Why do we make young children sit in car seats, or require bike riders to wear helmets? It’s not that we are expecting to get in a crash or hoping that they fall off their bike, but rather that we as parents need to do everything we can to provide as much protection for kids in case something does go wrong.
“Only a small group of kids will get themselves into trouble online,” notes Laurie Nathan, manager of national outreach and partnerships for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “Most children are very aware of how to be appropriate online… there are just a small, select group of children who find themselves at risk.” However, for the sake of these individuals, and all kids in general, it’s imperative for modern parents to learn more about the potential risks which tots will face online. If you’re looking for a quick crash course, sites like ConnectSafely.org, WiredSafety.org and SafeKids.org make welcome beginning points for discussing possible pitfalls surrounding social networks, instant messengers and online environments. Likewise, the NetSmartz newsletter provides a monthly update of current topics and discussion points of growing interest as relate to kids and Internet safety for parents and teachers.
The first and foremost point to remember before we dive into how to keep kids safe online, a topic we explore at length in Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide: As in the real world, an ounce of prevention far outweighs a pound of cure. So before we look closer at many of the specific danger areas and topics of concern when it comes to children and online safety, here are some basic rules worth remembering for kids and adults out of the gate:
- Never give out personal information such as your name, address, hometown, birthday, school, or telephone number online.
- Never upload pictures or video of yourself onto the Internet or to an online service where they can be accessed by individuals you don’t personally know.
- Never tell people where you’re currently located, headed soon, or are planning to visit, including when and where you’re headed out for vacation.
- Don’t download pictures, click on email attachments, or visit unsolicited online links from an unknown source, and be skeptical of those that arrive from friends bearing suspicious titles or arrive without advance warning.
- Don’t pass on or respond to postings that are suggestive, obscene, harassing or explicit, and use block features to prohibit further communications where possible.
- Be skeptical as to the truth of what’s said online. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s true, so take everything with a grain of salt and a dose of common sense.
- Be wary of any possible real-world contact with individuals you’ve met online, and avoid doing so if possible. Should you choose to meet, do so in a public place, bring along a chaperone, and make sure to tell a designated contact where you are going, when you will check in with them, and reach out at regular intervals to let them know that you’re OK.
- Don’t forget that everyone that’s online is playing a character. With grown criminals easily capable of posing as innocent grade-schoolers or sunny teens, you never who’s who out there in a sea of splashy headshots or 3D cartoon avatars.
- No matter how inviting that cyberspace may seem, the same rules of conduct and etiquette that apply to interaction in any public space should also be respected in online areas.
- As with any form of screen time, every hour of online activity should be balanced with equal or greater time away from high-tech devices. Balance and moderation are key, and parents should set designated off-times when access to the Internet or mobile devices is not allowed.
- Where possible, confine use of high-tech devices to common or shared family areas so you can monitor what children are doing, whom they’re doing it with, and how often these activities are occurring.
- Understand the features and capabilities of any high-tech device before putting it in kids’ hands, and educate them as to potential pitfalls. Know that introducing to them to new technologies, products and services requires a running commitment on your part to remain educated and aware as to possible dangers.
- Set ground rules regarding the use of high-tech devices for your household, discuss them with children up-front, and enforce these rules.
- Before allowing kids online access, teach them digital citizenship and online safety basics, and encourage them to come forward with any questions or concerns. Create an encouraging and supportive home environment where all can feel free to air potential issues or problem areas.
These all-purpose tips apply to any situation where kids and technology are involved, and serve as a good starting point for any family looking to set some ground rules. What’s important to remember above all else, remind many experts, is that parental involvement is key. “Online safety does not have a technological solution,” says McAfee’s Holditch. “It’s a wild, hairy world for parents and teachers, so parental supervision needs to be constant and vigilant.”
“Communicating effectively is probably the most important thing that parents can do to keep kids safe,” says the National Center for Missing & Exploited Youth’s Nathan. “And they must start young. Kids need to know that if they’re uncomfortable, scared or confused, they should seek out and tell a trusted adult about these feelings. Open dialogue is vital.”
Should you choose to use Internet activity tracking software, Holditch further thinks that you should be open with children, and let kids know if and when their online activities are being monitored. In fact, his company’s filtering software is specifically designed to be transparent to children. Explain to your kids why you’ve chosen to go this route, should you choose to employ safety or user tracking software, he says, be clear with them about the situation, and value their input. “The point is that there are no secrets: Ultimately you need to have a relationship of trust if your kid is going to go online.”
Kids bear a lot of responsibility, too, says Symantec Internet safety advocate Marian Merritt. She thinks that it’s not fair or right to place the entire burden of protecting digital kids squarely on parents’ shoulders. Certainly, she agrees, parents must provide safe computing devices, teach positive digital habits and establish family rules. But kids need to be responsible users, and understand that when parents investigate their activities, that adults are doing so to try and protect them, not because they’re being mean or nosy.
It’s also important for parents to remember that they’re not monitoring kids’ Internet usage to pry into their personal lives, but rather to safeguard against possible threats. There’s a fine line that must be walked here, but ultimately, logic should rule. So while it’s important to know that your child isn’t being cyber-bullied, and that they’re not downloading dozens of illegal software programs, you don’t need to get caught up in minute details. Ask yourself: Do you really need to know whom they have a crush on or what they’re doing every single micro-second of every day? Perhaps it’s better to look at their overall activities and behaviors from a more broad perspective.
So what are some of the most major and concerns for parents as relate to kids and Internet safety? While some are issues you may just be reading about for the first time, many of these concerns aren’t necessarily new. Concerns like pornography, violent imagery, and solutions that teach kids how to cheat have all been youth-related concerns for decades – the difference now is simply the volume available, and ease of accessibility with which they can be accessed. Furthermore, because of the rise of smartphones, tablet PCs and Internet connectivity, these hazards are increasingly becoming accessible to kids at younger ages, and must be addressed.
As parents to members of Generation Tech, we must not only understand what it is our kids are doing online, but also be aware of potential pitfalls so that we can be ready for them, and have contingency plans in place should concerns arise. But as you read all of the articles in our Modern Parenting series, remember: It’s important not to let fear rule. Consider the information strictly referential in nature – and, potentially, a form of virtual safety equipment, helping you prepare your kids for that big bike or car wreck that they’ll hopefully never have to expect.
For more on how to keep kids safe online, also see Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide.