For kids who love technology, the Internet can be a boundless source of learning and entertainment. For parents, it can also be an endless source of anxiety and heated conversation due to pressing issues surrounding online safety, health and privacy. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a high-tech expert to make advancements like smartphones, apps and social networks a safe and positive part of family life. Teach both yourself and kids to observe these simple rules, and you’ll be better positioned to make technology a healthy part of the household -- and give yourself a great excuse to say goodbye to Xanax.
Study, research and sample new technology -- Dozens of companies including McAfee, Lookout, Webroot, Kaspersky, Symantec, Net Nanny and Trend Micro offer an equally dizzying array of software programs, apps and child-friendly Web browsers that restrict access to questionable content. But as any will tell you, these tools are just part of a well-rounded online safety strategy, and the best defense by far is a good offense -- especially when it comes to educating yourself and your children. Technology constantly advances, as do the number and types of devices and apps available, and features they support. The only way to keep pace, and see what you’re up against, is to research and try out new options. Time-strapped parents needn’t worry either: Given the multitude of hints, tips and how-to guides available from blocking online purchases to configuring parental controls, answers to most questions are a single search query away. But above all else, take note -- it’s vital to recognize that you can’t ignore or discount tech. Parents have to do their homework, and invest the time needed to comprehend and appreciate just what sorts of challenges and opportunities they’re confronting.
Never share personal information on the Internet: Personal and intimate as many of the interactions feel on social networks like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, don’t forget: These services are actually among today’s most open and public forums. To this extent, never give out personal information online, including addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, age, current location or the school you attend. Likewise, never share details surrounding when you’ll be away or out of town, despite the urge to tell friends about your family’s fabulous upcoming vacation. (A potential invitation to thieves letting them know when your family will be AWOL.) Similarly, it also bears recognizing -- as at a school play, online, where narcissistic glamor shots and glitzy profiles pass for virtual costumes, everyone’s in character, to some extent. Take everything with a grain of salt: The supposed 12 year-old girl your daughter loves chatting with online isn’t necessarily a 40 year-old ex-con in disguise, but -- as with any online interaction -- a healthy dose of paranoia pays.
Activate privacy features -- Increasingly, social networks such as Google+ have added apps and communications tools that are offering integrated privacy features that limit strangers’ access to photos, videos, status updates and posts in which you appear. Take advantage of them. Numerous video games provide similar features worth capitalizing on as well, letting you limit chat capabilities or online interactions to pre-approved friends lists and prevent unknown parties from engaging with kids. As with any window onto your personal space, it pays to close the blinds if you don’t want the whole world watching.
Confine screens to common areas -- As someone who grew up with a PC in his bedroom (and former adolescent male), take it from experience: In this day and age, computers, tablets, connected video game systems and other high-tech devices are best confined to common areas. Keeping screens in open locations such as playrooms and dens makes it easy to keep an eye on kids’ usage habits, what products/software they’re consuming and -- equally important -- the way they’re interacting with content and whom they’re doing so with. Granted, behavior will obviously differ while a parent is present. But by being there, if even just on the periphery, you’ll gain a much better understanding of children’s high-tech habits, and how to influence them for the positive.
Spend time getting to know technology with your kids -- By spending time together online researching topics, experimenting with new devices and playing around with apps and games, parents can gain greater insight into their child's high-tech habits, behaviors and favorite virtual hangouts. These shared moments also promote trust and understanding, improving communications between you and your sprouts. Ultimately, keeping kids safe online requires proactively teaching them digital citizenship, so they’re equipped to make the right decisions. Encouraging positive computing habits and fostering open and honest discussion are key to successfully meeting the challenge.
Establish set times for online usage -- For very young children, it's a good idea to establish specific predetermined times during which computer usage is permitted, preferably when parents can keep an eye on what's happening on their screen. As a general rule, kids and young teens shouldn't be on the computer during the wee hours and/or when the rest of the family is asleep -- doubly so on school nights. And children most certainly should not be playing before bed: An hour of downtime should be allotted after shutting down devices to allow for restful sleep.
Setup and use parental controls -- Many operating system makers (Apple, Microsoft, etc.) and manufacturers of mainstream devices such as the PlayStation Vita or iPad built parental controls into their creations -- a fact you should capitalize on. System settings that let you restrict access to inappropriate content, limit online connectivity, configure limited usage times and/or block online spending, all make a great first line of defense. Easy to setup and configure -- although instructions for doing so can often be buried in support sections or forums, necessitating a quick search on Google -- be sure to set them up on acquiring new devices before handing the hardware over.
Know the software, apps and games your kids enjoy -- There are a great deal of apps, software programs, videos games and virtual worlds available on computers, smartphones and tablet PCs, but not all of them are appropriate for kids. Therefore it’s vital that you get to know the software your child is using, and familiarize yourself with each title’s features, capabilities and potential uses. Some programs even let parents hook up their own accounts to their kids' accounts so that adults can moderate activity. But in the end, it’s important to remember that homework isn’t just for children: Parents have to make a point of using the many resources available online to research breaking titles and trends, and actively going hands-on with them.
Talk about safe online spending -- Many programs and games -- especially free titles -- offer special items, add-ons, bonuses, features and exclusive levels for a small fee (this is primarily how most "freemium" outings fund their existence). Talk to your kids about online spending, and make sure they understand that they need your permission before making purchases. Likewise, many devices -- e.g. the iPhone -- allow you to turn off in-app purchases from the settings menu, while many parents limit kids’ spending capabilities to prepaid solutions with set spending limits. It goes without saying, but don't just hand over your credit card!
Above all else, communicate -- Talk to your child about his or her Internet adventures. Discuss the websites he or she likes to visit, ask about the friends he or she makes, and address any questions or concerns he or she may have. After all, when it comes to the online world, and online safety in particular, there's no such thing as a boring or fruitless conversation.
High-tech parenting expert Scott Steinberg is the author of The Modern Parent's Guide book series and host of video show "Family Tech: Technology for Parents and Kids." A noted industry consultant and keynote speaker, his new book The Modern Parent’s Guide to Kids and Video Games is free to download as a PDF, or in eBook form on Sony Reader devices, now.
Photo Credit: whiteafrican.
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