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How To Set Online and Internet Safety Rules For Kids

As a parent, it’s normal to wonder about how to set online rules for kids. Each family has their own set of rules regarding chores, bedtimes, curfews and other common household concerns. As we point out in Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide though, it’s equally important that you also have a set of high-tech house rules regarding when and how consumer electronics devices and technologies can be used, and hours and occasions (e.g. dinner or shared family time) during which access to these gadgets or innovations is prohibited.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you limit a child’s use of TV, movies, video and computer games to no more than one or two hours a day – and abstain from allowing children under two access to screen time entirely. We think it’s a good idea to consider setting broad limits in general for any device that has a screen, period.

Kids need to understand that time spent in front of high-tech toys shouldn’t be provided as an inalienable right, but rather earned as privilege. Many families start with a daily allowance of screen time, such as one hour per day, and add or subtract time as a reward or punishment for good or bad behavior, superior performance at school or getting chores done around the house. Of course, while this system works well for younger kids and with shared household devices, when children begin using their own mobile solutions such as smartphones or iPads, whose usage is harder to monitor, you’ll want to tweak rules accordingly.

As an added rule of thumb, it’s also best to keep screens and screen usage out of kids’ rooms whenever possible. We recommend confining computers, gaming systems and other connected devices to common areas of the house. Doing so not only allows you to keep abreast of online interactivity, usage patterns, and who kids are interacting with, as well as how. It also lets you be present when devices are used, monitor playtime and keep kids from secretly sneaking online to play World of Warcraft at 3AM on a school night. Obviously, the ability to restrict devices to common areas is not always possible, especially as relates to mobile and handheld consumer electronics. But you should push for use in shared spaces whenever possible.

Another important ground rule your family should consider implementing, as suggested earlier, are setting aside times of day that will be free of devices for everyone in the family. Whether it’s at the dinner table or during a weekly Friday night movie, asking everyone to get set aside their high-tech gizmos (except those actively being shared by the whole family) will ensure more engaging and rewarding family time. 

Likewise, speak with your children and establish rules concerning what types of information are acceptable to post and share with friends and which pieces of data aren’t. Make it clear that personal and family business should remain private and that it is inappropriate to gossip or post vague updates about people in your life that are frustrating you. Along similar lines, it should be crystal clear who your child can communicate with and who they can’t. Kids need to be able to know what to do when they receive unsolicited communication from strangers, such as reporting these outreach attempts as spam and blocking the user.

You’ll also want to create other everyday rules for wise high-tech use, e.g. in the case of young children, setting a rule that only grownups can enter personal information into a website, including addresses and phone numbers. Eventually your kids will learn what is safe to input and what is not, but when just starting out, it’s best to provide some basic guardrails. Important too is to specify the exact days, times and circumstances when it’s alright for your kids to be on the computer, browsing the Web on your tablet PC or using their smartphones. Do homework and chores have to be done first? Are high-tech leisure-time activities appropriate to engage in on school nights? Should screens be shut down a minimum of an hour before bed? Establish guidelines ahead of time, and make sure everyone in the household understands them, so that there are no questions as to what is allowed in your home.

Setting an electronic curfew in your house may also help curtail late-night use and improve your family’s overall health by promoting restful sleep. One tip when enforcing these deadlines is to create a common area of the house where all devices must be stored and charged, and requiring family members to drop off and store their devices there before bedtime each time.

Ultimately, setting and enforcing rules is important to establishing a sense of routine, as is being consistent with observing them and placing clear guidelines on both the punishments doled out for infractions and circumstances under which they can be cured. Be sure to start early, advises The National Center for Missing and Exploited Youth’s Laurie Nathan. Establish expectations from an early age, such as what sites kids can visit, how long they can stay logged on for, and who it’s OK for children to talk to. She recommends the NetSmartz.org home page as an excellent starting place for sparking general online safety discussions.

For more information, also be sure to see Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide.

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