Did you know that more than half of kids aged 6 to 9 now use some kind of children’s social network? Or that 47% talk to their friends on the Internet? And that 14% are on Facebook in spite of the fact that they are underage? To top off these startling revelations of a new study is the distressing news that 58% of parents admit they are in the dark about what their kids are up to in our brave new world.
Our kids have been born into this world. They are “digital natives” and many parents and teachers are “digital immigrants,” trying to learn a new foreign language and enter a mysterious culture that is both unfamiliar and overwhelming. Some parents I talk to have stuck their heads in the sand, hoping it will all just go away. Not likely. Our children are spending more and more time online—and this trend is only going to continue to soar as smart phones are in kids’ hands at younger and younger ages. It is imperative that parents educate themselves about how to protect their children in the new technological universe.
Because kids are starting on cartoon-like sites such as Webkinz and Club Penguin that seem as innocent as Sesame Street, parents are not always thinking about how these first games are introducing kids to the whole experience of social networking. Club Penguin is, however, a multiplayer online role-playing game. For those unfamiliar with the lingo: there are MMOG’s and MMRPOG’s which stand for Massively Multiplayer Online Games and Massively (think 228 million when you hear massive) Multiplayer Roleplaying Online Games. Have you heard of World of Warcraft (WOW), Instant Messaging Virtual Universe (IMVU), Runescape or Guild Wars? I bet your kids have. These are the virtual worlds your kids will enter soon.
It is time we approach our children’s first exposures to technology like we do any other activity with potential dangers. Just as we teach our children to fasten seat belts in cars and put on helmets to ride bikes, we need to instill awareness in young children about the risks of the Internet and to teach them habits that will lead to good practices.
Here are some tips for parents who want to start their kids out with some clear structures and rules in place:
Tip #1: Install some form of parental control software to keep your kids safe from the dark side of the internet and to limit the amount of time they spend online. Keep in mind that most kids are more tech-savvy than adults. (Our kids can easily find online advice on things like how to turn off parental controls on a computer, for example). New improved software comes out all the time so look at independent reviews to find what works best.
Tip #2: Once you are sure you have safeguards in place, talk to your kids regularly about the appropriate use of technology and about the dangers of the internet. Be sure to monitor regularly what your children are doing.
Tip #3: Start as early as you can. Start before they get started on the computer. The great news is that there are books available to teach pre-schoolers. Little Bird’s Internet Security Adventure is a new book, written by a young mother in the computer security business, that parents can read to their toddlers to teach them about internet safety, also available for download, of course. Kids are far more likely to comply with rules to protect them if they understand what the rules are for.
Tip #4: Set up the computer in a common space in your house. Not only is it easier to keep track of what your kids are up to but it makes computer play a group activity rather than an isolated one. Don’t spend hours off somewhere on your computer or other hand-held device since chldren will want to copy you no matter what you say the rules are.
Tip #5: Make sure the other parents in your neighborhood or the homes your child plays in have similar safeguards and rules in place. Simply blocking sites at your house does not protect your kid on a play date. If you are too strict, allowing little or no exposure, once your child begins going to other houses, he will have no preparation or protection, and the forbidden will be even more exciting and tempting.
Tip #6: Don’t forget to teach your kids all the other important life skills that seem to have fallen by the wayside. More young kids today know how to play a video game than ride a bike, swim safely, or tie their shoes! Too many kids know how to make a phone call on a cell phone but not how to dial 9-1-1 (since it’s not programmed in by name or on speed dial).
It just struck me that most of the parents who really need to be reading this are probably unfamiliar about how to subscribe to a blog in the first place. For safety’s sake, please e-mail this to anyone you know who has kids, or even better, print this out for them and send it the way digital immigrants do–in an envelope.