Children tend to be way ahead of parents on the Internet. For the most part, they are more comfortable with computer technologies, schools are going on-line rapidly and the world is shrinking in totally new ways. Safety in this environment is an evolving issue, one that has attracted widespread media attention. The reality, however, of this technology is that it holds vastly more information, opportunity and richness of experience, than danger.
KIDS ON THE INTERNET
Common advice to parents suggests not allowing your kids to spend hours on the Internet. I don’t automatically agree. If your child sat down with the encyclopedia and kept switching to different books to get deeper and deeper into an area of interest, you wouldn’t object.
This is child-driven learning. It is one of the best kinds of learning. It generates excitement and energy and a feeling of power. The fact that it occurs on the computer, rather than in a big, heavy set of books with very small print and no moving pictures does not diminish its value.
So the key issue is not the hours, it is a combination of the quality of the exchange occurring on the computer and balancing that with the other elements of life such as physical activity, socialization, family, meeting responsibilities like homework and getting a good night’s sleep.
MONEY AND THE INTERNET
In response to parental financial concerns, most on-line service providers now enable several important options that you should exercise:
Contact the billing department and put a “cap” on your bill each month. You may do this by user or for the entire account. I recommend this even for yourself. This prevents an emergency interruption in which the system is left on-line, sometimes for days without your knowledge.
Look for an Alarm Clock in your options. Set it so there is an automatic reminder of time going by every 30 minutes.
Keep a log of how much time is spent daily on-line. Teach your child to use the function that tells how long they were on-line.
Use the internal log in your system. This will allow you to see what areas your children are using, E-mail, chat rooms, etc.
RISKS USING THE INTERNET
There are two different safety issues on the Internet.
- The first is what your children are exposed to, either through their own actions (entering an area that you may not want them to enter) or through accidental exposure.
- The other distinct area of concern is direct communication with your child that may be inappropriate and personal and that could, if mishandled, lead to your child revealing information that puts them or the family at personal risk.
One of the things that people often find appealing about communication via the Internet is the element of anonymity. Children are able to communicate with anyone on the Internet. They are not limited by appearance, age or other potentially prejudicial attributes. This is incredibly freeing. There are many reports of adults having highly sophisticated conversations with someone on the Internet, believing the person to be an adult only to find that they have been communicating with a teenager.
Conversations often become much more personal and intimate than they might in person because this element of anonymity frees some people to speak more openly and honestly. Extraordinarily close relationships can develop exclusively from Internet conversations. A feeling of trust can be cemented. STOP.
The unsettling reality is that all this can and does occur with a total stranger. All of what has been communicated may be true and none of it may be true. It is at the moment of trust, of deciding to make the next move that the greatest areas of risk occur. Children and adults both have to stop and look at what is really known, recognize the risks inherent in any decision to provide more personal information or to make a direct connection via E-mail, telephone or in person. Adults are free to make those decisions. Children are not and they should not be permitted to make these decisions.
SAFETY ON THE INTERNET
There are several ways to protect your children from exposure to pornography, explicit language and other inappropriate interactions on the Internet. Use an online service that gives you good parental control. Familiarize yourself with your Parental Control Center and use it to block:
Chat-rooms, forums, conference rooms, member rooms: These are the areas of greatest risk for exposure to unwanted exchanges. They are not set up for children and are not a good way to spend their time or your money.
Instant messages: these are immediate person-to-person conversations that can only be viewed by the sender and receiver.
Bulletin Board Services: These again are free-wheeling interest driven exchange areas. They are not necessary for children.
News Groups: You have the option to block all news groups or to use a program that blocks news groups by specific words. Programs are now available which help parents keep open access to appropriate news groups and to block all news groups with potentially explicit material.
Use the Log option described earlier and check it at least once a week. Be sure you know what areas your children are accessing and how much time they are spending.
More simply stated, set up your system so your young children are able to use the Internet as a resource not as an interactive system. It’s greatest value lies in this area and the risks are minimal in this area. If you’re not sure how to do this, call your service provider and they will walk you through the steps.
Facebook: While Facebook seems like a safe space and there are some prevention features built in, you and your children should assume that everything posted on Facebook can be seen by everyone. I strongly encourage you to know how to access your child’s Facebook page and then check it regularly.
BASIC GROUND RULES
The other area of risk is that children may provide information on-line that allows someone to send E-mail or other messages that are frightening, harassing or would allow someone to contact your children or the family. Just as you wouldn’t send your child out into a city of 30 million people without supervision and ground rules, you don’t want to send your children onto the Internet without limits and ground rules.
If you are going to allow your children to participate interactively, I recommend a discussion and the following ground rules:
- Never give out your on-line password to anyone. No on-line staff will ever ask for your password.
- Never reveal personal information, your real name, where you live, your parent’s names, telephone number or where you go to school.
- Never send pictures of yourself or your family through the Internet.
- Never continue a conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable, that seems inappropriate or becomes personal. Just as with the telephone, you can hang up by going to another area of the Internet. Tell your parents about what happened.
- Always tell your parents about any communication that uses threatening or bad language.
- Never agree to meet someone. Tell your parents about anyone who makes that suggestion.
- Do not accept product offers or any other opportunities to send you information through the Internet without your parents specific approval.
- Never give your street address to have something mailed.
- Remember that people on the Internet can be anyone, anywhere. Take care of yourself and your family.
As you think about these rules, also think about your children and their vulnerability to adults who have greater knowledge, experience and powers of persuasion. Asking children to follow these rules may be simple in concept and profoundly difficult for children when the time comes. Consider using the Internet solely for information and resources until your children are in their late teens.
RISK-TAKING BEHAVIOR ON THE INTERNET
Risk-taking behavior is a part of growing up that we address in all areas of child safety. The Internet is no exception. Because the Internet is anonymous, many preadolescent and adolescent children deliberately participate in chat-rooms the find titillating. They engage in on-going conversations with people they describe as “creeps” or “perverts.” They tease them and escalate inappropriate discussions. Some even go so far as to set up meetings with these people. This is like “baiting a bear.”
Parents can often detect this type of “chat-line” activity by using the log, by length of time spent on the Net, be secretiveness when you walk into the room, by lots of friends doing the Net together or by bragging on the part of the kids about their activities.
This is not acceptable behavior. It is unsafe and inappropriate. This is not a censorship issue. It is not a “you don’t trust me” issue. It is a safety issue just like hitch-hiking.
Discuss this with your children. Be very clear about how you feel and why. Establish a new and clear agreement with your children about the use of the Internet. Contact other parents if it is a group activity. Use the parent control options, check the log to see if the problem is on-going. If the problem continues, disconnect the Internet until you can come to a clear consensus and plan for using the Internet in a positive, productive and safe way.
MONITORING CHILDREN’S USE OF THE INTERNET
It bears repeating that you have to take the lead in protecting your children in the computer age as well as in the park. This means knowing what’s going on. On-line services are very responsive to parents and safety concerns. They are making it easier and easier for us to monitor what is going on, where our children are spending their time and how much money is spent on the Internet.
Get on the Internet yourself. It opens communication between children and parents. Your children want you to know why the Internet is important to them. You need to participate and you need to be the voice for balance. The Internet is more seductive than television. It can be an extraordinary tool and friend or it can be a sinkhole for time and money. As a parent, you need to take the lead and keep it.