The Internet is full of endless information and when used responsibly it can be a wonderful resource. I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I do not “Google” a topic to research more information. I use the Internet to research papers, communicate with other people, shop as well as many other things. We are in the computer age and computers are everywhere with access to the Internet through laptops, tablets, and phones. Easy and prolific access to the internet can also be a hazard if used inappropriately in the wrong hands. That's why it's important to be aware of what your kids see and hear on the Internet, who they meet, and what they share about themselves online.
Just like any safety issue, it's wise to talk with your kids about your concerns, take advantage of resources to protect them, and keep a close eye on their activities.
Internet Safety Laws
A federal law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), was created to help protect kids online. It's designed to keep anyone from obtaining a child's personal information without a parent knowing about it and agreeing to it first.
COPPA requires websites to explain their privacy policies on the site and get parental consent before collecting or using a child's personal information, such as a name, address, phone number, or Social Security number. The law also prohibits a site from requiring a child to provide more personal information than necessary to play a game or participate in a contest.
But even with this law, your kids' best online protection is you. By talking to them about potential online dangers and monitoring their computer use, you'll help them surf the Internet safely.
Getting Involved in Kids' Online Activities
Aside from these tools, it's wise to take an active role in protecting your kids from Internet predators and sexually explicit materials online. To do that:
- Become computer literate and learn how to block objectionable material. Many Internet providers provide parent-control options to block certain material from being seen on your computer. Many sites use "cookies," devices that track specific information about the user, such as name, email address, and shopping preferences. Cookies can be disabled. Ask your Internet service provider for more information. There is also software you can buy that helps block access to certain sites. You can also use filtering programs to block sites from appearing on your computer and restrict personal information from being sent online. Other programs can monitor and track online activity. But no software is 100%.
- Keep your computer in a common area, not in individual bedrooms, where you can watch and monitor its use. When you are not home make sure the computer cannot be used without your monitoring. This includes taking the monitor cord with you or locking up your laptop. Make sure you child has your permission to be on the Internet.
- Share an email account with your child so you can monitor messages. Connect this email to your cell phone so you get notified of incoming emails. Routinely check this account.
- Bookmark kids' favorite sites for easy access. This reduces the potential of typing in the wrong search word or website and stumbling on inappropriate content.
- Spend time online together to teach your kids appropriate online behavior. Sit with your children while they are on the Internet.
- Set rules for your child: Never trade personal photographs in the mail or scanned photographs over the Internet. Never reveal personal information, such as address, phone number, age or school name or location. Use only a screen name. Never agree to meet anyone from a chat room in person. Never respond to a threatening email or message. Always tell a parent about any communication or conversation that was scary. If your child has a new "friend," insist on being "introduced" online to that friend. Do not pretend to be someone else.
- Never share personal details, like name and address. Never share your passwords but make sure you have all your children’s passwords and check those accounts frequently.
- Monitor your credit card and phone bills for unfamiliar account charges and atypical use.
- Find out what, if any, your child’s school, after-school center, library, friends’ homes offer online protection, or anyplace where kids could use a computer without your supervision.
- Forward copies of obscene or threatening messages you or your kids get to your Internet service provider and contact your local law enforcement agency or the FBI if your child has received child pornography via the Internet. Understand the site's rules and know how to flag other users for misbehavior. Recognize "red flags," like if someone asks you personal questions like your name and address.
Warning signs of a child being targeted by an online predator include spending long hours online, especially at night, phone calls from people you don't know, or unsolicited gifts arriving in the mail. If your child suddenly turns off the computer when you walk into the room, ask why and monitor computer time more closely. Withdrawal from family life and reluctance to discuss online activities are other signs to watch for.
Should I let my kid get a Facebook page?
This is the most common question I get from the parents. The legal age for Facebook use is 13 years old; however, kids younger then 13 are on Facebook by registering with a fake birthdate. If parents are allowing your children to place false information on the Internet this sends mixed messages to your children. That it is ok to lie, and some “rules” about the internet are ok to be broken. Also, by making children older then their real age this allows any of the safety controls Facebook has put in place null and void. I suggest to at least wait until they are of the legal age for Facebook for both safety and privacy reasons. Even when they are 13 and on Facebook stay involved and help them follow these rules:
- Think before you post. Once the post is out there you cannot take it back.
- Ask your parents before visiting other Facebook pages. Facebook pages can be created by anyone and can expose your children to sexually graphic pictures and language.
- Notify parents if they see any cyberbullying of friends or themselves. As well as any “friend requests.” Have you child get your permission before accepting any “friend requests.”
- Share an email account with your child to help you monitor their incoming messages. Children should provide their parents with their passwords and parents should continue to randomly and regularly check their site and settings. Email accounts that are created without the parent’s permission and without the parent’s access are not allowed and may result in loss of internet privileges.
- Know that anything you post online can be used in ways you never intended. Pictures of your child and their friends should be limited postings and profile pictures should be of other objects or characters, and not your child. Be sure to check with other parents about posting pictures of their child on your page or your child’s page. Many parents do not wish to allow any pictures of their child on the internet.
- Use privacy settings. Stress the importance of privacy settings and parents should continue to check your children’s privacy settings as they can be altered by the child with each and every post.
- Be intentional about who you allow your child to be “friends” with on Facebook. Allowing your child to be “friends” with other children you do not know may result in your child having access to information through that child’s unmonitored page. Also, allowing a child to be “friends” with adults who are family and/or friends of the family may present the child with some unintended access to adult comics or salacious language that may not be anything more than racy for an adult, but inappropriate for a 13 year old.
- The same rules apply for communication and internet access through cell phones. All text messages and pictures on a cell phone must be monitored by parents.
If all these rules seem like too much of a hassle, you might be right. When the risk outweighs the benefit of allowing your child to participate in an online social networking page, then you may wish to wait it out until your child is much older. Just because “Facebook” allows access to 13 year olds does not mean that 13 is the right age for your child to begin to participate on Facebook. The rule for use of technology with teens is trust but verify. When your child objects to this oversight and monitoring remind them that you believe they have the integrity (desire to do the right thing) but not the judgment (knowledge of right or wrong) yet and this will develop with maturity. Don’t be bullied by your child into capitulating. If you cannot monitor your child’s use of technology properly, than they simply cannot participate online. Also, once the privilege is abused and the rules set forth by the parent are violated, the child should lose access to the internet and their page may be deleted.
A chainsaw is a powerful and useful tool in the right hands. So is the internet. Some mistakes have consequences for children that are not easily recoverable. Consider carefully the needs of your child and the responsibility you as a parent will have to monitor their use of technology. Many parents initially monitor their child closely and later become lacks until they receive a phone call from another parent about their child’s online behavior. If you grant your child permission to use this technology, you as the parent must make a commitment to monitor their activity consistently.