When I was a kid, I can remember my mom being really concerned about the television show “Happy Days” – she worried whether it was appropriate for me.
It seems almost comical today, thinking back on it – given everything parents have to worry about now with television, video games, cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging, blogs, social networking sites like MySpace – and e-mail. None of it even existed when I was a kid!
When I was growing up, an important milestone was getting my driver’s license at 16.
Because we specialize in helping our clients market their local businesses on the Internet, I spend a lot of time online – and this started me thinking about kids on the web and what parents can do to educate them on the great advantages – and dangers – all this connectivity brings with it.
The Internet really is a double-edged sword for kids. Common Sense Media did a study in May of last year that showed that “85% of the parents felt that the Internet posed the most risk to kids or teens 11-16”, yet “74% of them believed that the Internet offers them the most opportunities to learn and grow.”
It’s with this in mind that I offer the following tips on how you can keep your kids safe when they’re online – while not being so restrictive that they can’t benefit from the good that can come from the web. (Full disclosure: I don’t have kids, so before anyone gets excited… I know, it’s easy to say but harder to do. This list isn’t meant to be an education in parenting – more of a primer in “teen Internet behavior,” if you will.)
According to the Common Sense Media study, 80% of the parents surveyed were concerned about sexual predators; 78% of them said they did not believe that social networking sites such as MySpace were appropriate places for their kids to meet new people or hang out. Parents are obviously struggling with trying to balance their desire for making the Internet safer with providing the learning opportunities the web has to offer.
By far, the best thing that you can do as a parent is to be involved – learn what your kids are doing online. Understand the technology and how it’s used so that you can teach your kids how to stay safe.
There are 6 main ways that most kids use the Internet:
- Web surfing
- Instant Messaging (IM)
- Chat Rooms
- Social Networking
I’ll discuss each one separately, as each has it’s own unique quirks:
General Web Surfing
This includes searching the web, downloading music from iTunes or similar sites, watching or downloading web videos and researching their homework (you hope!) When I was in school, we had to go to the library – today, kids can search the library’s inventory from their home computer and have access to millions of sites worth of information. The access to information today is unprecedented.
But left unsupervised, they’re going to use that amazing search capability to type “sex” or “Brittany Spears” into their Google Search bar, and this is where it gets dicey. You’ll want to check with your ISP (Internet Service Provider) to see what kind of filtering software they provide, or what they recommend you use. Another problem with surfing to these sites is Pop-ups – ads that literally “pop-up” on your screen and are usually advertising something inappropriate – or worse, containing a virus or spyware that infects your computer when you click on it.
You can visit your browser’s history cache to see the sites they’ve been visiting, but if your teen is savvy, they know how to clear that out – your best bet is to watch where your kids are surfing, and keep the lines of communication about what they are seeing online open.
As with general web surfing, one of the greatest features of being online is access to e-mail – but e-mail too is subject to the dangers of viruses, spyware and Spam. Often times you can receive e-mail with an attachment from someone you know and trust, only to find out that – unbeknownst to them – their attachment contained a virus – and now your computer is infected.
You should always make sure your kids are only e-mailing with people they know. Remind them that they should never open an attachment from someone they don’t know.
IM, as it’s called, is the most popular form of communication between middle school aged kids and above – be it at their computer or over their cell phone – kids seem to be always connected. IM is free, (on your computer – there is usually a charge for text messaging on your cell phone). This gives kids immediate access to their friends and family. IMers have a screen name that they use when IM-ing each other and they collect their friends in what are called “buddy lists.” These buddy lists can grow to be enormous, with most kids not knowing everyone who is on their list.
Make it a point to encourage your kids to only IM with people they know. Don’t allow IM-ing during homework time and talk to your kids about what they say on IM. Remind them that the person on the other end of that chat may not be who they think he is – tell them never to give out their full name, where they go to school, where they live, or after school activities they may be participating in.
If you are really concerned about your child’s IM activity, every major IM program has a feature that allows you to capture all the IM’s sent from a computer (or, if your child is very Internet savvy and turns this feature off, you can rely on software called a keyword tracker – that basically captures all of the keystrokes on the computer so that you can “play it back” later to find out for sure who they’ve been talking to and what they’ve been saying.
Like the name implies, chat rooms are gatherings of people online – most chat rooms have a theme – a hobby, interest or passion that draws new members to the chat room. Completely anonymous, chat rooms allow you to register to participate without verifying your identity – so you have really no idea who you are talking to on the other end of the keyboard. Common Sense Media recommends that kids under 14 not participate in chat rooms unless accompanied by an adult because of this reason. The danger, again, is that kids are often too trusting – revealing personal information, real names, etc. Or – often times, kids who know not to reveal personal information are “tricked” into mentioning where they go to school, or activities after school that are easily found by folks with less than honorable intentions.
A “Blog” is the short name for a “Web log” – a web page where the owners of the page (bloggers) can post whatever content they want to – information about a hobby, journals about their daily life, stream-of-consciousness thoughts – anything they want to post to the world is fair game. The problem, of course, comes in when kids start their own blogs (or post comments to other’s blogs) and reveal personal information – a big problem because blogs can be accessed by anyone, anywhere with a web connection.
The first place to start with your kids is to find out whether they have a blog – and to reinforce (even if they deny having one) that under no circumstance should they ever post personal information. A big reason is the fact that 1 in every 5 kids is sexually solicited online (according to Common Sense Media).
Remind your kids, too, that it’s not cool to post nasty stuff about other kids (or teachers – or anyone for that matter) – for “golden rules” reasons – but there’s another reason as well.
As your kids go through high school and move on to college, I’ve heard stories about college admittance offices “googling” new applicants, finding their blog – and being very shocked at what they’ve found. A good rule of thumb is, if they wouldn’t want it printed on the front page of the newspaper, your kids shouldn’t post it online.
Sites like MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, YouTube – these are all examples of social networking – virtual communities where people can post their own blogs or pages and chat with other members. It’s all about control – the ability to edit their own content is an appealing and addictive thing.
Reinforce with your kids that their pages are open for the world to see – and access. There are a variety of ways you can approach this with your kids – if you can’t find their site by googling them, and they won’t share their site with you, there are ways you can snoop on them – it’s totally up to you. Common Sense Media offers some great tips on navigating the social networking landscape on their website.
So – what’s a worried parent to do? To recap:
- Remind your kids never to give out personal information – explain to them that 1 out of every 5 kids is sexually solicited online.
- Also, remind them not to e-mail or IM with strangers – and never, ever set up a meeting with a stranger.
- Explain to them that anything they post on the web is available for anyone, anywhere with access to the web. If they wouldn’t want to read it on the front page of the newspaper, they shouldn’t post it – anywhere – online.
- Above all, keep the lines of communication open with your kids – talk about what they do online, have them show you how a blog works – have them help you set up an IM screen name and learn how to use it. Take an interest in their online activities and be there to hear what they have to say.
You can find many more great tips and resources for helping kids stay safe online, as well as information about media in general and your kids at Common Sense Media (www.CommonSenseMedia.org).