Monday, April 16, 2012

17 Things I've Learned the Hard Way About Keeping Kids Safe Online

It's a crazy world we live in, friends. As a parent, I would like to be able to allow my children to simply be children, but the world wide web has a different plan for their lives. My kids are getting older now, one in middle school and one in high school, but I am still a little protective of them. They might tell you I am a LOT protective of them. I'm okay with that. I am the parent. We all know that kids should not be giving out personal identifying information online, but here are a few other things I wish I had known from the start. The basic theme running through all of these items, as you will see, is that kids' right to personal privacy is overrated. I simply don't believe in it. You don't have to, either. You are the parent. Read on.

1. Kids should not have online access behind a closed door. This means no internet-enabled computers in their bedrooms. This means no smart phones or tablets or other hand-held or gaming devices that bring the crazy contents of the web into the privacy of their own rooms, leaving you unaware of what they are up to. If you are unwilling to keep the internet out of their bedrooms, at least insist on an open door policy and wander in unannounced, frequently.

2. Set up a parental controls program, beyond that which is provided with Mac or Windows. There are free and paid programs out there that are great. Do your research. Ask around. Find one that works with your lifestyle. They are not one-size-fits-all. Introduce your kids to the program. Show them how it is tracking their online activity and how you are notified. Make them aware that you are concerned for their safety and that you do this out of love, to protect them rather than to smother them. Let them know that you are doing this to help them make wise choices and not be tempted to mess around where they don't belong. Kids (and many adults) do not always have the maturity to make wise choices, but they will make better choices if they know they are being monitored.

3. Desktop computers are safer for kids than laptop models. Anytime the screen is hidden from your view, there is risk of kids going where they do not belong online. When a computer is positioned where it can be easily viewed by anyone in the room, kids are prone to make better choices.

4. Use parental controls to set online curfews. Make sure the online world is not accessible to kids when you as the parent are not home or are in bed. If they know they cannot get online when they are not supposed to, then they won't be tempted.

5. Respect social media site age requirements. Do not be that parent who teaches or allows children to lie about their age to use a social media service before they are qualified. Teach your kids early to be responsible, law-abiding citizens--not to cheat the system because the rules somehow don't apply to them. If you realize that you have not paid attention to age requirements and your kids are using services they are too young for, apologize for not being attentive at the outset and cancel their accounts until they are of age and have your permission. They will not like this, but you are the parent.

6. Be familiar with your kids' social media involvement. If your kids use social media sites such as Facebook, sit down with them occasionally and have them take you on a tour of their friends' list, photos, comments, etc. This will make them very uncomfortable. That's okay. When you see a friend's profile picture that looks inappropriate, ask about it. Ask to see the rest of that person's profile. Talk about these people and the choices they are making and what level of influence they have over your kids. Your kids will squirm, but they will also know that you care and you are willing to be involved in their lives. Again, if they know you are watching, they will make fewer bad choices.

7. Keep track of your own electronic devices that have internet access built in to them. Take them into your room with you at night and place them on a charger next to your bed. Do not leave them accessible to curious kids, as they often do not have user accounts and parental control features. If your kids have friends with internet devices who are staying over for the night, you may wish to require that those be turned in for the overnight hours, as well. Try not to embarrass your kids with this house rule and prepare their friends ahead of time for the enforcement of it.

8. If your kids have phones, require that the phones sit on the charger in your room overnight. This will keep your kids from losing sleep because their friends text them at all hours. It will also keep them from having late night conversations that they might not have if you were up and attentive.

9. Occasionally (and always unannounced) sit down with your kids' phones to look through all their text messages, call logs and photos. Scroll through things at a leisurely pace, even right in their presence. Yes, they will be uncomfortable. That's okay. Do not overreact, though. If their friends occasionally use language that is not your first choice, do not freak out. Accept that there are some things about the teenage world that don't exactly please you, but aren't that terrible, either. Try to be reasonable. If you do not know how to access the texts, call logs or photos, ask your child to help you learn or go into your cell phone provider's storefront and ask them to teach you. Be proactive. You are the parent.

10. Do not allow younger children to use "junior social media" sites where their identity is masked and they play interactive games and roam chat rooms under an anonymous user name. No matter how secure the site is, you are teaching kids that it is okay to form friendships with strangers they meet online. This is NOT okay! This goes against everything you should be teaching them about online safety. If your kids are already using these sites and you cut them off, they will complain and protest in an attempt to wear you down. Stand strong. You are the parent. You make the choices to protect their safety. They will eventually get over it and find something else to do.  Click the link for further discussion of this particular point.

11. Ask your kids for their passwords to everything they do online so that you can check on their activity. If the kid refuses to give you access to a password, use parental controls to block that site. It's as simple as that.

12. Give each kid in the home a separate account on the computer with a password that is not shared with the other children in the home. This way, kids cannot get on someone else's user account, go somewhere or do something against the house rules, and then let the blame fall on someone else. You, as the parent, of course have a discreet list of all user names and passwords for the family.

13. Teach kids about the browsing history feature on the computer. Show them how it maintains a list of every website visited. Inform them that if the browsing history is ever deleted or cut short, the consequences will be the same as if the worst online offense has been committed. Make the consequences severe. They will learn.

14. Ask your older kids to show you online music videos of the songs that they like. Watch them together and discuss them. This is often very eye-opening, if you are willing to dialogue civilly. If your kids know that you can be trusted to keep your cool and engage in calm discussion, they will share with you quite openly. If you do not handle civil and reasonable dialogue well, do not attempt this until you have learned how. Learn how to talk and listen without instant condemnation.

15. Learn texting language abbreviations. Every time you run across an abbreviation that you aren't familiar with, ask your kids what it means or look it up online. Kids will be less likely to try to hide things in clever abbreviations if they know that their parents are aware of common abbreviations and are not afraid to investigate new ones. Again, insist that this is not being done to make their lives miserable; this is being done to help them be motivated to make wise choices when the world around them is encouraging them to make poor choices.

16. Be aware that video game systems with a live component have many features of the internet built in to them. XBox 360 Live, for instance, is not only for kids to play interactive games with others; it can also allow kids access to Netflix (and all of their movies of ANY rating), Facebook, YouTube and many other sites. If you wish to allow your kids access to the live component, have them go through the web access settings in your presence and disable all sites you do not wish to have accessible through the gaming console. If a kid is reluctant to disable these settings, offer to take away the game system or the monitor instead--even if they have paid for it with their own money. You are the parent. You have the right to determine what is allowed in your own home.

17. If you run across dangerous or highly objectionable things that other kids you know are doing online, inform their parents. If you can be discreet about it, do. But if you can't approach it discreetly, then be a grown-up and take the heat that comes with being a whistle-blower. Our kids are worth it. Join forces with other parents in enforcing some of the same standards for online usage. It is easier when a kid knows that a friend's parent has the same rule.

The bottom line, friends, is that you are in charge of what goes on in your own home. You are responsible to set up the rules and to enforce them. You are responsible to protect your own children. You do not have to give your children any privacy, as this only encourages them to hide things from you and puts them in potentially dangerous situations. Personal privacy is for people who support themselves and live independently.

Tell your kids early on and frequently that yes, you are aware that most other kids don't have such strict rules and regulations about phone and internet usage. Yes, your family is the odd one. Yes, things are different in your home. Be proud of standing up for what is right and safe for your kids.

The earlier in your childrens' lives that you start enforcing these standards, the better. You will meet stiff resistance if you wait until they are teens, but even that is okay. You are the parent. It is your responsibility to protect your kids and prepare them for a productive adult life. When given the choice between responsible parent and friend, always choose responsible parent.

Your calling as a parent is to protect, provide and prepare. Yes, this takes some of your time and attention. You must be willing to give it. You must be willing to talk to your kids about important topics. And most of all, you must be willing to hold your ground when they disagree with your standards. Chances are, in the long run they will appreciate it and likely hold their own children to similarly high standards. They might never think to thank you, but you will know that you have done what is right. Find satisfaction in that.


Alison Hodgson said...

Great, great post, Sherry. I'm going to come back and read again.

Since the fire we bought a new television that automatically linked up with our wireless and was able to stream the internet.


You might want to link to your earlier post about the junior social media sites. That elaborated your thinking and exposed the upside down way we approach the internet for kids.

Katie said...

This is a fantastic and extremely helpful list! Thank you for sharing it with us and with your community! We all need to work together to keep our kiddos safe and teach them how to navigate the online world.
Blessings, Katie (MomLife Today)

Tina Hollenbeck said...

Amen and amen! :^)