The California Department of Motor Vehicles lists the following reasons why 16- to 19-year-old drivers have higher traffic accident rates than other age groups:
- Poor hazard detection
- Low risk perception
- Lack of skill
- Alcohol and drugs
- Not wearing seatbelts
You could look at that same list, cut out the not wearing seatbelts, and realize those are the same risk factors for teenagers on the Internet. At least teenagers must take driver's education before they can drive on their own. There are no age or training requirements when it comes to surfing the Internet.
Dr. Edward Christophersen, Clinical Psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, thinks there should be: "You're very careful about access to automobiles and alcohol. You need to be at least as careful about access to the Internet. There are very few parents who would just hand their car keys to a 16-year old that had had two weeks of driver's education and wish them the best," he said. "They'd go out with the child. They'd start out driving on side streets and parking lots. But people seem relaxed with a 7-or an 8-year-old getting on the Internet."
Christophersen touches on a common parenting miscue. Parents start paying attention to what their kids do on the Internet too late. Their concern increases as children reach their teenage years, when they can get into the most trouble; but by then teens aggressively fight attempts to invade their Internet privacy and become better at hiding their Internet activities.
The problem starts because parents tend to treat the Internet like television -- an entertaining baby-sitter. The big difference is television has guidelines about what is appropriate to show and at what times. Parents can feel reasonably confident the Saturday morning cartoons will not segue into pornographic materials, especially since parents can and should set age restriction guidelines to television content using their cable set top box menus. The Internet offers no such easy regulators.
Although Congress has tried to pass legislation to protect children on the Internet, the Internet is largely ungoverned. Anyone can access questionable material. Even sites names that seem innocent may not be. My colleague Victoria Kempf at ScreenRetriever always likes to point to dancing bear as an example of the site that seems innocuous in name, but not in content.
So, why don't parents spend more time with their children on the Internet? Because they are naïve, Christophersen said.
"I just don't think that parents have an appreciation for the amount of filth that's on the Internet" he said. "We regularly hear parents say, 'I was astonished when I looked at the history to see what websites my son or my daughter was going on.' "
According to Christophersen, parents are the key to preventing children from getting into trouble on the Internet.
"Start small," he said. "Let the kids earn the opportunity like they would with a car, like they would with dating, like they would with going to parties."
Other tips for keeping children safe on the internet are:
- Take time to ask your kids about what they do on the Internet.
- Spend time online with your children the same way you spend time with them at dinner table or going to movies.
- Surf the Internet with your kids.
A recent Brigham Young University study shows "teenagers who were most connected to their parents on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media felt closer and more connected to their parents in real life."
It is not enough to tell your kids what they cannot do on the internet. To keep your children safe on the internet, connect to their digital lives whether you like it or not.