Protecting Kids Online
By Christina Wood
The Internet is complex, and kids need help negotiating it. Learn how to strike just the right note when dealing with Internet safety.
My son is 15 feet up a tree. In a few minutes, he'll swing from a vine and scream, "Watch out for that…tree!" as his little-boy body hurtles briefly out of control then lands confidently on the soft forest floor. There's an element of danger to what he's doing. The art—mine, not his—is to damp down my panic enough so that he can learn the limits of his body and develop trust in his strength and judgment, but not so much that he ends up seriously injured with only his mother's cavalier attitude towards danger to blame. Once kids stop being helpless babies, this is what parenting is all about—raising them right while letting go at the same time, at just the right amount.
It's a similar situation for parents when our children go online, with the main difference being that when kids are playing games at Lego.com or poking around Yahooligans.com, they're sitting at a desk. It's obvious they aren't about to drop out of a tree, get into a car with a stranger, or stick a hand into a bees' nest. It's easy to believe they're safe, yet I don't allow myself that false sense of security. I'm concerned about what they're seeing and doing online not only because I'm a parent, but because after several years of covering high-tech, Internet-related issues as a journalist, I'm all too familiar with the dangers of the Internet for children. I know what evils are out there: pedophiles, pornography, hate groups. And my children do not. That is just how I would like it to stay for a few more years, so I take precautions.
These precautions are a lot like the ones I take in the "real world." I explain to my kids that they shouldn't talk to strangers or go anywhere with someone they don't know. They have to tell me where they are on the Net and where they're going, and they should get my help if something scary happens or someone tries to get them to break the rules. Even though there is an element of danger, I would never consider denying complete access to the Internet. That would be letting my own fears stop my children from necessary learning. I encourage them to go online the same way I encourage them to go outside and play. The Internet is an amazing resource and one children need to be facile with—in school, life, and in the world they will inhabit as adults.
When our babies are very young, we barely let them out of our sight. When they are old enough to go online, the same thinking applies all over again. I started my son out on the Net with me right there in the chair with him. He's in second grade now and surfs alone, but I stay in the room with him and pay attention to what he's doing. He's not yet interested in leaving his favorite gaming site or a kids' search engine. The minute he wants to stretch these bounds, I'll install NetNanny (http://www.netnanny.com/) or Cybersitter (http://www.cybersitter.com/), or I could use the parental controls available through MSN, AOL, or Earthlink if we subscribed to one of those services. I'll keep expanding the bounds I set for him until he goes off to college and will have to use responsibility to make those decisions on his own.
First, though, my family has ground rules. My kids' ages are five and seven, and our rules at the moment are simple:
- Start at Yahooligans.com (or another kid-safe site that I approve). I don't like sites that rely on a lot of advertising or that are trying to market something to my kids.
- Exchange email only with people that I okay.
- Ask for help.
I recommend ground rules as the basis for letting your children go online. Everything else—parental controls, filters, where you put the computer—are merely tools to ensure your ground rules are working. Every family needs to come up with its own rules and be willing to change them to keep up with growing kids, because the rules have to reflect the age and abilities of the children, and parents' feelings about things like how much is enough computer time, what sites are too advertising-driven, and who their kids should hang out with.
For your kids' protection, your rules should be geared to limit the people a child comes in contact with online and the images and concepts that flash up in front of them. At first you might not allow email (or chat and instant messaging, which require pretty fast typing anyway). Eventually your child's friends will want to reach her, so you may decide to allow her to exchange emails only with people you both know. When you introduce email, you'll want some sort of tool to prevent SPAM and emails from unknown sources. Don't count on a child remembering to check who a message is from before opening it. Find out what your ISP offers in the way of parental controls. My son uses KidMail (http://www.kidmail.net/), which eliminates all SPAM by only letting through people who are in his online address book. There are lots of other tools out there as well.
Tell your child what to do—get you!—if someone she doesn't know approaches her online. You must be explicit about what information she should give out when she's online: no phone numbers, passwords, credit card numbers, social security numbers, or physical addresses. Don't scare her or demean her if she messes up though. You want her to feel comfortable telling you about it if she goofs again. (Admit it, you've goofed here once or twice yourself!)