Most parents are terrified of the internet (at least a little) because of the risks it poses to their children. From sexual activities (access to pornography, “sexting” and sexual predators) to financial pitfalls (large wireless service bills, expensive games that start off “free”, malware that facilitates identity theft), the internet introduces dangers that didn’t exist just a few decades ago.
However there’s no way to prevent your kids from going online (even if you wanted to, which you most likely do not since it is a fantastic portal to information). Even if you don’t have a personal computer at home, there are computers and an Internet connection in just about every room in their school, there are free-access computers at the public library, their friends most likely have them…the list goes on.
Most teenagers (and even many younger kids) have an iPod or smartphone that connects to either a wireless service or public wifi. Banning your kids from using the Internet, chatting with other people online and creating social networking profiles is simply not a realistic option.
The only true viable option is to talk openly and honestly with your children about how they can enjoy the Internet and engage socially with friends, while avoiding the dangers.
Social networking is, for the most part, fun. Your kids can connect with friends who they may otherwise not be able to keep in touch with. The Internet is a fantastic bridge for family members who live far apart. Unfortunately, the Internet is also full of criminals who want to prey on and abuse children. The key to combating this is to limit the amount of personal information you post online. This isn’t as easy as it may sound, though.
Encourage your kids to think for themselves and not give in to peer pressure. Just because all of your daughter’s girlfriends are posting racy photos of themselves online, this doesn’t mean that she has to do it too. It’s important that your kids know to listen to their gut even if their decision goes against what most other people are doing. Kids know how to tell right from wrong; they just don’t always know how to go against their peers.
Identifying features should be kept private or, better yet, not published online at all. Your child’s full name, phone number, address, school, work place and birthday shouldn’t be public. Instead, ask them to use their first name and middle name and keep the rest of the information under wraps. Along the same lines, they shouldn’t publish photos that could lead a cyber-criminal to know where your child lives, works or goes to school. These rules should also be kept in mind when posting statuses or commenting on other people’s sites.
Many people forget the “no identifying information” rule when choosing a username. The people who prey on children online are savvy. Even if you think your school name, address or last name is cleverly masked as part of your username, it’s easier to figure out than you think.
Ask your kids to set up a separate e-mail account to associate with all of their online networking sites. Computer hackers may be able to find out information about you just by knowing your primary e-mail address, which is linked to your full name and other personal information. Make sure your secondary e-mail account doesn’t include any of this information.
The stronger the password, the more protected you’ll be. Use a different password for each website and e-mail account. The hardest passwords to break are those that mix letters and numbers. Use a word that isn’t related to your life. For example, instead of using your dog’s name as part of your password, use a random word that you pick from the dictionary.
Every social networking site has privacy features that you can customize. Often, you can opt to hide a lot of your information from certain people and the general public.
An honest conversation with your children about the risks inherent with the internet and steps they can take to mitigate them is the only real option to parents. Start early too, because your children’s’ exposure to the online world is happening earlier each passing day.
Jonathan Martin is a Seattle website developer, and also a parent, who knows too well the dangers of the internet. He also understands its value and believes that honest dialogue with his children is the best approach.