Many parents are concerned about their children’s safety while online and that children are becoming reliant on technology for facts and information. However, we live and work in a world where most adults are already reliant on computers. If you question that statement, look at what people hold in their hand at some point during the day. We use cellphones to check our daily calendar, connect, get alerts, set alarms, take pictures, listen to music, read the latest news, and so much more. The internet will be and in some form already is a fixture in your children’s lives. So, what can parents do to keep children safe online?
To me, the most important thing a parent can do to help keep children safe online is be present and actively communicate with them. Talk frequently, set limits, and be their guide and mentor as they get older.
We had technology growing up: TV, video games, computers, telephones. All of these gadgets for the most part, except for the phone, were self-contained or had limited connectivity. We interacted by directly calling a small number of friends and figuring out ways to meet up in person. We had face to face conversations and there were a set of rules that we followed outside of our home to stay safe. Don’t talk to strangers. Leave a note where you are going. Stay in predictable or familiar areas. Be back home before dark. Remember these? With some tweaks for technology all of these are still a good starting point for today’s kids and parents wanting to guide them.
Don’t talk to strangers. Talk to your child about personally identifiable information. Be clear what information can be shared and what information should be kept private. Sharing your name, birthdate, telephone number, and location should be avoided. Create usernames that do not include this kind of information. Remember that images can convey information as well, so you need to be firm in your expectations for what kind of images they can post.
Leave a note where you are going. Stay in predictable or familiar areas. Make a point to get online with your child and understand what games, social media, and applications they are going to use. For younger kids, you should know their usernames and passwords. You can set an expectation that you might monitor conversations from time to time. Create your own user account and get online and play with them or have them friend you. Help them learn how to monitor and adjust privacy settings. You’ll understand better what they are doing online, and it will help you anticipate conversations around behavior and safety.
As your children get older you should gradually release monitoring their conversations and passwords as you feel comfortable with their ability to act responsibly. Remember that in a few short years they will be in charge of their own accounts. Have them keep accounts private and have them friend you. Let them know that you are always around to give advice, help them solve problems on their own, and be backup when needed.
Be back home before dark. Set limits around screen time. Learn about parental control settings that may be offered through your child’s computer or phone, your cellular carrier, or internet provider. Keep computer use limited to common areas in your house and consider setting rules about storing cell phones and computers in your own bedroom after certain hours.
It’s all about communication, clear expectations, and being involved in your child’s online life. Remember, if you don’t communicate with your child about how to use online tools, someone else will, and chances are it’s someone without the ability you have to guide them with love and experience.