"Facebooking" and "YouTubing" are no longer just a "cute" thing kids do for fun to pass the time. Not understanding the risks associated with the many social media outlets poses a huge potential problem to the safety and well-being of our children.
To keep them safe, online activity is something that needs to be monitored closely. To fully understand the potential dangers, we, as parents/teachers/child advocates need to educate ourselves and then stay aware of what our children are doing online.
I read the headlines daily, and see sad story after sad story about a child who was not supervised by engaged parents or children whose parents were not aware of their child's virtual world. If you lose a child due to cyber bullying or depression due to feeling isolated and friendless, it is too late to become involved and ask the questions you need to ask now. Telling yourself that your child would never be involved in dangerous activities online is denial on a parent's part. Anyone who has parented a teen understands being proactive is wiser than trying to scramble when bad things happen.
It is time to educate or re-educate parents about the reasons they need to be engaged in their kids' Internet activity.
Whether it's browsing websites like YouTube, networking on social media, playing video or other Internet-connected games, or downloading files, every activity poses potential dangers that parents should be aware of.
Before the Internet was so accessible to all children, kids could come home and we, as parents, could ask them how their day was, who they hung out with or had lunch with, or how their activities went after school.
Judging by the child's response, we could get a fairly good idea of the events and interactions of their day. By just looking at their face or judging their reactions to our questions, we can often understand how their day actually was.
Today children have a world very different from the one we have known.
They have an online world with real people, real events and real drama--one that can easily be hidden from our view and protection.
So, let's start with a quick quiz. Do you know:
- If your child has a Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Tumblr account?
- How they use each social networking site they have?
- How many "friends" do they have?
- Do they personally know all of those friends?
- If they have more than one Facebook page?
- ALL of their friends and connections on each site? Do they?
- How much time your child spends online in general?
- What your child does on YouTube?
- If the video games they play connect to the Internet?
Each of these questions represents online activity most kids use almost daily.
By using these social media and search vehicles and playing video games online, they can be whoever they want, talk to anyone they want, or research anything they want. And until we communicate with them about the happenings in that digital world, we are missing out on what's going on in their entire world.
I recommend two avenues:
1. Daily communication of what happened online. Questions might include:
"Where did you spend your time online today--IM, Facebook, games, surfing, etc?"
"Did you make any new friends?"
"Have you noticed anyone having trouble? I read a lot about cyber bullying."
"Did you play any new online games today?"
"Would you mind showing that (whatever it may be) to me?"
I would also suggest proper etiquette rules of Facebook and texts. I would check their phone for inappropriate photos and go over those rules and consequences prior to giving them the phone (it is a privilege after all...not a necessity).
2. Restricting Internet use to a public space such as the kitchen or family room and allowing kids on the computer only when you are home.
- Managing your computer's own settings for password control.
- Adding software-based controls to your computer.
- Ensuring that privacy settings on all Internet-based accounts are set to your standards. This includes sites like Facebook, but also YouTube and online photo sites like Snapfish or Picasso.
- Add a service to monitor your children's activity on sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to send you alerts based around your child's activities.
- Checking to ensure these same settings and measures are also used on cellular phones that have Internet access.
While there is no perfect solution, a combination of these measures and daily interactions will help provide your child with a safe online experience. As always, we recommend you keep the conversations around Internet safety open and positive so expectations and rules are made cut and dry.
In a place where predators are present, cyber bullying is increasing, and defaming the reputations of others happens rampantly, we need to be keeping a very close eye.
In 2012 I, along with my partner, TrueCare.com, will continue to help parents understand that they do need to be monitoring their kids online. There has never been a more vulnerable time in your child's life where what you don't know really can hurt you (and your child). We want to move the needle in raising awareness and make "monitoring kids online" the next "buckle your seat belt" campaign.
About the Author:
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever.
Read more about the book at www.StartTalkingBook.com and more about Rapini at www.maryjorapini.com.