"As parents, we understand the risks that come with our children's growing independence and we know how to protect and advise them. I remember when my young daughter wanted to ride her bike around the block on her own. I was anxious but I let her go. I understood the risks and where the boundaries should be set. "
This is how Mr. Doug Fodeman starts his talks. Mr Fodeman is a recognized expert on keeping our children safe online, is on the Time4Learning Educational Advisory Board, and runs Children Online, a site educating parents on Internet risks. His advice for parents. . . .
"Unfortunately, this same understanding of risks is not true for most parent with the internet. Most parents are unaware of the risks and dangers that await children on the Internet. As wonderful a tool as the Internet is, it has many sites that are not age-appropriate for our children, sites with opportunities for our children to interact with strangers of all ages, and places that put children at risk for harm such as bullying, personal encounters, and addictive behavior. "
Strange though it may seem, a child can be very influenced by a stranger or group of strangers over the net and can make terrible lapses in judgement in giving out personal information. This is true danger which has had devastating consequences for many children and families.
First recommendation, young children should be supervised at all times on the computer and net. This is to protect the computer and the children. Put the computer with the screen facing the inside of the room (so its easy to see) and perhaps in the parents home office or kitchen but not in the children's own bedroom. This allows the parent to gracefully watch the child as they work on the computer. This is a great policy into the early teen years.
Second recommendation, get and stay informed about safety on the net. Good sites to look at are:Children Online, Get NetWise, and Parenting In an Electronic Age. And since the net and technology is evolving rapidly, plan on an annual update of your knowledge. In the last two years, the chat rooms have been replaced by MySpace as the most visible of the dangerous online meeting places for children but the media will evolve. Many churches, schools, and parent groups host a periodic meeting to help parents to understand the risks from the evolving electronic media (remember, a cell phone can now also include email, chat, and web surfing!). If they don't organize such as session, you should. If you need speakers, contact us and we might be able to suggest one.
Share your information about the risks with the children. We recommend that you reach an agreement with your child about the what they will and will not do on the net. The agreement helps you and your children communicate about the risks and how the child has to take responsibility for not disclosing any personal information. We recommend that the agreement be signed and taped to the wall by the computer. Also, that periodically, the terms and issues in the contract get reviewed so that the parent can hear about the children's actual experiences. Awkward emails and websites that somehow arrived or popped up should be discussed rather than considered the child's fault and something they need to hide. We are all embarrassed as victims of the ongoing spam problems but for the foreseeable future, they are part of the online landscape.
The reason that we insist on this contract as a primary recommendation is that in most cases, your children's safety depends on their own vigilance and awareness of dangers. Most children's technical expertise will surpass their parent's before the end of high school and they will inevitably (unfortunately) be exposed to spam emails, sites, and links. While the exposure is unpleasant and unfortunate, your children need to understand to with-hold their personal information and to avoid risky involvements across the net.
Next recommendation, purchase and install web filtering software for all children under the age of 16. Web filtering software acts as a barrier between your child and the Internet. It attempts to filter out bad/inappropriate content before your child sees it. Filters help support the boundaries you set such as the hours of usage, the sites that they can visit, and their usage of email or instant messaging. We recommend Cyberpatrol for the PC and Content Barrier for the Mac. Also, parents should look at all electronic media and find a trusted source of family-friendly info on electronic media .
Lastly, while it's important that you understand and manage the risks of your children using the Internet, we believe that you should make efforts to have your children take advantage of the Internet. Just like bicycles and cars and sports, there are risks. But these risks are manageable and the benefits of using the computer are extraordinary.
John Edelson is Founder Time4Learning - Online Home School Curriculum and Mr. Doug Fodeman is on Time4Learning's Educational Advisory Board .