Do you know what your kids are doing online? Keeping your kids safe online is a lot harder than you think. That's right. It's not easy. There is a lot to consider. Should you let them pave their own way? Eventually. Does monitoring replace parenting? No. Is your kid going to try to disable any software you install? Yes. But it's still your responsibility to not only keep your kids safe online, but to teach them how to keep themselves safe when they've shown they can handle the responsibility of having 24-hour access to the web. Here are 8 steps to get you started:
1. Get to know the technology
So many of the parents I speak with don't know how to work apps, navigate a laptop or turn on the Wii. Search YouTube for how-to videos and spend some time getting comfortable with the technology your kid is using. You can also check out this App Guide for Parents to fill you in on all the latest apps.
2. Use existing privacy settings
Check the privacy and parental settings on all of your devices (desktop computers, laptops, phones, tablets, game consoles) and use them. Super-savvy teens can bypass these if they work hard enough, but younger kids can't. You'll be preventing accidental exposure to all sorts of stuff just by using the pre-existing settings.
3. Filter and monitor
Parents will tell me that they talked to their child about the Internet, so they don't need to install monitoring software. Ummm... wrong. You do need to install it. And re-install it. There is software that can monitor tablets and smartphones like this one and this one, too. There is also software where you can manually allow certain websites (e.g. sexual health sites) that may be automatically blocked through filtering. You can find more info here. Of course, there are ways for your child to get around most software, which is why you need to stay on top of passwords and re-install frequently. However, the more difficult you make it, the less likely he/she can be exposed to content for hours on end. Be honest about your monitoring. Secretly recording a kid's internet usage will likely do more harm to the relationship than good for the child.
4. Talk to your kids about digital citizenship
It's important for your kids to know that everything online is permanent. Everyone could potentially see your "likes" and "favorites" as well as your comments on other photos. This permanency makes it important to consider your online reputation. Teens can start building a positive reputation online using LinkedIn and keeping all other social media profiles completely private. For example, most people keep their Twitter and Instagram profiles public and college admission committees will look up applicants online and see those profiles. Encourage teens not to post sexy or wild photos of themselves, or at least not as a profile pic.
5. Limit technology use
Try to limit time by providing time windows when the use of the Internet is allowed and windows where it is not. You could also try a tech curfew (no internet after 7 or 8 p.m.). Some families have found that having no tablet/smartphone usage from 5-7 p.m. works, then they have a 30 minute window to return emails, messages and texts, and then off again at 7:30 p.m.. There is also software which tracks time spent on Netflix, Facebook, Games, Word, Excel, etc. offering another way to monitor. There is a new trend called "vamping," where teens stay up all night long on social media while their parents think they're asleep. If this is the case, you might have to disable the wireless router at night. Whatever you choose, 24-hour unlimited access to the internet doesn't mean we need to be online 24-hours a day.
6. Keep Internet devices in public places
No laptops, tablets or smartphones in bedrooms or bathrooms. They are not private devices, so they do not belong in private rooms. Here's the catch: You should do this too. Try to have a "home" for the devices such as a basket or cabinet (some families I've worked with have a cabinet that locks for kids who sneak their devices at night). This sends the message that these devices don't belong to the child, they belong to the parent, who is allowing the child to use the device.
7. Set rules with consequences
Cyber behavior should be thought of as an extension of the self... or representation of the self. If you wouldn't do it in-person, you probably shouldn't be doing it online. Little kids understand this better than big kids who can think more abstractly and can rationalize their bad behavior online. One way to get your child to think about his/her online behavior is to have him/her make a contract, you can find a sample one, here. There needs to be a consequence if they break the contract.
8. Gradually build autonomy
Your goal as a parent is to build autonomy within your child in almost every area: finances, emotions, social bonds, chores. You want your kid to be able to take care of him/herself. The same is true for their cyber-self. Trying to block and/or monitor everything or eliminate technology completely isn't going to help them regulate their own use once they leave your house. That said, kids under 14 don't really have the ability (developmentally) to regulate themselves, so blocking and/or monitoring as much as you can is the way to go. As they get older, you can expand their cyber freedom as they earn your trust.