HOW TO: Talk to Children About Online Safety
The Internet didn’t arrive for most of today’s parents until after they had passed adolescence. Online behavior was something they were able to approach with the disposition of an adult (even if some chose not to).
Their children, however, were born into a very different situation. It’s not uncommon to see an iPad next to the crib, and 7.5 million children younger than 13 have Facebook profiles.
If parents don’t teach online safety, their children might not recognize imprudent online actions or realize their consequences.
“Younger kids certainly don’t know that what they post is out there for everyone,” explains Jeff Godlis, the director of communications for Internet literacy education publisher i-Safe. “As you get older, the kids keep pushing the barriers… Parents need to be parents, and they have to be involved.”
1. Understand Internet Safety Before You Explain It
Many adults aren’t savvy Internet users themselves. A 2010 study, for instance, found that only 51% of participants recognized that ad companies frequently determine what ads to show based on the history of prior websites that they visited.
“Kids are learning about all of the facets of social media online. It’s happening much earlier,” explains Hilary DeCesare, the CEO of tween social network Everloop. “It’s parents that aren’t keeping up…The real dilemma is, how do you teach kids about something that you’re uncomfortable with?”
For instance, DeCesare says, many parents list their first and last names on social networking sites, and may not realize that their children shouldn’t do the same.
Fortunately, it’s easy to brush up on Internet safety guidelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Trade Commission are just a few organizations that provide robust resources.
2. Teach, Don’t Rule
“We have always been on the education side,” Godlis says. “Teach someone and they’ll learn it and they’ll understand it. They are empowered to do the right thing.”
The right message, DeCesare says, is “I care.” Not, “if you do X, I’ll ban the Internet.” When it comes to keeping your children safe on the web, the goal is to ingrain positive behaviors rather than just enforcing strict rules. Threatening children with revoked Internet privileges might even create a dangerous environment.
“Kids aren’t comfortable telling adults [about problems they encounter online like cyberbullying] because they think they’re going to get in trouble, or worse, they’re worried that they will pull their privileges of being able to use the Internet,” she says.
3. Consider Age-Appropriate Social Networks
Legally speaking, children younger than 13 shouldn’t be on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prevents websites from collecting information from children without their parents’ permission. Many children bypass this law, even on sites that enforce it, by simply adjusting their birthday. But DeCesare says that parents should still be wary of social sites designed for adults.
“Facebook was never intended for kids younger than 13,” she says. “Kids click on things. Which can be a problem, not just with friending people, but also the malware they pick up online.”
In a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 75% of 7th through 12th graders surveyed said they had a profile on a social media site. Parents would have a hard time barring social media sites entirely, but they can easily introduce age-appropriate social networks to their children instead of the grown up standards.
Most of these networks restrict content and provide a parental oversight component, either by alerting parents when something seems fishy or asking them to approve certain actions, like new friends.
4. Monitor With Care
No matter your price range or parenting philosophy, there’s an appropriate software option for monitoring your children’s online safety.
But Godlis cautions parents against the notion that using such a service alone is sufficient.
“I think that filters and monitors give parents a false sense of security — as long as the filters are on, I don’t have to worry,” he says. “They certainly can over-rely on it. Kids are pretty smart and they get around everything. They know how to use proxy servers and they know how to do things that parents don’t.”