Protecting Kids Online 2: Tips for Parents

In the first part of this series, we examined the issue of cybersafety. Hopefully, we dispelled some myths and put the issue into perspective. While it’s important to protect our kids online, and it’s important to teach them to protect themselves, it is not at all likely that our children will become the victims of cybercrime, even if they haven’t been schooled on the best practices to avoid online predators. Now, we’ll start getting into the more useful stuff. This is the condensed overview — the sound byte version of how to keep kids safe online. The biggest thing to remember is that we’re balancing a lot of factors here. Consider this analogy, which comes from the Byron Review:

This is no different to how we think about managing risk for children in the offline world, where decreasing supervision and monitoring occurs with age as we judge our children to be increasing in their competence to identify and manage risks. So, when we teach our children to cross the road safely we do it in stages:

  • We hold their hand when they cross the road.
  • We teach them to think, look both ways and then cross.
  • When we see that they are starting to understand this we let them cross walking beside us, without holding on to them.
  • Eventually we let them do it alone, maybe watching from a distance at first, but then unsupervised.
  • And throughout this, the environment supports them with signs and expected behaviour from others in the community – the green man, zebra crossings, speed limits and other responsible adults.

Depending on the age and experience of the child, then, you have to take measures to both protect and teach. As they become more experienced online, we also have to loosen the reins a little. Then, there are inevitably the elements of trust and privacy that will come into play as children move through adolescence. There aren’t any hard and fast rules for when changes need to take place. It all depends on the children, the parents, and the relationships between them. That being said, here are some boiler-plate suggestions for getting started:

Put the computer in a public place: If the computer is in the kitchen (as ours is) or in the family room, or in some other public part of the house, children are much less likely to do things online they know they’re not supposed to do. You don’t have to constantly look over their shoulders — you can see what they’re doing from across the room or just by walking by. It allows you to monitor what’s going on without giving the impression that you’re spying.

Give them a place to start: Set your computer’s home page to a kid-friendly starting place. Use a tool like Protopage to provide links to sites they use frequently. Embed some kid-friendly search tools. If they’re always starting with a Google search box, they could end up anywhere.

Set time limits: Just as children shouldn’t be spending hours on end in front of the TV, they shouldn’t be spending hours and hours online. Set reasonable limits based on the age of the children, other activities and responsibilities they have, and the needs of others in the family to have access to the technology.

Discuss “private” versus “public”: Children need to understand that there are some things we can share with people online, and there are other things we should keep private. Many children are confused by the online concept of “friend.” Online friends in social networks can’t necessarily be trusted as much as you’d trust a friend from school.

Monitor one-on-one communication: If your child has an email account, configure it to send copies of all of the messages to you. If you can set limits on who they can send and receive email from, do it. My first and third graders both have their own email accounts, but they can only email their parents and grandparents, and Mom and Dad get copies of all of their messages.

Learn about the technology: You can’t keep up with all of the buzzwords and technologies. You probably have some idea about Myspace and Facebook. Do you know what Twitter is? How about ooVoo? Pownce? Parents of younger kids probably have a good idea about what Webkinz is. But do you know about Bella Sara? If you’re looking for a great place to get an overview of a lot of new web tools, check out the Common Craft videos. Google has partnered with Common Sense Media to help parents and educators teach children to be safe online. This video gives a good overview of many of the issues, and provides some common-sense tips for parents and teachers:

In the next part of the series, we’ll look at some online resources to help kids learn to be safe online.