people are quite clever at hiding viruses. Someone on Reddit may promise you free install files for a game, but what they’re actually giving you is malware that will steal information from your computer.
Here are some helpful questions that your student can ask in order to avoid downloading unsafe files: “Is this file from a trusted site? (For example, am I downloading a Google product from Google? If so, it’s probably safe.) Is this being given to me by an individual on social media or another open sharing site? If so, what reasons do I have for trusting them?” Websites for torrenting and pirating software are notorious for viruses. In addition, your browser or security software may give you a pop-up that tells you you have opened a suspicious file and will try to prevent you from installing it. Be very sure the file you’re opening is trustworthy before closing those warnings.
4. Don't give out personal information unless you trust the site you're giving it to.
In the reality that is the Internet, sometimes you have to give out personal data. For example, in order to buy things from websites, you will need to enter your credit card information. Now, your credit card information is quite sensitive. Whoever has it can effectively steal your money. There are plenty of websites and vendors that you can trust with this kind of information, but there are also plenty of untrustworthy websites. Some people want nothing more than to make a quick buck by charging your card without your knowledge. The kind of important information that you want to keep safe extends beyond card information. For example, think of your bank numbers, your email, your phone number, and your address. If a stranger has your phone number, they can sell it to telemarketers who will then put your phone on a list for spam calls.
For this reason, your student needs wisdom on which websites to share sensitive information. The rules for downloading files also apply here: “Is this site officially related to a trustworthy company? Am I giving my information to an individual on social media, or to a company?” Remember, you should never give sensitive information to someone unless you entirely trust them. If you are unsure whether or not a website is safe, you can always Google their name along with the word “scam,” “trustworthy,” or “review.” Some websites give people a place to share their experience with the page you are unsure of, and these other reviews can save you from posting your information in an unsafe place.
5. Have a safe dialogue between you and your student.
This last suggestion is different from the others in that it requires interaction between you and your student. Perhaps your student is unsure whether or not they should download a program, or they don’t know if they trust a claim they’ve read on the Internet. It may even be that they’ve come across harmful content and are feeling shame or guilt from what they’re seen. In all these situations, a safe, trusting relationship with your student is key. However, this can be the most important part in helping your student navigate the Internet safely.
If you need accountability software that blocks websites, monitors Internet usage, or provides similar Internet safety, there are a number of options. Read our blog about accountability software here.