In today's climate of cyber bullying, Internet pornography and identity hacking, it's a parent's rightful duty to worry about their child's safety online. Digital literacy requires a new sort of savviness that isn't necessarily taught in schools, has no rulebook and may even be a foreign realm to well-meaning parents. There's a fine line between protecting your child from virtual threats and overstepping privacy boundaries in formative years; you wouldn't want to prevent your children from growing and developing in the digital age, but you also want to make sure they're making good choices. Here are five tips to make sure your kid can reap the full benefits of the Internet without falling into any cyber holes.
Start early. It seems like most 2-year-olds know how to operate a smart phone these days, so consider digital literacy a necessary part of raising your kids, and the earlier you start the better. The Internet may seem like all fun and games to a child, but if you can pepper in lessons about appropriate behavior and what to look for in a virtual climate, they'll be learning how to separate "good" information from "bad." Teaching them early will secure you a spot as a legitimate resource when future questions arise.
Create an open forum for discussion. Teaching digital literacy to your children requires a careful balance of creating space for openness and respecting privacy. While monitoring your child's activity may be appropriate, the most important lesson to teach is how to think critically about using the Internet when you're not there. That means making it okay to talk with you about any issues they face. Respond to questions and comments with engagement in the issue rather than outright negativity. Leading kids to their own healthy conclusions is the best way to reinforce smart Internet usage. It's okay if you're still figuring it out yourself, too, but a critical mindset about Internet sharing is better than a lazy one.
Inform yourself of Internet trends and challenges. How can you teach your children to be safe if you're not in the loop yourself? Internet awareness can vary widely among adults of all ages and demographics, so do your homework and learn about some of the most common threats your child might face on the Internet -- phishing, sexual predators, hacking, bullying, hate speech, radicalization, etc. -- and make a plan for how to address each one.
Keep your computer in a common area. If your kids share a family computer, make it accessible to them, but not so private that you can't see what they're doing. They're less likely to run into trouble, wittingly or unwittingly, if an adult is on hand to help gauge the situation.
Friend and follow them. With the popularity of sites like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram, it's easy for anyone to post any sort of information online, even information that is dangerous or inappropriate. If you friend and follow your kids' social media accounts, they'll have to think, "Would I want my parents seeing this?" before pressing the "Send" button. If the answer is no, it probably shouldn't be online in the first place.
For the concerned parent, here are three valuable Internet monitoring tools available online.
TrueCare: An online social media monitoring system, TrueCare follows your child's online activity 24/7 and reports any suspicious behavior back to you. It's less about spying and more about flagging dangerous signals; you'll get weekly reports and email updates when your child friends an adult or someone out of their network, when your child is involved in conversations with keywords like "drugs, alcohol or depression," and when your child uploads a photo or video with questionable content. You can also customize the keyword search for things like nicknames or specific locations.
Avira: Similar to TrueCare service, Avira offers a 24/7 online monitoring tool with a user-friendly dashboard to alert the parent to any potential risks, with color coded bars to separate out the mundane posts. Again, it's not about spying, but making sure your child is not unwittingly being bullied, stalked or even subtly abused, even when your child might not be aware that it is happening. Avira will notify you by email when a registered sex offender friends your child, when your child is exposed to bullying, drugs or suicide, or when inappropriate photos of your child appear on the Internet.
Instant Checkmate: If you ever do come across some suspicious information like an unknown adult out of network seeking contact with your child, you can take advantage of online services like Instant Checkmate, which aggregates information across the web to provide comprehensive background checks for the average consumer. You'll be able to find out whether the person is a registered sex offender and what kind of offenses are on their criminal records with just a name and general location. This information can go a long way in preventing your kids from taking unnecessary risks.