Stay informed and get involved to make sure your child knows the risks, as well as the rewards, of the Internet. By Stephani Nola Walton
If your child is surfing the Web, you need to be paddling right alongside him — or at least observing him carefully from the shore. While the Internet offers goodies galore (educational materials, fun games and connections with people all over the world), it can also pose risks to your child's physical safety and emotional well-being.
Here's what appealing — and what's dangerous — about several popular ways kids use the Internet, along with suggested rules to keep them safe. The bottom line: Communicate with your child. Discuss what she's doing online and why. Set rules, and talk about them. Then keep talking, since your child can earn more rights and responsibilities as she grows. If she feels comfortable with these conversations, she will be more likely to let you know when she runs into an online bully or stumbles upon inappropriate content. Be a role model with your own Internet habits, since your child is likely to emulate your behavior.
1. Limit usage. Permit your child to have free online time for, say, 30 minutes right after school to instant-message friends, play games or visit social networking sites, but make it a rule that after meal, the computer is used for homework.
2. Keep kids in sight. Have the computer centrally located. Your child is less likely to browse questionable content if she knows Mom or Dad (or her brother or sister) might walk by at any second. This helps you monitor time spent online, chosen activities, and resultant behavior.
3. Do your homework. Check his browser history to know where your child goes online, and check the sites regularly. Use security tools and privacy features — whether offered by your browser or Internet service provider, or purchased separately — for extra protection. GetNetWise has more information about these safety features. Once installed, make sure these parental controls are really keeping him out of trouble (follow the instructions for your particular tool to learn how to use it best). Then follow up — by adjusting the settings on your safety filter, and by continuing to talk to your child about what's safe and acceptable.
Communicating and social networking
Online communication consists primarily of e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, and journals or Web logs (blogs). On networking sites such as MySpace.com, kids can create Web pages or profiles, and then invite others to view and become online buddies. Your child may use these media to share gossip, exchange photos, make weekend plans, find out about missed assignments, connect over common interests and express opinions. A quiet kid can showcase personality and develop communication skills. These activities offer a powerful sense of community, and the dedicated fan base gives kids a feeling of instant celebrity.
What to know: One out of every five kids gets sexual solicitations online. Strangers, predators and cyberbullies all target children, and their work is simplified when screen names reveal age, gender or home town. If posts aren't marked as private, personal information can be displayed to an unrestricted audience of readers. And even after you or your child removes once-public material, it is not necessarily gone. Parties and events can also be publicized, attracting inappropriate guests. On a less sinister note, IMing and blogging are prime distractions during homework hours. Finally, know that spam, spyware and viruses can use these channels to attack unprotected computers.
What to do:
- Know who your child talks to online. Review her buddy list: Does she really know everyone, or are some buddies "friends of friends"? Have her remove anyone whom she hasn't met in person.
- Tell him not to exchange personal information like a phone number, address, best friend's name or picture. No party invitations, revealing details or meeting in person — ever. Explain that almost any personal information can be useful to someone trying to figure out who he is or where he lives: the name of his piano teacher, school or the fact that he plays second base on a traveling baseball team. If he has a MySpace page or other online profile, check it regularly for inappropriate information.