I work with parents in my juvenile defense practice and am often asked to provide suggestions on how parents can prepare their children for the online world. While there is no magic bullet solution to this ongoing discussion, I do have a few helpful hints for parents to consider.
Internet Safety Discussion Begins at a Young Age
My first suggestion is to start talking about internet safety with your children at a young age. One of the best ways a parent can do this is by taking the time to sit down with your child, side by side, and go online with them.
Even if your 8 or 9 year old is only going online to play games, this practice is helpful because you have the opportunity to understand the lay of the land from their perspective. You can learn about what sites they like to visit and why they like them and ask them to walk you through particular games, apps, or sites. As you explore with your child, this opens the door for further discussion and gives you a platform to ask questions. You may ask them whether they have ever received unwanted communication by strangers online, or if they have ever felt unsafe online. It is much easier for a parent to require that they go online with a child at 8 years old, versus 15 or 16, so starting early is critical.
Parents Can set Guidelines on Technology Usage
When a parent does decide to allow the child to have a Facebook profile or phone, another suggestion is for the parent to introduce the technology to their child. For instance, the parent can explain that they are allowing the child to have the privilege of using the phone, but only using the specific guidelines that the parents have established in advance. The parents could set guidelines around whom the child is permitted to call, and at the end of the month the parent and child could sit down and review the phone bill to ensure that the child followed these rules. When a child demonstrates an understanding and compliance, the parents could add additional privileges, such as texting, and even ultimately social media apps.
It is important to be crystal clear about what is appropriate and what is not-some parents develop a technology use contract and spell out which sites and apps are allowed and which ones are not. Parents should also emphasize that internet access or cell phone usage is a privilege that can be taken away for misuse.
An Open and Ongoing Conversation is Vital
As parents talk to their children about the online world and the threats within, they should remember to develop and maintain an open dialogue at all times. This takes time, and practices like family dinner time, or having a quick chat in the car on the way to soccer practice are just a few opportunities to spend time building this dialogue. The goal is for your child to feel comfortable talking to you, so that in the event that they are confronted with an unpleasant online experience, they come to you.
These are just a few ways parents can get involved. Knowledge is also power, and learning as much as you can about internet safety as well as the topic of cyberbullying is another helpful suggestion.
Kathryn Boortz has a passion for working with youth and their families. She is the founder of Boortz Law, a law firm that focuses on juvenile defense.