Young children and the Internet

Sep 28, 2010 at 1:53 p.m. ET

Technology is growing by leaps and bounds, and as a result, children are learning how to use what’s available to them when they are young. Very young. While the Internet is an incredible source of information -- and entertainment -- it can be dangerous. As a parent, keeping your kids safe is one of your primary responsibilities and these days, online safety is extremely important.

family computer time

How young is too young to begin teaching your littlest learners about the dangers of the Internet? The answer is simple: as soon as your child is capable of getting online, you need to take steps to protect and educate her.

The community computer

Where your child accesses the Internet is extremely important, says Michael Ungar, PhD, a university research professor and author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids. He feels that children under nine or 10 years old should not have computers in their rooms. Besides the obvious, Dr Ungar notes, "Developmentally, young children are more oriented toward wanting to engage with their parents." This is a good thing! If you carefully arrange the computer in a community room where there is constant contact and flow-through, you're much more likely to notice something improper.

Age-appropriate information

With children as young as five surfing the 'net, it's important to discuss the awful things online predators can do. At the same time, your five-year-old is not ready for an in-depth discussion about pedophiles.

So what do you do? "Children learn from age-appropriate episodic situations. They need concrete examples" says Dr Ungar. "Sometimes parents give too much information and young kids don't understand it." Talk to your five-year-old as exactly that: a five-year-old. Tell her that sometimes strange things can happen on the Internet, like seeing pictures of naked people. Say it fairly lightly, Dr Ungar suggests, and ask, "That would be kind of weird, wouldn't it?" She'll likely giggle, as a five-year-old would. Tell her that if something like that happens, she needs to tell you right away because that's just strange and it's something Mom needs to know. You can be general and teach safety at the same time.

Rules, rules, rules

While setting ground rules for Internet usage may seem obvious, it's very important not to overlook the simple. Think about the things that your little one might not: sharing her last name, her phone number, her address or where she goes to school. Dr Ungar suggests that you tell your child that the strangers on the computer are just like the strangers at the grocery store. When Mom or Dad aren't around, it's not safe to talk to them. And it's never safe to give them personal info.

Internet safety is extremely important and failing to discuss it is as remiss as failing to teach your child about stranger danger. Start simple and keep the conversations going as your child grows.

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