Saturday, May 22, 2010

Online Safety for Families

A little too long ago, someone had asked me if I would be willing to teach a seminar on Internet safety for families. It got back-burnered, as many good ideas do (like this blog, for example...), but I'm realizing for a lot of reasons the need for just such a thing. While I'm working up details, and preparing for kids of my own, I just wanted to share a few principles with you that will aid in managing your family and the computer.

Disclaimer: My parenting experience is limited to pregnancy at this point, so please don't think I'm telling you how to raise your kids. I'm new to the parenting stuff. But I have been around computers my whole life. No, I can't help you fix your laptop/iPod/XBOX/VCD/8-Track, but I have been around the Internet and computers enough to pick up on a few things.

1) Access goes both ways. The ability to reach out across vast distances has opened up a great wide world to our kids. It's also opened up them to that world. It goes without saying that your two year old isn't ready to cross the street yet, and your eight year old isn't ready for that solo trip to the mall. The Internet is a lot like the mall, actually. You have access to all kinds of cool and interesting and fun stuff. But that access goes both ways. And just the same as you monitor your child's access to the street/public places/car based on their age and maturity, the same should be true of Internet access. Your first line of defense is limiting the devices they have access to. It's very easy to get on line with a wide variety of gadgets besides the family computer now, including cell phones, video game systems (such as newer versions of the Nintendo DS, which I see almost everywhere now), and even some music players. Know what devices can get to the Net, and limit your kid's access to them. And remember, although your kids may be better at figuring out the equipment, you're still the one with the mature decision-making processes.

2) Be your kid's best friend. On the site Failbook (caution...not always clean), a Facebook conversation was posted where a teenager had uploaded a picture from a wild party they had been involved with. The first response was priceless. It was the kid's mom saying "ISN'T THAT MY KITCHEN???" While parenting books say that being your kid's best friend isn't the best way to parent, being connected to their various social sites IS. By being their friend/contact/whatever, you have access to what they're posting, who they're chatting with, etc. It gives you a chance to monitor what's going on. Some sites allow parents to moderate their kids interactions ( is a good example). To be honest, you should probably have your kid's password too, because not every interaction is posted where the public or even friends can see it. If you don't want to deal with Facebook, your kids don't need to be on there either.

3) Learn to love privacy. Every online service worth it's salt has privacy settings, that control how much of your information is available to whom. When your kids get onto a service like Facebook or Twitter, these settings should be your first stop. Some services start out with everything, from birthdate to home address, out in the open. Others default to only allowing your friends access to these things. Dig in, and turn those things down to the bare minimum. It's surprising how easy it is to get information on others through social sites. Be the boss of what people can and cannot find out about your kids.

4) Those who don't learn from history... All browsers (the program your computer uses to access web sites) keep a record of the sites you have visited, called a History. Dig around in the settings and find it. And it IS possible to delete or get around it, so look for odd gaps, as well as for what's there. It's not foolproof, but it's a good way to overview activity.

5) Be careful, little mouse, what you click. This is just a general tip. Never click a link that seems fishy. If your Facebook-loving grandma just sent you a video of supermodels in swimsuits, you might want to reconsider clicking it. Viruses can get into email and social services via such methods, and then send out the same link/video/picture/slide show to your friends to spread the problem around. Even PowerPoint presentations can contain malicious code that could affect your computer. If someone sends you something that's suspect, don't click it to investigate. Email them and see if they meant to send it to you or not. Or just delete it.

I leave it in your hands to decide how to apply these things, and with what ages. There's a fine line to tread with your kid's privacy, and every parent has to make their own decision about whether or not to read that open diary on the bed. The same is true about monitoring their online interactions. Be too invasive, and they just learn to get better at hiding it. Leaving it all in their hands has it's own dangers. Cultivate an air of open accountability in your family (that sounds vaguely Methodist...), and build an understanding with them early on that you are helping them to learn to navigate the bigger world. At some point, your 16 year old can probably cross the street by themselves, but that's because you've taught them how to make sure it's safe first.

The Internet can be a great place to meet new people, expand your horizons, and learn all kinds of cool stuff. It also, like real life, has it's back alleys and sketchy neighborhoods. Your best tool is not to know all the latest gadgets and services, but to understand the basic principles they all work on.

I hope this helps you in your journey...