by Christa Melnyk Hines
For our digital natives, online interaction is part of the new order. But that doesn’t mean our kids don’t require old-fashioned parental guidance.
“Children today spend more time online than they do in school or with their parents so it’s vital to teach them how to be wise, competent and empowered users of technology,” says Diana Graber, co-founder, CyberWise.org.
Ask your kids what they like doing online.
“Surprisingly, what I hear from students is that they often feel their parents take little or no interest in their online lives,” Graber says. “And that’s too bad because conversation about the online places our children visit is so important.”
Ask your kids to teach you to play their favorite online games. And don’t be afraid to inquire about apps or games that concern you.
“If parents don’t get it out in the open, children may assume their parents are ignorant about the topic and it will be easier to get away with certain things,” says police detective John Stirling.
Promote positive digital citizenship.
Encourage respectful, polite behavior online. Use media reports to help educate your children about what can go wrong and how to avoid making mistakes that can haunt them for years to come. And emphasize that they can turn to you if they ever run into a problem.
“A good family structure and support is crucial in the pursuit of helping children avoid dangers online,” Stirling says.
Keep them safe.
Personal safety underscores why social media behavior matters.
“Social media allows the child predator an easier way to have access to children because so many children are putting themselves and their business out there online,” Stirling says.
Apps that allow for anonymity, unrestricted messaging and location-matching like Kik, Whisper and Snapchat are particularly attractive to child predators.
“Talking with strangers has to be redefined in this generation and generations to come,” says Jere Simpson, an adviser on internet security to government agencies like Homeland Security’s Childhood Exploitation Division and the FBI. “Now it means ANY type of communication with a person you don’t know because more often then not, their ultimate goal is to get within physical proximity of you. ”
That includes games that feature messaging capabilities. Consider turning off wifi and invite your child’s friends to play together in-person instead. Explain why texting with people they don’t know is dangerous and make a family rule that your child will give you a heads up if someone tries to contact him.
Simpson recommends choosing games and apps owned by American companies, which fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI and law enforcement. A simple Google search will show you where the game’s corporate headquarters is located. Also, predators typically avoid platforms where they can be easily traced like Gmail, Gchat and Google Hangout.
“Google is an advertising company by way of technology. They’re the best at knowing who you are, what you like, where you are––all of those things,” Simpson says.
Your online reputation is a reflection of your off-line self and another reason why online behavior matters. More employers and schools conduct social media checks of applicants through simple Google searches.
“We’re putting so much of our lives out on social media that finding information about a person isn’t difficult, and you can build a bad ‘digital reputation’ very quickly if you aren’t cautious about what you say and what you put out online,” Stirling says.
As a rule of thumb, teach kids to pause before they post or tag friends by asking themselves questions like, “Is this respectful?” “Would I be embarrassed if my grandmother saw this?”
Impulsivity combined with angry or hurt feelings often land kids––and adults––in hot water. Plan ahead by implementing a 24 to 48 hour cool-down period for those moments. And, encourage your adolescent to discuss problems with you or another trusted adult before reacting.
Errors in judgment happen. Discuss and decide if an apology is in order. If a peer is bothering your teen, she should tell the classmate to stop. In situations involving cyberbullying and online harassment, begin with the school and/or the parents of the kids involved. If your child feels threatened, contact law enforcement.
Strike a healthy balance between online and offline activities. Set curfews on devices, create tech-free zones, like at the dinner table or in the car, and role model tech boundaries.
Periodically review your adolescent’s activity across social networks.
If your child likes recording videos, create a shared account which alerts you whenever she uploads a new video. Discuss what’s okay to post and what’s not. Also, select the unlisted or private mode so the account isn’t searchable. Protect your child’s identity by choosing fun pseudonyms and by avoiding any geographic references. On YouTube, you can turn off the comments to avoid online trolls and bullies.
While parental control apps/software can offer peace of mind, honest conversations with your kids will empower them to make sensible decisions.
“Remember, the most important Internet filter in the world is the one children carry around between their ears. But it’s important for us to to teach them how to use it,” Graber says.
Freelance journalist, Christa Melnyk Hines, and her husband are the parents of two digitally-charmed kids and a pair of sweet dogs. Christa’s latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.