Safe, Kid-Friendly Alternatives to Google, YouTube, and Beyond

parental controls, safe social media websites for kids, safe video websites for kids, safe search websites for kids, safe gaming websites for kids, online child internet safety

Today’s youth is exposed to technology very early in life – according to 2015 American Academy of Pediatrics, ”30% of U.S. children first play with a mobile device when they are still in diapers”.  Relative to toddlers, children aged 8 are more capable and conscientious of their actions.  However, they are barely halfway through elementary school!  Yet in a recent study, parents started to allow unsupervised internet time when their child was 8 years old.

Big name sites such as Google and Facebook have created safe search options in order to protect young kids from inappropriate content on the web, e.g., Google SafeSearch and Youtube Safety Mode.  However, with high upload volumes every day, it’s almost impossible to filter out all the “bad stuff”.

Parents can’t constantly look over their child’s shoulder and watch for unsuitable results that may pop up.  Luckily, developers know that.  Here are some safe, kid-friendly alternatives for the top internet activities. These sites contain only pre-filtered content, so parents can rest easy while their child uses the web.

Search Engines

Search engines host a wealth of information, spanning from every topic imaginable.  A lot of this content is particularly unsavory for young children.  It’s easy to stumble upon adult content, especially with slang perpetuated by web-culture today – feel free to type in “jugs” (porcelain and ceramic, right?) into Google with SafeSearch enabled and see what comes up.

Instead, set websites like kidrex.org or googlejunior.com as your browser homepage.  You don’t need to “enable” anything on these sites, all the safety measures are ready to go.  Kidrex is aimed toward a younger elementary school audience while Google Junior is perfect for kids entering their tween years.  Google Junior even provides a word and quote of the day.  See what happens when the word “porn” is searched:  

 

Kidrex blocks everything even remotely related, while Google Junior provides relevant, non-explicit results surrounding porn in a different context –current events, news, even web filtering shows up!  

Video Streaming

Youtube Safety Mode blocks obviously explicit video content, but it’s by no means infallible.  They even say this themselves: “Restricted Mode hides videos that may contain inappropriate content flagged by users and other signals. No filter is 100% accurate, but it should help you avoid most inappropriate content”.  Many suggestive videos escape the filtering criteria, and the comments posted underneath each video can be extremely profane.  

Start your kids on Kideos, a site that contains a myriad of trendy, kid-friendly entertainment.  It includes a variety of popular TV shows from channels including, but not limited to Disney, Nickelodean, PBS Kids.  It does not allow comment posting.  They also offer an app compatible with most smartphone platforms.

It even allow parents to set limits on videos based on age group or choose how long their child can watch videos, after passing a “parent security question”.

parental controls, youtube safety mode, kideos, safe youtube

Social Media

45% of kids aged 8-11 use social media.  Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram offer a great way to connect with peers, stay in touch, find a community, and keep updated on current events.  However, these sites are also filled with online predators and scams that target young, uninformed users.  They also have the highest occurrence of cyberbullying, Facebook topping the chart as #1.

To avoid these risks and foster a safe, fun online community for younger children and pre-teens, various companies have created social network sites with “training wheels”.  These range from ad-less interfaces, features that connect a parent account to the child’s account, or manual review of uploaded photos by on-hand company staff.  Some sites are even centered around themes – Franktown Rocks is a site devoted to safe social networking surrounding sharing and making music.  BBC recently compiled a list with the top safe, social media sites for kids aged 7-13.

School Research

When tackling a research project, students tend to immediately turn to Google.  This is a great resource for gathering ideas, but the quality of results are varied.  Students may have to comb through a large amount of unaccredited sources and irrelevent search results before finding something they will be able to cite.

Many schools actually purchase subscriptions to online databases for students to use; these are heavily underutilized.  Common names are Cengage Learning or EBSCOhost .  They serve as virtual, portable libraries.  After students indicate the subject area they are interested in, these databases supply relevant content from scholarly article, ebooks, and encyclopedia entries.  All students need is their school access code – which is usually posted on their school’s homepage or around the school libraries.
Say your child had a research project about guns.  See the contrast between Google SafeSearch and a database with the single keyword “guns”:

>> Google safe search first provides near by places to access guns.

safesearch, child internet safety, safe image search

>> Then supplies more information about buying guns with a mention there at the bottom concerning guns in current events.

safesearch, child internet safety, safe image search

>> However, the database lists books about the history and culture of guns, the controversy over gun rights, and even the theory behind electron guns.  Much more relevant to a research project.

research database, child internet safety, school filter

Gaming

Last, but not least, gaming!  Kids spend most of their time on the internet playing games.   Yet, these sites are often riddled with scams, predators, and violent-themed content.  This list provides a wide variety of alternative sites which are as fun as they are educational.  Trusted sites include PBS Kids and Brain Pop!. There are safe sites devoted to a range of interests from arts to sports!   

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8 Lessons Learned from Network Bots

Our systems have detected unusual traffic
from your computer network

At Securly, we have gained a lot of insight into bot behavior based on our own experience seeing this message. Google’s security team has been tremendously helpful in understanding this issue.

We are sharing our findings below hoping they will be helpful for anyone experiencing similar issues. Note that we are intentionally not sharing any insights that Google wouldn’t want bot writers to get access to.

Here are 8 lessons learned from our experience with network bots:

1) Google search generally doesn’t like “onion routing”

Onion routing can happen even unintentionally on many networks when the school has a network or a web-filter with more than one egress points to the public Internet.

If Google detects that the same user(s) is accessing its service from different source IP addresses, it flags the behavior as bad. This is how Tor or HOLA VPN works as well.

We haven’t dealt with HOLA specifically, but it is possible that some students may have installed HOLA VPN to get around web-filtering, leading to the entire district/school IP(s) getting flagged by Google.

2) Google attempts to flag traffic at the user-level first before it bans the entire IP address

To do this, it naturally has to rely on the IP addresses present in the traffic it sees.

If the school network uses proxy-based web-filters that are incapable for preventing onion-routing and additionally are incapable of adding X-Forwarded-For headers to the Google traffic, the school will trigger Google bot alerts in our experience.

3) Repeated Google queries can get the IP flagged

If onion-routing is not involved, even with fixed IP addresses, we have found that bots that are performing repeated Google queries can get the IP flagged.

4) If you use hosted or cloud-based proxies, ensure that these are not open proxies.

In our experience, restricting traffic to registered school IPs helps a lot.

If your school needs to keep proxy access open to even unregistered source IPs (e.g. to support take-home 1:1 iPads being proxied through on-premise web filtering proxy), then you must ensure that X-forwarded-for headers are added.

Again, this is only possible if your web-filters are capable of MITM HTTPS handling. As explained above, without this, the bots would appear to Google to come from the IP address of the school web-filter causing bot alerts to show up for all users behind that IP.

5) Unsolvable Google captchas can be caused by having multiple public IP addresses

If you are seeing a Google captcha that you are unable to solve, in our experience that is a sign that the Google related traffic is exiting your network from more than one public facing IP address. This is common in medium to large sized districts.

What happens in this case is the captcha gets served because Google sees “onion routing”, and once it is served, even when it is solved, Google doesn’t associate the solved captcha from one IP address to the offending IP for which it served the captcha.

For example, google.com/search may have happened from IP address A, but the captcha itself was served from ipv4.google.com which is accessed via IP address B. In our experience, ensuring Google.com and ipv4.google.com get accessed from the same source IP get rids of the issue where the captcha is unsolvable.

6) Bots are smart!

Bots are extremely smart, and we have found even cases where the bots discovered that we were an open-proxy only over the CONNECT + HTTP methods (we have regular HTTP, regular HTTPS and CONNECT HTTPS covered).

7) A good way to detect bots on your network is to look at night-time traffic

Bots in general do not go to sleep like humans do, and for that reason, you should see Google search traffic from these happening even at 2AM local time.

Firewall logs can quickly point to the source of the traffic on your school network.

8) A single infected machine can impact your whole network

Yes, a single infected machine on your network can bring the access to Google search down for the entire district.

This information is not endorsed by Google in any way, and is provided on a as-is basis here with the hope of helping the school admin community.


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Emerging Trends in EdTech

The rise of ‘1:1’

In recent years, schools around the globe have been increasingly adopting 1:1 initiatives, programs in which each student is issued a personal device to facilitate learning.

While there are a number of different devices being used in the classroom, all with their own merits, the clear leaders up until now have been Google’s Chromebook and Apple’s iPad. Each of these devices consists of its own avid supporters, which has led to countless ‘iPad vs Chromebook‘ debates over the last few years.

Although iPads were initially the popular choice for many schools, Chromebooks surpassed iPads as the market leader in late 2014.

A recent Gartner study projects that worldwide Chromebook sales are expected to reach 7.3 million units by the end of 2015, with the education sector accounting for 72 percent, 69 percent, and 60 percent of sales in EMEA, Asia/Pacific, and the U.S., respectively. Regardless of the school’s device of choice, it seems almost a given now that it will in some capacity use Google Apps for Education, a cloud-based suite of Google tools such as GMail, Calendar, Drive, and Classroom that are available for free to schools.

Common Core State Standards Initiative

A big catalyst for the rapid growth of 1:1 programs has been the Common Core State Standards, an initiative adopted by 48 US states that provides over $10B of funding to help schools teach students important 21st century skills.

As described in the ‘Recommended Digital Literacy & Technology Skills‘ handbook for the state of California, students must be able to ‘Use online tools (e.g., e-mail, online discussion forums, blogs, and wikis) to gather and share information collaboratively with other students, if the district allows it.’ The initiative has given rise to the number of student-produced blogs, YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, and numerous other mediums by which students use online content to enhance their learning experience.

It is through this focus on technological innovation that the concepts of blended learning and the flipped classroom have been able to flourish. Blended learning provides a balance between traditional classroom instruction and online learning. Often considered a type of blended learning, the flipped classroom challenges the traditional pedagogical model by encouraging students to learn new content at home and use classroom time for collaborative, hands-on activities. Perhaps one of the best known examples of this practice is witnessed in schools that have adopted Khan Academy’s math curriculum.

Increased device use in homes

The proliferation of devices is not unique to schools. Whereas most American families owned just a single computer throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, most US households now contain 5 or more mobile devices. Moreover, it is increasingly common for students in 1:1 programs to take their school devices home with them throughout the school year or even during the summer break, further contributing to abundance of technology within the walls of their home.

Challenges

There’s a significant shift in the challenges that educators and parents face with kids using the Internet. The risk of exposure to adult websites is now not the main worry. Instead, the focus is now on the 21st century threats of social media and social networking’ specifically, schools are perplexed by cyber-bullying and parents are concerned by lost productivity and unsafe user-generated content on otherwise safe sites.

Sitting behind a computer screen, adolescents often have no filter on what they say to and about their peers. This has led to increased prevalence of depression, self-harm, or even suicide due to posts made on Ask.fm or Facebook like social networking sites. Parents find their kids from a very early age spending hours of time watching related videos on YouTube wasting time and potentially watching unsafe content along the way.

Student Data and Privacy

With the abundance of data being generated by the scores of K-12 service providers, these types of questions are becoming easier to answer. EdTech companies like Bright Bytes have been successfully using school data to measure the impact on student outcomes and are helping schools make better choices about where to invest their technology dollars. Understanding that students consume more data on mobile than any other medium, Remind 101 has been able to take school data and deliver it an easy way (e.g., text messages, SMS alerts, and others.) to help parents, students, and teachers to stay connected.

Because student data is being produced at a faster rate than ever before, it becomes imperative to have safeguards in place which protect students and families from identify theft and other online security risks. The first step in realizing this goal is to hold the EdTech companies themselves accountable for using their data in a safe and responsible manner. To that end, The Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) formed the Student Privacy Pledge, an initiative to ‘safeguard student privacy regarding the collection, maintenance, and use of student personal information.’ As of this article, 157 K-12 service providers have signed the official pledge, which was given recognition by President Obama and the White House in late 2014.

This article was published in Silicon India Magazine. To read the original article, please click here.


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10 illustrations that show why Google SafeSearch should be used with Creative Commons

Google SafeSearch, Safe Image Search, Creative Commons License Filter

Google SafeSearch is a powerful setting focused on reducing the inappropriate content from both search and image search results. But with so much new content uploaded every day, it’s nearly impossible to filter out all – or even a majority – of the “bad stuff”.

Enter Creative Commons, a non profit organization that advocates for the legal sharing of digital content by filtering image searches on the browser once enabled. This multi-faceted tool works complementary to Google SafeSearch, providing additional criteria that further restricts inappropriate content.  

To see how the image search results differ between pure SafeSearch and SafeSearch with the Creative Commons filter, we looked at hundreds of side-by-side comparisons of Google image searches and picked just a few of the results to show here, separated by category.

Notes:

  • Because of space constraints, only the first two rows of the image search results were included.
  • Image search results from Google SafeSearch appear on the left.
  • Image search results with Google SafeSearch + Creative Commons appear on the right.

Sexual content


1) “playboy”

comparison of image search results of terms 'playboy' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

Chances are that a student has only one thing in mind when searching for the term “playboy”. The results (on both sides) also suggest this is the case.

However, Google SafeSearch results are predominantly of centerfolds from the Playboy magazine cover, whereas the Creative Commons images are mostly focused on the brand, returning results that include logos, the famous mansion, and a private jet associated with Playboy.

2) “chippendale”

comparison of image search results of terms 'chippendale' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

Englishman Thomas Chippendale was a famous cabinet-maker and furniture designer from the 16th century.

An unsuspecting student doing a report on Chippendale would be quite surprised to see the results returned by Google SafeSearch, which almost exclusively show the male adult dancers.

We again see a stark contrast here, with the Creative Commons results showing cabinetry and furniture created by the aforementioned British designer.

3) “jugs”

comparison of image search results of terms 'jugs' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

Dating back to the 15th century, this otherwise innocuous term became not-so-innocent when it started being used to refer to a female’s chest.

For those unfamiliar with this slang term, they would expect to see search results similar to those shown with the Creative Commons filter in place and not those returned by Google SafeSearch, which include a few images that are overtly sexual in nature.

4) “moist”

comparison of image search results of terms 'moist' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

The Creative Commons search results display images one would associate with moisture: contact lenses, vegetation, and a freshly baked loaf of bread. For the same term, a majority of Google Safe Search results return memes that use the word moist as part of sexual innuendo.

5) “derriere”

comparison of image search results of terms 'derriere' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

Students are creative. We know this much to be true. So instead of searching for the standard terms that are likely to be blocked by their school web filter, they often think of creative workarounds via synonyms.

On the left, we see that not one of the results from Google SafeSearch is school-appropriate.

On the right, Creative Commons has done a great job of filtering out suggestive photos and includes images mostly from news in France (as we know, the word derrière has a French etymology). 

6) “pornstar”

comparison of image search results of terms 'pornstar' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

Searching for the term “pornstar” is an interesting example.

Google SafeSearch has of course filtered out any nudity that would normally appear in the standard image search results, but the images that remain are still very suggestive in nature.

On the other hand, the Creative Commons license does not return any results, thus deterring a student from searching for this term in the future.

Violence

Sexual content aside, there are many images that students should not be exposed to, especially at younger ages.


7) “gun control”

comparison of image search results of terms 'beheading' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

As one watches the news today, it’s impossible not to hear about mass shootings and the debate over gun control in the US.

While Google SafeSearch filters out overtly violent images, it still displays several pictures of handguns and even one violent image that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. 

On the right, Creative Commons: a) does not return any images of actual guns (after all, this wasn’t the intent of the student), and b) does a good job of displaying images that are representative of both sides of the issue – those in favor of gun control as well as those in favor of protecting the second amendment. Students will likely find the latter to be more useful in their research. 

8) “suicide”

comparison of image search results of terms 'suicide' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

Suicide is an extremely serious topic, especially when students are involved in the discussion. Often triggered by peer cyberbullying, suicide is listed as the 3rd leading cause of death for adolescents and the #1 cause of death globally for older adolescent girls.

Whatever the intent of the student’s search for this term, the results from Creative Commons are more helpful and appropriate.

While the Google SafeSearch results include images of a noose, a man putting a gun to his head, and a blank background that simply reads “the end”, the Creative Commons results offer facts and figures on suicide and even a few resources to help with intervention and prevention.

Educational

One might make the argument that employing the Creative Commons license is too restrictive, that perhaps this feature would prohibit students from doing research on a particular topic related to school.

We performed hundreds of educational searches and found that more often than not, the search results with Creative Commons were as good, if not better, than those returned by Google SafeSearch.


9) “Pythagorean theorem”

comparison of image search results of terms 'pythagorean theorem' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

For this specific example, Google SafeSearch displays images that primarily state the famous equation of the Pythagorean Theorem: a2 + b2 = c2

The Creative Commons results go a step further and show different visuals that demonstrate why this equation holds true for right triangles.

10) “solar system”

comparison of image search results of terms 'suicide' from google safesearch / safe search and the creative commons license

Here, the results on both sides are fairly identical.

Where the Creative Commons results offer a slight advantage is that for two images, they provide a visual description of all the planets’ relative distance from each other and the sun. One image is even normalized to 100, using a football field as the reference point, something more likely to resonate with students.


While the additional layer of the Creative Commons filter is not by any means foolproof, it serves as a great way to avoid classroom distractions for students and often provides more meaningful, relevant, and helpful content that aids in their research.

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