Unless you are going to move to a lead-shielded cabin in the woods, surrounded by an electromagnetic force field, your children are going to find their way onto the Internet. There are products out there that will help keep them from stumbling across (or purposefully accessing) objectionable material, but no piece of hardware or software is foolproof. There are more than enough “safe” sites out there with words, images, video, and/or audio that can emotionally scar even the most resilient child. Have you taken a look at the news lately? All humor aside, online child safety is a complex issue that can baffle even the most tech-savvy parent. Where do we even begin?
Before you say a word to the little ones, you need a plan. Choosing the right safeguards for your family is like buying auto insurance: Your criteria and product options create a complex web of choices that put it beyond the scope of this post. The first plan you must make involves how you will communicate to your children and what you will and will not tell them. Do they do the opposite of what you say? You might need to put stronger safeguards in place. Are they more tech-savvy than you? Bounce your speeches off a nerd friend before debuting it in front of the brood. Do they have friends who spend a lot of time online? Talk to those friends’ parents; hit them up for ideas and find out how much their kids have learned about the world from the Internet.
The Internet does not speak English. It speaks an ever-changing mishmash of terms pulled from contemporary lyrics, games, TV, and sources that are likely not of terrestrial origin. When communicating with your children about the Internet, do not use any terms with which you and/or they are not familiar. Nothing shuts off a kid’s attention quicker than an adult trying to act all “street.” That being said, it will help you to study up on the latest terminology. The Urban Dictionary and NetLingo are good starting points. In the course of your discussion, should your child tell you that her best friend’s mom kicked her dad out because he got arrested for smishing (which NetLingo tells us is “a form of criminal activity using social media technology similar to phishing), your newfound knowledge could save some embarrassment.
The next step involves talking to your children. Turn off the computer, lock up the iPhone, and burn the DS–a good plan for communicating Internet safety to your kids begins with good old fashioned face-to-face communication. While your values will shape your discussions, always stick to your plan. If a child says something off-topic, gently steer things back to the matter at hand. If she makes an objection to a rule you’ve announced, respond calmly and assert that these measures are in place because you love her and because her safety is your responsibility.
No matter how tempted you may be, don’t lie. This is not just a matter of good parental ethics; in case you haven’t noticed, anyone with Internet access can find the answer to any question, and any software or hardware safeguards can’t keep a kid from finding an answer eventually. If you tell a kid that there are no Beyblade trading sites, he will come back in two minutes with a list of thirty Beyblade trading sites, and you will have lost credibility. Credibility is important in this plan because if they haven’t already, your kids will soon put your technical abilities to shame, and you need them to trust you if they are to follow your rules when you and your safeguards are not around.
Lastly, follow through with what you have discussed and taught your children. You may have to monitor their Internet usage closely for a while, and you may come to a point where you can trust them on their own in certain situations. If you have set up punishments for breaking Internet rules, be sure to enforce them across all devices, at all locations. Keep up on your terminology, check your kids’ browser histories daily for questionable sites, and above all, make the time to do things online with them, be it homework or games. No matter how many rules and safeguards you set up, the thing that helps them feel safest is knowing that you care about them.
Al Natanagara is a writer, journalist, and blogger whose career includes stints with ZDNet, CNet, CBS, LexisNexis, and Law Enforcement. He is the father of two young children who have not yet even discovered Google. If he has his way, it will be another 30 years before they do.