EQUPPING YOUR CHILD FOR BASIC ONLINE SAFETY
As a parent, unless you’re pretty extraordinary, you can’t be there all the time. More than half of Facebook’s users are under the age of 10, and the odds are that your child spends a significant amount of time online – whether she’s texting friends, spending time on social media, or simply exploring the magical world of limitless possibility that lies just over the online horizon (as any healthy, curious child would probably do!).
Being overly restrictive isn’t always the answer, either- because children are programmed to rebel against strictures.
In my opinion, the most intelligent and effective thing you can do is to properly educate and equip your child, so that she can not only make smart decisions herself, but trust you enough to ask for your input and help if she needs it.
KEEP THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION WIDE OPEN
This is incredibly important. Your child has to be able to talk to you about anything – including her online life. Make a habit of chatting about her day, her views, her life, things that are important to her, and particularly around social media and online buzz. Be open and trusting, and don’t be a know-it-all.
Surf the web with your child. (Not all the time, but at least on occasion. Speak the language.) If you’re a bit of a Luddite, well… make the effort. Be open to learning about new platforms and technologies, because if you don’t, you won’t have a very good grasp of the potential risks.
Be non-judgmental: create a relationship where your child knows that she can come to you with any issue involving social media, the web, or her phone. You need to be approachable enough that your child will come to you without hesitation if someone is making inappropriate comments to her, or making her uncomfortable in any way.
TEACH FUNDAMENTAL ONLINE SECURITY
Teach your child to use a good, unique and complex password on all accounts and devices. It’s imperative that she regularly updates these passwords, and that she uses different passwords for each account or platform. Explain to her why she should never share passwords, not even with close friends.
Help your child create usernames that do not provide any personal information about her. Make sure that her user name doesn’t contain her full name, or school, or town – or include any other information that could leave pointers to her identity or location.
Teach your child to log out of anything that requires a username and password when she’s done. Also, remind her to be fanatical about logging out of external devices (like school or library computers) to prevent others from gaining access to her information or possibly posting or e-mailing from your her account.
Teach her about unsolicited mail – explain why she shouldn’t click on links or download attachments in emails from strangers, or in emails she’s not expecting. Emails from unknown individuals may contain viruses or spyware that could damage computers and steal personal information—including money from bank accounts. Some viruses can “spoof” the name and email address of friends and fool individuals into thinking the message is from someone known.
Get her into the habit of ‘trust your gut.’ when dealing with people or communication online. “If in doubt, leave it out”, should be the mantra. As a parent, your enemy here is your child’s FOMO – and of course, the insatiable curiosity of a young human being. But if you explain to her just how dreadful the consequences of online recklessness could be, she’ll be much wiser in her choices, and much more likely to err on the side of caution.
ESTABLISHING ONLINE GROUND RULES
This obviously depends a lot on the age and maturity of your child. An 8-year-old will require several firm, non-negotiable rules upfront, while a 16-year-old ideally needs more of a partnership agreement with mom and dad that involves a certain level of trust, openness and mutual respect.
For younger children, here are some examples of areas around which you can establish ground rules:
• Time limits on internet usage, text messaging, and phone calls.
• Appropriate times to use phones or surf the internet – for example, not during dinner time or at school.
• Parental monitoring of her accounts and activities, on the phone as well as social networking sites and general internet use.
• The content she puts up on social media sites – with particular emphasis on things like pictures, her location, and status comments.
• Bullying awareness. Talk to her, early on, about cyberbullying, and the consequences of getting involved in posting mean or inappropriate comments. Also, pretty obviously, talk to her about what to do if she is being cyberbullied.
For older children (young teens for example), you could have a discussion around issues like:
• The impact of online statements, opinions and interaction on her life later on. Make her aware that once something is online, it never goes away, and could deeply embarrass or compromise her later on if she posts pictures or comments unthinkingly.
• Why sexting is definitely NOT a good idea. Of course, she knows this, but peer pressure, an impetuous moment, a seductive predator, and teen rebellion can be a powerful mix.
• Why she should trust you enough to be able to come to you with anything. And why you won’t be that parent. (You know, the one who explodes, or collapses, or throws her child out of the house because of a lapse in judgment.)
• A reminder of the fact that you’re on her side, and that you care enough to want to have chats about stuff like internet safety now and again. Believe it or not, she’ll appreciate it.
• Bullying (yup, I know we chatted about that when you were 8, sweetie, but we shouldn’t stop checking in occasionally to see what’s new).
SIMPLE, SAFE AND SMART
If you lay even the most basic foundation of online intelligence here, you’ll have done an immense amount of good, because, well, children can’t figure out everything for themselves. Thirty years ago, you (probably) wouldn’t have let your child go to a party unaccompanied without at least a few rules and guidelines. Why? Because it was common sense. And in the same way, you carry the responsibility for teaching your child to interact safely online, enjoying the good stuff while skillfully avoiding the bad stuff.
Of course, there’s much more, in much greater detail, but this article is really just a primer to enable you to impart the basics. In a nutshell:
- Communicate openly with your child, and don’t keep your head buried in the sand while hoping for the best.
- Don’t be judgmental, be loving, and be approachable.
- Emphasize ‘locking the door’ by logging out every time your child goes offline.
- Emphasize information privacy; teach your child not to post or give away information thoughtlessly.
- Emphasize the fact that opening unsolicited emails or clicking on dubious links out of curiosity is like picking up gum from the sidewalk and chewing on it. Gross.
- Encourage your child to let you know the moment any kind of bullying incident rears its head, and reassure her that you’ll help her – utterly – without ruining her life or being an ogre parent.
It’s that simple!
In a couple of upcoming posts, I’ll also be talking in greater detail around issues like virtual stranger danger, how to create invisible layers of security for your child, dealing with sexting, and dealing comprehensively with all kinds of online bullying.
Has you child been cyberbullied? REPORT THE CYBERBULLY.