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Protecting The Hyper-Connected Kids

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Picture this: Fifteen-year-old Lucy comes home from school and sits down on the couch with her laptop to do her homework. She turns on her beloved iPod, flicks on the TV and opens her Web browser to check her e-mail. Sure enough, her mom has just emailed from work and is asking if she got home OK and will she check the landline for any messages. Just as she's getting up to do that, her cell phone rings and the distinctive sounds coming from her laptop alert her to a slew of instant messages. Once she's gotten done checking in with her friends via cell and IM, Lucy checks her MySpace and Facebook profiles and the 12 comments that have come in since that morning. Disgusted by the gross images of murdered bodies on the news, she turns on the TiVo to watch a rerun of Saved by the Bell, then remembers she has a geography assignment due the next day. Off she goes to her high school's Web site just as the cell phone rings with the distinctive sound of an incoming text.

This scene, and many like it, is playing out in homes, schools, libraries and Starbucks cafes all over America, and indeed, the world. Teens and tweens have access to more information, images, video, music, each other and total strangers than any generation in history. It is creating a new kind of awareness of what's available and possible in an utterly networked world, and it is creating a digital immersion that many older observers (i.e. parents) fear will submerge their kids in shallow, trivial and, at times, dangerous behavior. Where on earth is all this technology taking us and how can we protect our hyper-connected children from who knows what? What steps can parents and kids alike take to stay safe, have fun and benefit from this unprecedented cornucopia of content, contact and communications?

Parents feel deeply conflicted over the new technology. On the one hand they rightly sense that their children will inherit a digital future, and the more they can use, communicate and explore this connected world, the better their chances of a good education and a bright career. Parents are also aware, though only in vague terms, of the potential dangers and pitfalls of this "always-on" universe. They feel out of their depth, find it hard to keep up, never mind understand the breathtaking digital changes opening up all around them.

While kids may have far more knowledge of and hands-on experience with these new-fangled devices and online destinations, parents have the wisdom and discernment of what constitutes a dangerous situation or potentially harmful content. This older generation will need to take the time to fully enter the younger generation's world, to become familiar with the tools that can help to protect their kids from porn, predators and the darker side of human nature while creating the ground rules for safe, fun and enlightening digital experiences.

And the tools are plentiful. From the parental controls built into Windows Vista to the Safe Search feature in Google to family friendly ISPs, there are many free and easy to use filtering tools available to protect your children from the worst on the Web. Similarly, excellent guidelines and family contracts for safe online use can be downloaded and adapted to any parent's needs. Lastly, this new hyper-connected world challenges us to have "The Conversation" with our children on a regular basis. The one where we talk about online dangers, explain our values set boundaries and where we hear about our own kids' online experiences. This conversation will have to be returned to on a regular basis as your kids grow older and get into more interactive sites and demand more sophisticated web-enabled phones, game players and other devices that can access and produce any kind of digital content. Like the bestselling book on parenting advises, we will need to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. It's not always going to be easy. Just ask Lucy.

Stephen's top tips for online safety:

1) Talk with your kids.

Begin by downloading the Family Online Safety Contract at: fosi.org and use it to kick off a discussion with your kids about staying safe online. If it feels right, ask your child to sign it and you sign yours. Keep the contract by the PC and refer to it from time to time.

2) Use filtered search.

Most of the major search engines have safe settings that do a great job in reducing the risk of your kids getting inappropriate content or images. In Google, click on Preferences on the home page. Scroll down to Safe Search Filtering and select either Moderate (for teens) or Strict (12 & under) and click Safe Preferences. Make it a rule that only you can change this setting.

3) Switch on parental controls in Vista.

If you've recently bought a new PC, more than likely you will have the new Windows operating system, Vista, installed. It has built in parental controls which are some of the best in the industry and there is no need to download and install new software. Create accounts and settings for each of your children and keep them updated as your kids mature.

4) Keep the family PC in a "public" part of the house

Amazingly, many parents put a web enabled PC in their kids bedroom and walk out of the room. Once you've done this, all control is lost. Keeping the computer and other online devices within sight acts as a very important added parental control.

5) Get to know your child's online world

Sit down with your kids and explore their online destinations. Sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz for the younger ones and MySpace, Facebook and YouTube for the older ones. Get used to the terms, codes, and ways of interacting on these sites and create your own online profiles. The more your child feels you are knowledgeable and interested, the more they will listen to your judgment and intuition about what's safe and what's not.

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