I was sitting with a group of parents at my martial arts school a few weeks ago and several of the newer parents were aghast that I suggested getting their children email addresses and Facebook accounts as soon as possible.
That’s a typical response for when I discuss how to keep children safe on the Internet. Many parents take the “keep them away from the Internet as long as possible” approach. While that might work for a while, you do remember how that approach worked on you when you were a kid, don’t you? Anything your parents said you couldn’t have or do made it all the more desirable. And being kids, we did then what kids will do today — sneak around to check out what is forbidden.
The Internet is not evil. It’s an amazing resource that has huge benefits. Yet like many things, it can be dangerous in the hands of the uninitiated. Take the example of teaching your child to ride a bicycle. You didn’t simply hand a bike to your child and say “have at it” did you? No, first you started out with a tricycle, then moved to a bicycle with training wheels. Next you took the training wheels off and ran beside your child holding onto the bike while they got their balance. Then every now and then, you’d let go for a few feet and grab back on until finally, you let go for good and they flew on their own.
The Internet should be a similar experience for your child. Yet because many parents aren’t Internet savvy, they take the approach of avoidance instead. The same type of avoidance that can be seen with the “birds and the bees” talk. So in the spirit of the ‘bicycle’ analogy, here’s some steps to take to teach your child about the Internet and keep them safe.
First, if you don’t understand or aren’t comfortable with the Internet, learn. Rather than avoid what you’re uncomfortable with, learn about it. Take a course at Manchester Community College, take a course online, ask a friend to walk you through the basics, or just start using it and figure it out as you go. It’s really not that complicated and just a little bit of effort will help you become much more knowledgeable. The last thing you want is for your child to be the expert in the family.
Develop a parenting style that encourages open communication with you child. If your parenting style is to punish rather than prevent, to yell rather than discuss, to have control over rather than control with, and to use demeaning phrase like “why can’t you get anything right?”, then you’re in trouble with a lot more than just the Internet. If most times your child comes to you with something they’ve done wrong or that they are embarrassed about and you’re typical response is one of the above, your child is going to learn to avoid coming to you when they are having problems.
Raise Confident Children
Adopt a parenting style that will produce confident and assertive children. Put your children in activities like the martial arts that will assist in this process. Rather than being crushed because of a few unkind comments tossed their way on the Internet, raise children that won’t put up with such nonsense, but will speak up to the appropriate adults to do something about it. It should never get to the point of constant and repeated insults and "putdowns" over the Internet. It ought be handled at the first incident. It’s the difference between raising a child that could be the class president vs. a child that doesn't ever look up, or speak up. And make no mistake, it is largely how you parent your children that will make the difference.
Immediately Report Abuse
If you’ve done a good job at open communication with your child, along with letting them know they can trust you not to ‘explode’ no matter what issue they bring to you, then teaching them to come to you at the first sign of bullying — at school, at the playground or on the Internet — will be an easy step. Schools are now mandated by law to handle bullying situations whether on or off the school grounds. Immediately report any signs of cyberbullying to school administrators and then require them to let you know that they’ve handled the situation. Don’t wait! Bullies can only do what they do if no one speaks up. Be that parent who protects not only their children from bullies, but everyone else’s too.
There are many products out there that you can put on the family computers to control what is available to the user over the Internet and to keep track of where each user on the computer goes. We have parental controls available to us on our cable TV, so why not use the same on the Internet? And don’t just remove the parental controls all at once, release them slowly over time as your child shows you they are responsible with what you gave them the last time.
Email your child
Get your child an email account. I have fairly young students on my staff helping out with classes and I communicate with them a lot through emails. They are required to have an email account for this reason. I tell parents to regularly email their children and to sit with them and help them write emails to family, friends, etc. Have all their outgoing and incoming emails forwarded to your email account so that you can review what they’re doing. This is actually quite simple to do. Teach your child about the appropriate use of email, don’t hide them from it. At what age is it appropriate to get your child an email account? It’s not as simple as that, as few things are. It’s not about age, it’s about your child. How mature are they? How well do they handle other responsibilities that you’ve given them? How well have you done raising them so far? I will say this, though, an appropriate age is probably much younger than it was just 10 years ago. It’s also probably much younger than you’re comfortable with. But we did say “appropriate for your child” not “what you’re comfortable with.”
Know your logins and passwords
There’s a lot a debate about whether or not it’s an invasion of privacy to require your children to give you their logins and passwords. Allow me to solve this problem. You should give your child their logins and passwords, not the other way around. Children need to earn everything they are given. I really don’t see a problem with keeping track of what your children are doing on the Internet or even where they are going with their friends for that matter. You’re a parent, not their friend. Children and teens don’t have the experience or even cognitive ability to make safe choices all the time. Parents need to be there to help them learn about making good choices and figuring out how those choices will affect their future.
Keep the family computers in open areas
Notice that I keep referring to the "family computers," and family computers should be kept in open family areas. This is a simple way to keep an eye on what the computer is being used for. A computer should not "belong" to your child until they prove that they can be responsible with the technology. They need to earn the privilege of having such a resource. Computers are so ubiquitous in our society that they are handed out along with the new clothes for school. Children aren’t just handed a car, they have to be trained and get a license to operate it. Treat a computer as the resource that it is. Once you have taught your child how to use it properly and they have demonstrated they can use it responsibly, and they are old enough, then it’s appropriate for them to have a computer they can call their own.
for the new school year and it had a lot of the same steps in it it. But that’s because the steps are really the same whether it’s about bullying in person or bullying online. The Internet can be a useful, positive, and safe experience for children. But it requires parents to step up and be parents — not ostriches with their heads in the sand.