Kids and Technology: Top 10 Online Safety Tips
Hints, Tips and Advice for Parents, Grandparents and Kids of All Ages
By: Scott Steinberg
March 2, 2012
Whether you've still got teens at home, or are proud grandparent to a passel of adorable young sprouts, one thing's certain: It's virtually impossible to downplay the impact of technology on children's lives. Thankfully, when it comes to kids and technology, a few simple safety tips can help.
Note that smartphones, apps, tablet PCs, computers, connected TVs and video game consoles are just the tip of the iceberg. Having just returned from a Toy Fair laden with electronic gadgets for kids including app-enabled action figures, Barbie dolls with digital cameras built-in and faux plastic cell phones for preschoolers, it bears remembering. There's no stopping technology's progress when it comes to kids' involvement and interests, or keeping children away from the high-tech world – it's slowly, but surely, permanently entrenched itself into everyday family life.
Happily for those to whom social networks such as Facebook, instant online video uploads and 24/7 access to streaming media doesn't come second nature, help is readily available. Having just-launched the world's first high-tech parenting book series, The Modern Parent's Guide (free to download now), and companion video show Family Tech, I wanted to share a number of hints, tips and tools for online safety that we've found to be of service to both parents and grandparents alike. All can help you positive shape high-tech devices' impact on the household and better bridge the gap between generations.
Embrace Innovation– Dozens of new apps, gadgets, games, websites, online tools and high-tech advancements debut or evolve with each passing week. The only way to keep up with them: Actively research, stay abreast of and go hands-on with major innovations. While you can't possibly try out every new program added to Apple's App Store, or setup a profile on dozens of social networks, you can read up on all, and, through selective sampling, understand common underlying high-tech trends. Likewise, numerous professional media outlets and expert bloggers also provide detailed guides to solving common problems (e.g. how to block online purchases on specific smartphones), all easily discovered with a single Google search.
Don't Substitute Software for Education– Myriad companies such as Symantec, McAfee, Lookout, Trend Micro, Kaspersky and Webroot offer anti-virus, anti-span and online safety packages for PCs, smartphones and tablets that prevent or filter access to dubious sites and content. You can also find numerous kid-friendly or online activity monitoring programs from Web Watcher to Net Nanny, Kidzui, Zoodles and Mobicip which aim to make Internet surfing safe and fun. What none will tell you: Determined, tech-savvy tots can often circumvent all, and proactive measures are far more effective at guarding children from negative influences. Teach kids safe computing habits, and you'll save yourself the trouble of learning the hard way why an ounce of prevention outweighs a pound of cure.
Keep Screens Out of Private Areas– Much as kids love keeping computers, televisions and connected game consoles in their bedroom, screens should be confined to common areas, such as living rooms, playrooms and dens. Besides helping you ensure time limits are enforced and systems are used in safe contexts, the practice also lets you see firsthand how children use these devices, and with whom they interact. Just as important to note as what content kids consume is how they're responding to it, and if it's reinforcing positive or negative behaviors.
Set Some Ground Rules– Family members should always discuss and agree upon fixed house rules before introducing high-tech devices into the home. Discussions should include which type of content is appropriate, when it's OK to use these gadgets, and the manner in which they may be employed. Once agreed to, rules must also be enforced, and clear explanations provided as to why punishments are meted out and the requirements that must be met before rescinding them. Mind you, there's no need to be nasty. But maintaining clear and firm rules helps avoid conflict, and can speed resolution when troubles are encountered.
Don't Neglect Parental Controls– Software tools built into popular computers, operating systems and entertainment or communications devices by manufacturers, parental controls let you limit content by age rating or prevent unwanted Internet access. Some even let you set specific times during which these machines can be used. Password-protected and easily accessed from system menus, all present a handy and quickly-effected first line of defense against possible trouble spots.
Keep Personal Information Private– Never share personal information with strangers online including addresses, phone numbers, birthdays or school names. Never tell anyone in public when you'll be out of town. Use social networks and online services' built-in privacy tools to limit who can access personal profiles, or photos, videos and status updates featuring you or other family members. And above all else, use common sense: Though they may seem intensely personal, online spaces are, like any other public forum, not a place to be broadcasting personal data.
Set Spending Limits– Don't want to come home to a $1000 iPhone bill? One option: Use cellular handsets' built-in menu options to turn off in-app purchases. Another: Take the time to teach kids about high-tech spending, and educate them that in any high-tech scenario – playing a "free" video game, enjoying a complementary app, etc. – there's a price tag attached to all offers. Note that you can also turn to prepaid card or online billing solutions as well, effectively limiting funds available to children, as a way to teach kids to manage their finances.
Monitor Screen Time– Everything in moderation. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under two should have no screen time, while it's recommended that older kids and teens be capped at one to two hours daily. That said, it's always important to couple digital diversions with a balanced range of activities and outdoor play. Interestingly, some families have adopted the strategy of setting baseline limits, then adding or subtracting time based on children's behavior.
Foster Open, Constructive Dialogue– Kids will inevitably have questions, and encounter negative influences or dubious content in the course of their high-tech activities. Parents should remain open-minded, and encourage them to come forward with any and all questions. Maintaining open, honest dialogue and hearing the other party out is a fundamental requirement to establish trust. Build the bond with grandchildren or children, and they'll be likelier to be honest and forthcoming you should they stumble across troubling content, or face issues such as cyberbullying, cyberstalking or sexual predation.
Revisit the Issue Often– There's no single, one-shot solution to keeping kids safe online: It's a moving target that requires contributions from family, educators and community leaders, as well as ongoing discussion and dialogue. So make the time, no matter how busy your schedule seems, to stay aware of the latest technology developments, issues and trending topics. Technology can be a hugely influential force for good in kids' lives. But, as with any other subject, it's up to you to teach kids about both the challenges and opportunities it presents.