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Protecting Your Kids in an Online World
For better or for worse, the mainstreaming of the internet has radically altered the way in which kids view and interact with the world. What should parents do?

Today's kids are living in a whole new world - one that's practically unrecognizable to anyone who grew up in the twentieth century. Blogs, ipods, MSN, nexopia, myspace, peer-to-peer…if this sounds like Greek to you, then you're not part of this new world. But your kids are.

The mainstreaming of the internet has radically altered the way in which kids view and interact with the world around them. On the positive side, it has opened up opportunities and advantages that no other generation has ever enjoyed. Access to information is unprecedented. Walls that have kept diverse cultures apart are falling. Instant communication with someone on the other side of the world is not only possible, but free of charge.

On the downside, there is a dangerous side to this new technology. Internet pornography is rampant. Chat rooms can be breeding grounds for predators. Webcams have led to kids' images being used for all kinds of unsavory purposes. And a lot of kids are walking into the traps unawares.

What's a parent to do? How can we free our kids up to benefit from the opportunities all this technology provides, without falling prey to the snares? Here are some things for you to consider.

Educate yourself

With the rate at which technology changes now, most parents have been left in the dust and don't have a clue about what's available to their kids. How many times have you asked your teen for help with the computer? I know I've done it many times. They're far beyond me in their understanding of the technology, and that makes it a real parenting challenge.

Nevertheless, we cannot hide behind the excuse that “I just don’t understand technology." You’ve got to go there. You've got to be brave enough to say, "I will do whatever it takes to understand what's out there, and I'll engage with it alongside my kids." You cannot guide them and protect them from something you know nothing about. It may be intimidating, but ignorance is not an option.

We've got some resources that will really help you. Set aside 20 minutes to watch our show on this topic online. Take some time to read an outstanding Internet 101 primer for parents, available through Browse through the website of the Safe Online Outreach Society, or do a Google search on internet safety. But whatever you do, don't just stick your head in the sand and hope this problem won't touch your kids. They will face it, but there is help for you if you'll seek it out.

Move the computer

Computers in the bedroom are a recipe for trouble. Kids are much more likely to be getting into areas online that they should not be going if they can do so behind the closed door of their own room.

Recent studies have shown that up to 30% of teenagers have internet access in their bedrooms, and 10% of kids as young as 8 also have it. In addition, some parents allow kids to have computers in their rooms that aren't hooked up to the internet, not realizing that if their next-door neighbours have wireless internet access (as many people do), the kids can often access it without even being connected.

I'm not advocating that you turn your home into some kind of police state where your kids have no freedom. You don't need to be peering over their shoulder every time they're on the computer. But the bottom line is you’ve got to protect your kids by giving enough supervision that they’re not going to go places that are problematic. Put the computer in the kitchen, or the family room, or somewhere else that you could be walking by – in a common area where Mom, Dad, and other kids can see what’s going on.

If you're not willing to go that far, at the very least you need to have the rule that, if they want to have it in their bedroom, they have to leave the door open while they are online. They have to leave the door open, or it has to come back out in the family room. Yes, they may protest that you are invading their privacy. But as a parent you do have the responsibility to protect your children. Allowing them unchecked access to the online world behind closed doors is just not wise.

Establish boundaries and safeguards

Along with keeping the computer in a public place, there are some other things you can do to create an environment where your kids can enjoy the benefits of technology while minimizing the risks. One is to install an internet filter on your computer. A filter allows you to set limits on the kinds of material your kids can access online, and prevents inappropriate pop-ups from coming through. Check out this internet filter review to find one that would work for your family.

… put in place some family internet standards.

Beyond the filters, it’s also important for you to put in place some family internet standards. For example, how long can they be online each day? When can they be online? What are they allowed to use the computer for? What things are off limits? Is it a privilege or is it just their expectation? Take the time to think through these questions and establish your family boundaries.

Talk to your kids

You need to take the step of actually engaging with your kids about these issues. At the end of the day, when you ask them about their day at school, ask them as well what happened in their online world today - because it truly is a huge part of their world. You need to acknowledge that and be a part of it.

As you educate yourself and become increasingly aware of the potential pitfalls, talk to your kids about it. Tell them, “I’m concerned about this. Are you aware of this, son? Are you aware of this, daughter?" And then educate them in how to be wise and safe. Remember, even if their ability to use the computer outstrips yours, their critical thinking skills and discernment do not. They need you to guide them in making good decisions.

We've got a couple of posters available through our website, courtesy of the Kids' Bill of Rights and How to Keep SMART on the Internet. Print these off and post them near your computer to you remind your kids of some of the things you have talked about.

Maintain relationship

It's very convenient to let technology babysit our kids for us - whether it's the computer, the television or the video games. It's easy, and it gives us time to do our own thing, but ultimately it's not a plan that's going to be beneficial to our kids.

Your kids need you. They need your time, attention, encouragement and guidance. There is no substitute for building a great relationship with your children. And once you have that kind of relationship it provides a great context for talking to them about the issues in their lives, whether internet-related or otherwise. They will also be more likely to consider your input and respect the boundaries you put in place if they know that you really are looking out for their best interests.

The internet does not need to be a scary place, if you will take the time to educate yourself and your kids about the dangers, and take reasonable steps to protect them. Be wise, be safe, and enjoy the benefits that this new world has to offer.

Dr. Dave Currie is the National Director of FamilyLife Canada. He and his wife Donalyn live in Abbotsford, BC, and are regular speakers at FamilyLife Marriage Conferences. Dave is also the host of Marriage Uncensored with Dave and Christie, a weekly television program airing across Canada on Global and on multiple PBS stations in the USA. Visit Marriage Uncensored for broadcast information or to watch any of the episodes online.

Originally published on the website, Women Today Magazine, December 2008.




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