How Safe is That School Laptop *Really*?

The title to the email was “Parenting help desperately needed!” It came in first thing in the morning before I had even started my workday, and as I opened it with interest, the description that followed surprised even me.

This parents’ 4th grader had accessed pornography. Not only had she accessed it, she had been viewing it for over a week. And while the porn exposure at this early age was not shocking to me—sadly the estimated age of first exposure to adult content like this averages somewhere in the 9-11 years old range—the place this child had accessed the porn was.

It wasn’t her personal laptop, iPad, or a cell phone as is usually the case when I field phone calls and emails like this.

It was on her school-issued computer.

The very computer given to her by her elementary school for the purposes of doing class in the time of COVID. A computer she was mandated to have, and that without which, 4th grade in 2020 was simply not possible.

When these computers are issued, parents are assured that there are protections in place to prevent this type of exposure to adult content. So what had gone wrong here?

The parents in this case were pretty on top of things and noticed that something was awry relatively quickly. But not before damage was done. It left me wondering how many other children’s computers are allowing these type of searches but whose parents are not realizing the issue?

After contacting the Director of Technology the parents of this 4th grader learned that, while the laptop was at one point connected to the district’s system that puts in place web filtering, it had, at some point, become inadvertently disconnected from that system. Without this filtering program in place, the computer’s functionality was not compromised; indeed, its ability to access far more content was unleashed.

So what to do? As parents, we are caught between a rock and a hard place. We need the tech to make sure our kids are getting what the need educationally. And yet we fear the tech’s imperfections may cause our child, like the one in this story, to see things we’d really rather they not.

Here are a few concrete steps parents can take:

  1. Be aware that your child’s school-issued computer is not infallible. For younger children in particular make sure you are getting on, monitoring their activity, and talking to them about what is safe to do on tech and what is not. Use monitoring software (on school and personal computers) where you can, but recognize that even the best monitoring software, parental controls, and filtering are no match for active parenting. [Note: Bark, a product I recommend, works on many school email addresses. To get a free trial and 20% off for life, use code BNDN7PF.]

  2. Contact your child’s school—get really clear on what protections are in place, and how you can monitor whether those are working. Make sure you understand exactly how those protections work, what should and should not be able to be viewed, whether a child or teen can intentionally remove them, and whether the district tracks the efficacy of the system on individual computers in any way. Ask whether you will be notified if an error like this occurs (these parents were not), and what protections your district is taking to ensure all kids are safe.

  3. Open up the lines of communication as wide as you can as early as you can between you and your children. Talk to them about sex, pornography, and safety. If you don’t know how to do this, there are wonderful resources on my public resource page and even more comprehensive trainings inside The Heartful Parent Academy. You don’t have to figure out these tough conversations on your own. Make sure they know they can ask you questions and talk to you if they see things meant for grown-ups on the internet.

  4. Understand that children make mistakes. The child in this story was not actively seeking porn—she was curious about how to kiss a boy. It was innocent and age-appropriate curiosity, but in the world of Google, it is only a hop, skip, and a jump before a search about kissing leads to content seriously not intended for kids. If you find out that your child has made a mistake like this, lean in with empathy and understanding, answer their questions, and use the moment to teach; shame and punishment won’t serve you well here.

  5. Talk to other parents at your school. Share this newsletter/article far and wide. Let them know these issues exist, and make sure your school knows you are paying attention. Ask the PTSA to make parents aware and encourage them to be a partner in ensuring all kids are safe. This has to be a community effort more than ever before.

Look, I get it…schools and teachers are putting in Herculean efforts right now get our children educated and keep them mentally and physically healthy. And for the most part they are rocking it. They are doing fantastic work in the midst of a completely unheard of and unprecedented situation. I have mad respect for what they are accomplishing.

But mistakes happen. And computers, tech, and the people who use and mange them mess up. And in the interest of keeping our kids safe, we need to be aware and take some extra steps to ensure that our kids are accessing classwork—not concerning content.