The Internet, when used properly, can be a beautiful learning tool and an excellent way to stay connected. But when used improperly, it can be yet another danger for you to protect your kids from, so teaching them to navigate it safely is essential. Below are 10 things everyone, children and parents alike, should know about when it comes to Internet safety.
- Email and Passwords. Simply put, it’s all about privacy and protection. No one under the age of 18 should have an email address that uses his full name. Same goes for numbers: no birthdays, no birth years – be less personal and more random. The same rules apply to passwords. Work on staying away from information someone could find out without having to search very hard, so no pet names or birthdays. Have your child pick tricky words, make ones up, or even mix two of his favorite things. Also, try to have a different password for each site, email account, etc. that requires one. (This shouldn’t be too hard with children as the list of sites they visit should be limited.)
Parents, you should know EVERY ONE of your child’s passwords. And you should be the only ones besides your child that does. Tell them not to share passwords with friends, no matter how many times the friend pinky swears to keep it safe.
- Respect and Etiquette. It’s the same set of rules we all learned growing up, only for the digital age: If you don’t have anything nice to type, don’t type anything at all. Treat others on the Internet with the same respect as you would in person. This means being kind (more info on cyber-bullying below), tolerant, and, yes, even saying your pleases and thank yous. Many refer to this as “Netiquette.”
The Internet is a great place for people to exercise their First Amendment rights, which means you may not agree with everything you read or see. Explain to your children that though their opinions may be different, they don’t have to see eye-to-eye with someone to be respectful to them.
- Stranger Danger. Maybe the scariest part of the Internet for parents is the access outsiders can have to their children. Stress to your kids over and over that they should not share personal information on the web. Get your message across in whatever words your child will best understand. You should also make sure they know that not everyone on the Internet is who they say they are. As a result, stress that they:
- Do not give out phone numbers.
- Do not give out addresses.
- Do not give out email addresses.
- Do not publicize the name of schools being attended.
- Do not meet people over that they only know from the Internet.
- Do not email with or IM any stranger on any site.
- Sharing photographs, videos, and the written word. It’s your job to see and approve every picture or video your child puts on the Internet. Websites like Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube make sharing easier than ever (for more on Facebook in particular, read the last tip below). If your child has accounts on any of these sites, it’s your job to see what they’re making public andwhat the public is saying in response. Most open forums do not discriminate negative comments from the positive, so if there is a less-than-favorable remark made toward your child, you need to know about it and discuss it with him. Explain to your children that once something is on the Internet, it’s there to stay. Use your best judgment when deciding what you’ll let them share. Nothing should be too provocative, too violent, or too extreme.
- Privacy and Trust. There are multiple schools of thought on how much privacy to give your children, but when it comes to the Internet, most experts agree: No privacy is the best policy. It’s not about not trusting your kids, it’s about not trusting others out there. Many pundits believe that at least for the first few years your child is using the Internet, you should have your eyes on the monitor the entire time. (This is where time limits come in. The older the child, the more time allowed, though it should never be excessive.)
As your kid gets older, feel free to leave the room but either install an Internet-use-tracking program like WebWatcher (which records what websites and pages were visited) or make it your policy of never deleting the web browser’s history or search log, so you know all the sites that have been visited. If your children are young, they should ask you if they want to visit a new website, and you should continue to go over the house rules every time they log on. Set parameters you are comfortable with.
There are also decisions to be made about the placement of the computer, whether to give them personal computers, or if there is only a single family computer. The decisions should be made family to family, but it need be mentioned that it’s a lot harder keeping track of what your child is doing on the Internet if it’s not kept in a family-friendly space, if you don’t have complete access to it, and if you can’t monitor time usage. The safest policy is a family computer with locked pass-codes kept only by the parents, sitting in a public room.
It may seem odd and too extreme, but remember that even on a New York City subway at 11p.m. you’ll find an occasional police officer and at least one Good Samaritan. There are no cops watching out for your kids on the Internet, and no friendly neighbors keeping an eye on them. It becomes your job to be both.
- Instincts. Most children have a very good sense of knowing when they’ve done something wrong or when something or someone is making them uncomfortable; it is human radar. This is your and your child’s strongest tool. Children should tell you if anything they see, do, find, or read on the Internet sets off their internal sensors. You want to keep an open dialogue about what they do each time they use the computer, especially if you are not there to monitor it. These conversations should start before your child begins using the Internet and should continue into their college years. Teaching your child to trust his or her own instincts is also important in the real world, and communicating when concerned is typically the best policy.
- Cyber-bullying. The recent tragedies caused by cyber-bullying, have us all concerned, but keeping an open line of communication with your child is the best way to make sure it won’t happen to them. You’ll also be able to know immediately if he or she is the victim of cyber-bullying by keeping track of the websites they’re on regularly. If it is a classmate doing the bullying, always let the school know. Different schools have different policies about crimes committed during off-school hours, but for your own kid’s security and comfort, inform both your child’s teacher and the school counselor.
If any threats are made, call law enforcement immediately. You can also ask agencies like WiredSafety.org to work with the authorities. Very important: Do not delete the comment. For the authorities to use it as evidence it cannot be a printout; you need electronic evidence to prove cyber-bullying.
And though no one thinks their child would ever be the bully, there are more ways than ever to be cruel. Experts recommend taking away Facebook or other social Internet activities, particularly the site your child used inappropriately, if you catch your child doing the bullying. It should not be tolerated, ever, for any reason, and under no circumstances should you join in.
- Parental Control Software. Add special software to your computer that is designed to protect your children for those moments you aren’t there to monitor. Parental control software allows you limit your child’s Internet experience, eliminating the chance of contact with porn, hate websites, or other things you may find unsuitable.
Check out and install NetNanny Filtering, McAfee Family Protection, CyberPatrol Filtering, SafeEyes, or any of the other software programs designed to keep an eye on your children.
- Social-Networking. Any social-networking site, including Facebook – see below – should be viewed as a family page. Get familiar with the site, learn the features, and of course check the settings before you allow your child on. It is important to make sure you have access to your child’s page. All networking sites should have time limits, whether it’s 1 hour/week or 15 minutes a day, and those should be chosen by what you’re comfortable with, not what they are. Take the time to review the security policies of any social networking site your child is on as they may differ from one another and can get tricky when it comes to minors.
Because these are public sites, it’s also important to make sure your child doesn’t use a full name as their screen name, use a created name or initial. Make sure your child doesn’t post any phone numbers or addresses publicly and, as a rule, make sure you have final say on all pictures or videos posted.
And please continue to enforce to your children the idea that what is posted becomes public. Discuss what this means and the consequences. It is not uncommon for colleges to search out personal pages or for HR departments to do Internet-based research on possible hires. Explain to them not to put anything up they wouldn’t want an admissions department or future boss to see.
- Facebook. Chances are you already have your own Facebook page, but if you don’t and your child wants one, you’ll not only want to have your own so you know how to use it and understand what the experience is like, but so that you have easy access to their page. They must make you a “friend” for you to have full access. It can be great for looking at pictures and getting to know your kid’s friends – as well as your own, of course – but the most important thing to know about Facebook is how to control the privacy settings. Here’s a quick guide: Once you’re on your child’s Facebook page, go to the Account tab in the upper right. Click on “Privacy Settings” and decide if the information should only be available to people who are already considered friends. You’ll probably also want to change both “Connecting on Facebook” and “Sharing on Facebook” settings to friends only and to disconnect “Places You Check In To” so people won’t know where you children tend to go.
Finally, don’t forget that just because you have your own, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the log in information for theirs. This will include a password and an email address.
All parents know, of course, that there’s a fine balance between making your child more knowledgeable and scaring them, so equip them with a wealth of information, rather than teaching through fear. Portray a real example of the dangers out there, but make sure they know that through the tools you give them, the boundaries you set, and the conversations you’ll have, the Internet can be safe, fun, and unbelievably useful.