Internet Safety for Parents of Children of Every Age
Before I begin this hub, I would like to take the chance to stress the importance of parental involvement with children, young and old. This hub is not designed to be a complete solution to keeping kids safe on the internet, but it can provide some guidelines for an overall plan that only a parent can enact. With the guidance of this hub, I only want to inform parents of information and "ways around" the rules that are designed to help keep children safe. However, no amount of information or technological solutions could ever keep children entirely safe, and instead, it is up to the parents to use this information to talk with their kids, setup guidelines, and ensure that they are followed. With that out of the way, let's begin.
Many new parents, as well as parents of young children are facing the increasingly difficult task of coping with technologies that they were never exposed to as children themselves. They have most likely come to accept the computer and the internet as a household item, yet they will never become as fluent in the jargon, or the technical know-how that children who are raised in a connected society will pick up, essentially, from the time they can speak. After reading this, I hope that you are at least slightly more aware of what actually goes on on the internet. It is not meant to scare you, or make you an overly concerned parent. It will however, make you more in tune to the workings of the kinds of media kids use today. Below, I have established several age ranges and suggestions for those ranges. As I stressed above, these rules are not concrete, but instead must be adjusted to the maturity level and responsibility of the target child.
3 - 5 Years Old
This age is too young to allow any unsupervised access to the computer or internet. At this age, children are simply experiencing the world around them. They have not established a sense of morally right or wrong. They simply react to any outside stimuli and click, hit, or type things because it is fun, not with the intention of performing a concrete action. There are many games geared toward children in this age range. However, it is important to remember that children are very impressionable at this age, and that now is the critical time to stress a healthy lifestyle that includes daily exercise and limited access to electronic devices and games. There are many sites that offer "preschool friendly" games and content. It goes without saying that this age range should be filled with continual lessons about the threat of strangers which will pave the way for the next range. Of course, allowing access to chat rooms or virtual games is an extremely poor decision at this age. Many sites advertise specifically to preschoolers. However, it is frightening how simple it is for a sexual predator to pretend to be a 4 or 5 year old "friend." Never allow access to the internet without supervision, and ensure that, if computers are used in the classroom, the teacher is supervising them as well. In summary:
- Do not allow any unsupervised computer or internet use
- Monitor use of all other technologies, such as game systems, etc.
- Continue to promote a healthy lifestyle by limiting time spent with electronics
- Ensure that classroom computer use is supervised
- Teach your child about the danger of strangers and meeting new people
- Never go on chat rooms, or remotely questionable sites in the presence of your child. This informs them that "something cool is out there" and leads to attempts to use the computer without you knowing it.
- Password protect your computer. Recently, a young child managed to log into his parents eBay account and order a $17,000 truck because he thought it was a toy. If the parents had used passwords, this wouldn't have happened.
- Tell your child, as you work with them, that they should never tell people they don't know their names, etc.
5 - 10 Years Old
At this age, you will certainly struggle with the "but everyone else has it" excuse. Other parents will be getting cell phones for their child. They will be allowed to use certain websites, etc. This is the biggest time for an evaluation of the maturity of your child. You must monitor how they behave elsewhere to make decisions regarding technology. For example, if Junior starts talking to every person he meets at the store, then most likely allowing him online without even moderate supervision is going to be troublesome. During this time of life, children are learning to use the computer as both a tool, and a method of having fun. They haven't yet been exposed to, or even told in detail about the dangers the internet poses. But it is a great time to begin. Still work with your child on the computer. Teach him or her to navigate to basic sites such as Google or Yahoo. This is also a great time to, as the parent, install parental control software. Once your child learns that he or she can "ask Google anything," it will certainly become a temptation to type in those words that he or she has been wanting to ask about. You may see random searches for "damn" or other curse words in your history. Most children learn about basic sexual education during this time, which is another crucial reason to monitor internet use and install a filter. You may find that Junior is trustworthy enough to use the computer while you watch TV, which is why you must continue to check your history and searches. But, be warned that no filter is perfect. In later age ranges, I will discuss how children bypass these filters, but that is beyond the ability of this age. If you notice anything suspicious, immediately discuss with your child why the internet is useful, but also why it is dangerous. Remember to keep the computer in a public place of the house. Never allow a laptop to be taken into a room alone. This age range is when monitoring technology begins to become an issue. However, the next age range is certainly the most difficult of all. Below, I've summed up the points of this paragraph.
- Allow your child to have access to certain websites such as Google or Yahoo
- Install internet filters and properly set them up in order to block the searches that the curiosity of young minds brings about.
- Check your history logs daily to monitor any suspicious searches that may have occurred when you turned away. Discuss your findings with your child.
- Continue to stress the danger of strangers. Also, during this time, discuss that rarely are people on the internet who they say they are. Discuss other dangers that the internet has.
- Keep the computer in a public place
- Work with your child to establish limits and rules for the computer and internet. Be strict, and reward them for good behavior.
10 - 15 Years Old
This is by far the most difficult age to parent a child during technological times. You will feel as if you are the worst parent in the world, and, if you don't, you will be made to feel that way by your kids. They will tell you why they need access to a site, why they have to be on Facebook, why every kid has a cell phone with unlimited texting and data access, and why you must allow them to have their own computer. But this is also the time to remain firm, while beginning to release your grip. If you have done well so far, allowing more access to the internet is a natural step. You want to make sure however, that the minute Junior gets the computer to himself, he doesn't start searching for every item you've told him not to. This is why a log, and not necessarily a filter, better fits this age range. Middle schoolers in particular are going to be curious. But that is how they learn. If you continue filtering every site except those you specify, they will never learn. It is better to introduce a keyword based filtering system. This allows you to prevent users from, for example, searching for "porn" or "sex." It will block sites that contain these words, but allow others to pass through. An excellent filter for these purposes is the K9 Web Filter, which installs easily, and it easy to configure. It is also free, and can be downloaded here. This age range also introduces the popularity of social networking. You will probably start to hear about Facebook and how "everyone's on it" in 7th grade. The rules of Facebook state that you must be at least 13 years old to use the service. For that reason, I would recommend waiting until at least 8th grade before giving in. But, I would not do so without regard to safety; allowing unsupervised access to social networking sites is a recipe for disaster. There have to be rules, that you both agree on, before allowing the sign up to occur. Some rules that I suggest (and these are just beginning suggestions) include: the parent must have the login and password information for the account, the child may not change the password without notifying a parent, parents must assist children with setting up the privacy settings of the account, and parents must pre-approve all friend requests. On the same note, this is also a time to allow independence. Be aware that "friends" on a social networking site don't simply include your close buddies that come to the house. It will probably include a lot of classmates that you have never heard of before. However, if you review them with your child, it will make it difficult to find your child and see his or her profile if a viewer is not his or her friend. At this time, it's also a good time to brush up on Facebook's privacy settings. Ensure that you read through all of the settings. I cannot tell you how many public Facebook profiles I have seen of 13, 14, and 15 year olds that contain the kinds of photos you wouldn't want to be seen by sexual predators. Keep them secure, and every time Facebook changes, be sure to update the settings. For cell phones, use your judgement for the age when it is appropriate, as well as the times the child can text and or call. Be aware that many preteens and teens will text 1000 times more than they talk, and purchase a plan with fewer minutes, but unlimited texts to prevent outrageous bills. Even if your teen is not allowed to text, make sure you monitor the account for the first signs of a text, as some younger teens believe that their texts aren't monitored and they can sneak a few in. This is for financial reasons mainly, as more than a few texts will cause your bill to skyrocket. These tips are summarized below:
- Allow access to more sites, but inform your child that with freedom comes responsibility.
- Set up a system of rewards and or punishments for the rules that you have established.
- Discuss, in more detail, the dangers of the internet.
- Continue to use filtering software, changing it to filter keywords such as "drugs" or "sex."
- At the right age and maturity level, allow access to Facebook or Myspace, but keep record of passwords and usernames.
- Don't continuously spy on these accounts, but instead, monitor them occasionally for issues. NEVER make changes to their accounts, write on their "wall" or make any other posts for them, as this is a huge privacy invasion. (On a related note, a teen in Arkansas is actually suing his mother for logging into his account and making a wall post.)
- Set up the privacy settings with your child for these accounts
- Limit time spent online to after homework, use software such as Windows Parental Controls if necessary.
- Make sure that you monitor the history logs on your computer for suspicious searches. Be aware that some kids may learn to delete certain items. Refer to the next age range for more information.
- Keep the computer in a public place, but do not monitor every minute of your child's time.
- If a computer is used privately, be sure to configure router logs to scan for trouble words. (see next section).
- Always talk with your child about proper behavior online.
- Set up a cell phone contract with your teen, establishing texting rules and limits. Monitor the numbers they call and text, and don't be afraid to ask them who it is. Stress the rules that they don't contact people they aren't friends with in real life.
15 - 17 Years Old
This is the time when they get smart. If you think you can protect them from the internet at this age, you are naive. If Junior wants to see a boob, he's going to, even with all the filtering and talking in the world. But, it doesn't mean you should do nothing. You must come to accept that they are smarter than you when it comes to the internet. They were born with it, they grew up with it, and they are living in the age of it. But even so, it doesn't mean you should neglect your duty as a parent. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that a large percentage of kids who are abducted each year are between the ages of 15 and 17. For this reason, you should still make periodic checks on your teen. Ask to see his Facebook profile, and simply scan it for words that stand out such as "drinking" or "sex." Don't read his or her private messages. Hopefully, you have been teaching him or her right and wrong all along, and at this point, if he or she wants to do something wrong, he or she will. You can still talk to them, making sure they understand why things are dangerous. Even when they blow you off and act like you are the biggest pain in the world, still talk to them. Realize that they are making many new friends, and monitor them for odd behavior. If they are constantly on the computer, in their room, with the door locked, that's probably a warning sign. Remember this important fact when you are parenting though: you pay for the internet; you purchased the equipment; and you set up the network. It is YOUR network, and YOUR access, and they are simply borrowing it. For this reason, I would always check your router logs for issues. I would not, however, keep the filtering software on their computer. I would allow them the privacy they need, but with the understanding that you still have a responsibility to keeping them safe. Make sure they aren't meeting people they've met on the internet, and always know where they are going, who they are with, and when they will be back. This is the age of understanding. You will not win if you attempt to block every site that is remotely inappropriate, and sometimes doing so makes them crave the challenge of getting around your filters even more. (As I mentioned above, your router logs are the most important tool for monitoring traffic. As long as they don't know the password for your router, the log will record the domain names for every site that is visited on the whole network. So while it won't show that they searched Google for porn, it will alert you if they are accessing porn.com for example.) These points are summarized below:
- Allow full access to social networking sites, but still check on them occasionally for questionable content and odd friends. Inform them that many colleges and employers check Facebook when looking at potential students or employees.
- Remove the old filters from earlier years. There is no way to make them work. Instead, enable router logs and check them periodically for content.
- Enforce any "before homework" texting rules, etc., but don't read texts or emails
- Never break into their accounts or phone unless it is absolutely necessary (you expect drug use, suicide, etc.)
- Continue to remind them of the dangers on the internet
- Monitor them for odd behavior such as late night computer use or gaming addictions, etc.
Hopefully these tips give you a good idea of how to raise a child in today's connected world. As I said before, and continue to stress, these are simply guidelines and should be used in combination with individual parenting styles and home rules. They are not the kind of rules that can be put into place, and then left without any parental involvement. Keeping kids safe on the internet is a full time, parental duty. Never underestimate the power and reach of the internet, and the individuals who attempt to exploit the children who use it.