School is nearly out and the long summer vacation beckons. Kids will soon have loads of time to hang out with their friends at the pool, the park and each other's houses. And they'll have plenty of time to hang out online. June is Internet Safety Month and it would be good to remind ourselves of all that's great about the web and what problems and concerns parents need to be aware of in our kids' quickly expanding online world.
What's new is the mobile nature of the Internet and the proliferating number of devices and ways kids can get online. We've quickly moved on from the family PC placed in the living room, to households with multiple computers, laptops, web-enabled game consoles and, increasingly, cell phones with online capabilities. Kids are walking around with the Internet in their pockets and many parents are oblivious to what their children can access and what and how they can post their own content (including pictures) on the web.
So now would be a good time to have a talk with your children, tweens and teens about what they are doing online, where they are going and what they are uploading. This can be a humbling experience. You may find that you had no idea that the Sony Playstation Portable that you bought your 11-year old last Christmas had a web browser. Or that your sixth grade daughter has had a Facebook account for the past two years. Or that your five year old son (with the help of his older brother) has managed to create an avatar on Club Penguin and regularly goes for in-world pizzas with his other penguin friends.
Coming to terms with your kids online activities can be daunting, embarrassing, frightening and amusing all at the same time. In order to navigate this new world, it is best to keep in mind the three different types of safety that you will need to address: physical; psychological and reputational/legal.
Physical safety refers to the rather over-reported (and thankfully, rare) cases of online predators. Obviously we must teach our kids to avoid meeting strangers they've met online or in giving out personal information to sites or "friends" that they don't know. Kids have, for the most part, got the "stranger danger" message and simply delete the creeps that they encounter, but it is worth reinforcing this basic safety point.
Secondly, and harder to measure or point to, is the psychological safety of our kids. Viewing porn or graphic violent images at an early age can have huge downsides to the healthy development of a young child or teen. So can the effect of cyber-bullying, the online version of teasing, harassing and downright viscous attacks that kids can launch at the expense of other kids. In some extreme cases, some teens have taken their lives in the face of this kind of online barrage.
Finally, there is the issue of your kids reputations and, in some instances, of legal repercussions of their actions. The most obvious one getting all the headlines at the moment is sexting - the sending of nude or sexually explicit photos or videos, mostly through cell phones. A 16-year old girl may feel pressured into sending a risque photo to a boyfriend who then passes it along to his friends when they break up. This can end up being circulated on the web, copied, resent and never come down. A prospective college administrator or employer might use the photo as reason to pass on her application. Or, depending what state she lives in, could land her in court as a distributor of child porn. Recently an 18-year-old Floridian was prosecuted for passing on a nude photo of his underaged girlfriend. He is now on the Registered Sex Offender list and has had to move out of his dad's apartment as they live too close to a school. It's not hard to guess his job prospects will be bleak.
So it would be good if we all take a good, deep breath and get things into perspective. The online world is here to stay and the kids will outpace their parents and teachers in every digital department.
However, there is something we can do. We can help our kids enormously if we give them some online space in which to grow, while maintaining a watchful eye and an open ear. And, as it's summer, let's encourage them to stay rooted in real-world realities; hiking, biking or just playing outside in the way we were free to do 20, 30 and 40 years ago. Don't use the computer as a babysitter. Set controls and impose sanctions on their cell phone use. And check up on their online friends and profiles so we can deliver them safely and, perhaps, with some new-found wisdom, when it's time to go back to school.