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Ask an Expert: Internet safety tips for parents

Q. June is Internet Safety Month. Can you give us some tips to keep our children safe online?

A. In this age of technology, our children truly are the digital natives while many adults, including myself,  are digital immigrants. But as parents and school personnel, we still need to educate ourselves about the benefits and challenges for our kids in a digital world.

The internet’s good side

Yes, the benefits cannot be denied.  Technology helps us and our kids have quick access to the latest information.  A study conducted by the Pew Research Institute published in 2010 found that 62 percent of teens get their news about current events and politics online. Forty-eight percent bought things online with 31 percent getting health, diet or physical fitness information from the internet.  Seventeen percent say they get information on health topics that are hard to discuss from sites online.

But most teens will tell you that the most important function of the internet for them is the ability to stay connected to their world.

The Kaiser Foundation 2010 study Generation M2 , reports that because of the multi-tasking our youth do using more than one form of media at a time, they average a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into the daily 7.5 hours they spend with media.  This puts them in danger from the challenges that media creates, including cyberbullying, sexting and other forms of sexual solicitation, revealing private information to potential predators and exposing computers to viruses and other risks.

A commercial medium

With children as young as 2 ½ being exposed to the internet either directly or by watching parents or older siblings on the computer, we need to remember that the internet is a highly commercialized medium. Even online games for younger children vary widely in the quality, educational value and developmental match with children’s abilities.

The study entitled Like Taking Candy from a Baby: How Young Children Interact with Online Environments by W. Buckleitner in May 2008 found the online games PBS KIDS & Sesame Street had the highest educational value; NOGGIN’s games were some of the best designed; and Club Penguin and Webkinz delivered the best overall experience. Parents need to be watchful as websites frequently tantalize children with enticing options or even threats that their online creations will become inaccessible unless a purchase is made.

Social networking sites such as MySpace, Friendster or Xanga allow children to create their own websites and share their personal information with anyone anywhere.  According to the Kaiser M2 study of 2010, 74 percent of all seventh- to to 12th-graders say they have a profile on a social networking site.

Younger kids getting on Facebook

Note to parents: Facebook’s terms of service require users to be at least 13 years old yet a Consumer Reports’ study released in May 2011 reports 7.5 MILLION Facebook users are under the age of 13.  Some parents have discovered their children have multiple social networking sites – one they show their parents and one or more that they show the rest of the world.

So what is a parent to do?  Basic rules apply to internet safety, too.  First, tell your kids not to talk to strangers, especially about sex. Role play with them what to do if contacted by a stranger especially with inappropriate content. Children fear their parents will limit or deny their computer access if they report these contacts.  Talk to your children about what you will and won’t do when they let you know about this kind of communication.

Second, talk to your children about going into certain virtual neighborhoods – 25 percent of youth had one or more unwanted exposure to sexual pictures while online with 73 percent happening because of their own online surfing, according to a 2006 study on teen internet safety.

More recommendations for parents

  • Education yourself – and this includes letting your child help to educate you.
  • Talk to your children about internet use and, specifically, safety.  These conversations need to be routinely repeated and adapted to the developmental level of your child.
  • Teach your child that once something is uploaded onto the internet it can never be retrieved.
  • Keep an eye on the screen – computers in bedrooms are not recommended.
  • Consider whether or not you want your child’s phone in his or her bedroom after lights out. One study found 24 percent of teen couples were talking every hour between midnight and 5 a.m.
  • Be suspicious of free offers and teach your children to be wary also and remind kids to read before they click.
  • Help kids steer clear of gossiping and bullying and teach them how to handle it if it happens to them or a friend.
  • Set search engine preferences – Google’s default is “moderate.”  To change the setting, go to the “tools” icon (a gear) in the right hand corner of the Google home screen and choose “search settings.”  When the menu opens scroll down to “safe search filtering” and you can reset the preference.
  • Encourage a balance between online and face-to-face time.
  • Consider a contract with your child about phone and computer use.
  • As always, promote self confidence and high self esteem and open lines of communication between you and your children.

Technology is here to stay.  We are the ones that need to continue to educate ourselves and protect our children.  Enjoy the summer and safe surfing!

For more information and safety tips, please visit the Colorado School Safety Resource Center’s website at: http://www.safeschools.state.co.us/psresources.html and scroll down to “Internet Safety.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.