PROTECTING YOUR CHILD IN CYBERWORLD
Internet predators. Cyber–kidnappers. Online child molesters. You’ve probably heard thousands of warnings about these dangers and wondered how seriously you need to take them. Just how safe is the Internet for your child?
We’d like to set your mind at ease. While your kids face some danger from Internet predators, it’s relatively small and fairly easy to manage—and in this chapter, we’ll tell you how. We’ll also help you protect your child from online gambling and from what some experts have come to call Internet addiction—becoming too focused on or obsessed with the electronic world. And we’ll help you set some ground rules, enabling you and your family to relate to Cyberworld in healthy and productive ways.
But we’d also like to stress the positive aspects of Cyberworld, the wonderful ways in which it can enrich and enlarge your child's life. Parry Aftab, an attorney who works with the cyber–safety group, www.wiredsafety.org, points out that one of greatest risks children face from the Internet is being denied access to it. Although she is well aware of the dangers of abduction, unsupervised chat rooms, and unlimited access to pornography, Aftab nonetheless believes that if children don’t learn how to use the Internet and feel comfortable navigating it, they’ll be seriously handicapped for life in our increasingly electronic world.
We agree with her wholeheartedly. Cyberworld can be deceptive, disturbing, and downright dangerous. But it can also be a thrilling, exhilarating place, offering your children extraordinary opportunities for learning, socializing, and expanding their horizons.
So let’s start with some basic ground rules. Some of these rules apply to virtually any parenting situation; others are cyber–specific. All of them are intended to make you and your family feel happier, calmer, and clearer about your relationship to Cyberworld.GROUND RULE 1: Remember that cyber
–access is a privilege, not a right
Your child doesn’t have
to have a private e-mail account, a cell phone, or access to the Internet beyond what’s absolutely necessary for schoolwork. You get to monitor his or her cyber–activity as you see fit, and you get to give or withhold all or part of these cyber–privileges.
Of course, that’s not the message you’d get from the cell phone ads. But they’re trying to sell you cell phones—we’re trying to help you parent!GROUND RULE 2: Pick your battles
’t sweat the small stuff or overreact
Easier said than done, but it’s crucial nonetheless. Part of the problem is that your kids are growing up in Cyberworld, while you got there after you were already grown. You won’t be able to draw on your own childhood experience as you make judgments for them, which may make you anxious, uncertain, or simply frustrated.
You have a right to all of those feelings. But your child’s life—not to mention your
life—will be much easier if you don’t turn every difference of opinion into a battle royal. Accept that there will be some aspects of Cyberworld that you simply hate and that your children love. Figure out what issues matter most to you and concentrate on them.GROUND RULE 3: Know what you can and can't enforce
—because in Cyberworld, so much can
’t be enforced
Frequently throughout this book, you’re going to hear us suggest putting your kids on the honor system. There’s a very good reason for that: much of the time, it’s the only system you’ve got. Face it, if your children want to view Internet porn, have private e–mail accounts, or visit a chat room, they’re going to find a way to do it. Sooner or later, they'll figure out that they can undertake any of these activities pretty easily at a cyber–cafe, the house of a friend, or possibly even at the public library (though libraries are now federally mandated to have certain blocking and filtering programs). This easy availability doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make rules—but just as with cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, you'll have to accept what you can actually enforce and what you’ll have to trust your kid to do or not do.
In that spirit, we urge you to modify or adapt our suggestions throughout this book based on what your children are already doing. If your seventeen–year–old has been using e–mail for years, now is probably not the time to announce that you’ll be periodically monitoring his or her account, as we suggest in Chapter 3. Unless there are signs of trouble, it’s actually kind of insulting to start a new oversight program at this late date, though if your eight–year–old is just now learning to log on, you can take a more active role. Either way, though, there’s only so much you can supervise—then you’ll have to rely on trust.GROUND RULE 4: Consider the possibility your child can be trusted
—and let your child know what the consequences are when you stop trusting
As you’ll see throughout this book, we advocate periodically checking in on all aspects of your children's cyber–activity. Knock on their door during homework time to make sure they’re not surfing the Net while they're supposed to be studying. Take an occasional random look at their e–mail accounts to see whom they’re writing to and what they’re saying. Check their computer’s history to see how many chat rooms they’ve visited lately.
You’re doing all this in the spirit of, “I want to know what’s going on with you, so I can help if there’s a problem.” You can back off or come closer as the situation warrants, but it’s good for your children to know both that you trust them and that you’re not simply leaving them to negotiate Cyberworld on their own. Let them know that “trust” includes occasional monitoring and check–ins, and that the consequence of them forfeiting your trust will be much more extensive supervision. Make sure, though, that they also know they can come to you if they get into trouble, and help them frame their difficulties in a positive light: “This is a real learning experience for both of us and I’m so glad you had the good judgment to come to me.”GROUND RULE 5: Keep the lines of communication open
As with most parenting situations, that’s your best defense, first, last, and always. To get your kids talking about cyber–specific problems, you may want to watch a movie with them about other kids’experience with TMing, e–mail, or the Internet. (See Resources and the box on page 17 for some ideas.) Asking your children what they thought of the film can help them open up about their own experience, even if they never come right out and admit they’ve been talking about themselves. You’ll also find throughout this book a number of suggestions for getting your kids talking about their cyber–experience.
Remember, part of being a kid—and especially a teenager—is to develop one’s own sense of oneself, a process that often involves rebelling against even the most well–meaning parents. Your job—and we know it’s a tough one—is to work both sides of the street: keeping your kids safe while allowing them to be independent. You need to know what they can handle and what they can’t—or at least to make educated guesses about it. Your first step is to start learning what they’re up against—and the best way to do that
is to listen to them.GROUND RULE 6: One electronic device at a time
One of the most frantic aspects of our cyber–culture is the way multitasking has invaded even our play time. Think about the difference between watching TV or a DVD with your kids, and having the television on while the whole family TMs, answers e–mail, or chats on the phone. The first is a social experience; the second turns your home into a TV–ridden mini–office.
As Americans work more and more hours with every passing year, we can’t help worrying that our society is turning out automatons set at only two speeds: produce
. And as electronic communication becomes ever more invasive, even the time set aside for consumption turns into a type of productivity, with bosses, clients, and colleagues encroaching upon our leisure hours. Bad enough that we adults are prey to this type of super–productivity, must we also inflict it upon our children?
Don’t forget: watching TV or a DVD with your kids gives you a golden opportunity to learn more about them, their friends, and their culture, especially if they’ve picked the show. Asking them what they thought about that snobby girl who broke a date or that jock who was tempted to take steroids can be just the invitation your child was waiting for to open up about his or her own concerns and questions. At the very least, you may learn more about your child’s values, assumptions, fears, and desires. Plus, you can just enjoy each other's company!
All those opportunities go out the window, though, if your kid is busily IMing or TMing during the show, or if every five minutes one of you takes a phone call. Consider making it a family rule that when the TV is on, the computer is off, and vice versa. And think about having a “no–phone zone” that includes dinner and maybe an hour or two before or after, when the only people to talk to are the ones actually in the house. Cooking, setting the table, and doing the dishes are all wonderful activities that can be shared with your kids—you’ll be surprised what kids will tell you when they’re not “officially” spending time with you!Movies to Start You Talking
One of the best ways to start a conversation about Cyberworld is to watch a movie with your kids and then talk about what you thought of it. We’ve listed several in Resources. Here are a few of our favorites:* Odd Girl Out
, directed by Tom McLoughlin, 2004, Lifetime, www.lmn.tv. An excellent portrayal of cyber–bullying based on Rachel Simmons’s book of the same name. This movie is particularly useful for showing how girls who don’t want to bully get caught up in pressure from the “head bully.” This is a great movie to view with your child so that you can ask if anything even remotely similar is happening at his or her school.* Every Mother's Worst Fear
, directed by Bill L. Norton, 1998, Lifetime, www.lmn.tv. Naïve teen gets kidnapped by man she meets online. This movie shows all the ways that teenagers hide their Internet use from parents. While we think it’s more alarmist than realistic, the parts about how teens relate to the Internet are well done. One thing that is well portrayed is the grooming process, in which the predator plays on the teenager’s feelings of being misunderstood by her parents to draw her closer to him.* A Moment of Truth Movie: A Secret Between Friends
, directed by James A. Contner, 1996, Lifetime, www.lmn.tv. This movie is about two teenage girls, one bulimic and one anorexic; it shows all the classic eating–disorder signs to watch for. Since eating disorders are becoming almost common in school settings, this is a great movie to view with your child to show your interest in his or her world and your willingness to talk about it. Although the Internet per se isn’t a major issue in the film, you can use this movie as an occasion to ask your child about pro–ana Web sites—sites that glorify anorexia and other eating disorders. (See Chapter 4.)Listen to the Quiet: Some Cyber-Free Experiences to Share with Your Child
Help your child develop his or her full range of responses by providing at least one cyber–free experience each week, ideally one that offers some silent, meditative space in which new thoughts and feelings can quietly emerge. Children need that open–ended downtime to develop their inner resources, especially when their daily lives are often so scheduled and frantic.
Some fruitful quiet times for your child to enjoy with you, with friends, or solo might include
* nature walks
* city walks
* browsing a museum
* a boat ride or a sail
* a bike ride—without the Ipod!
* a cross–country run—ditto!
* a visit to a church, synagogue, mosque, or Buddhist temple—to express your religion or simply to appreciate the deep, meditative silenceModeling the Message
Are you modeling good cyber–behavior for your cyber–kid? Are you always online when you could be relaxing, or taking cell–phone calls in the midst of a family dinner? Kids do as we do, not as we say, so if you’re concerned about the effect Cyberworld is having on your youngster, ask yourself what kind of example you’re setting. Show your children that it is indeed possible to turn down the volume on the answering machine, shut off the cell phone, and close out the e–mail in order to focus on family members, meditate, or relax. And then find concrete, specific ways that your kids can join you—preparing or cleaning up after dinner; at dinner itself; as part of family game night or family movie night; for a walk or a shopping trip or another activity that leaves plenty of room for talking and listening. You may be amazed at what a difference it will make!TIP
Make sure your child has an ergonomically correct setup. Use a chair that promotes good posture, supporting the spine and giving the feet a good, solid base. Wrist support is also an important consideration. Wristwand is a small baton that your child can use for stretching exercises that may help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. (See www.wristwand.com for more information.) Position the monitor so that your child is looking at it directly, rather than at an angle. See Chapter 8 for more suggestions on promoting computer health and safety.Protecting Your Kids in Cyberworld
Most of this book will be devoted to helping your child negotiate Cyberworld, which includes making the most of its many promises. We’ll be looking at the pros and cons of text messaging, e–mail, and the Internet, and we'll show you how Cyberworld can affect your child’s development, socialization, health, schoolwork, friends, family life, and experiences with dating.
But before you even consider the positive aspects of Cyberworld, you need to protect your child against three of its primary dangers: predators, gambling sites, and Internet addiction. There aren’t any up sides to these features of Cyberworld; they’re pretty much all negative. So let’s see what you can do to keep your child safe.
Excerpted from What in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online? by Barbara Melton, M.Ed., LPC and Susan Shankle, MSW, LISW-CP. Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Melton, M.Ed., LPC. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.