It is almost that time again…school’s out for the summer! While classes and homework are wrapping up, kids are gearing up for the summer ahead. The iPad 2 has just been released, new cell phone apps are coming out daily and social networking activity is at an all-time high. With more free time on their hands (and potentially less on yours), it’s important to start the summer off right, and make sure that your kids are safe when using all of this technology.
1. Set Clear Limitations
When I was younger, my Dad always kicked off the summer season with new limitations. He let me know that just because it was the summer didn’t mean it was time to do whatever I wanted. He set new curfews, expectations and limitations on what I could — and couldn’t — do.
The same principles should apply in your household when it comes to technology this summer. You wouldn’t let your kids frolic out in the streets with their friends until late at night, so why should it be any different when it comes to hanging out with them virtually? With a virtual playground at their fingertips, it’s important for parents to establish limitations early on for technology usage. During the summer kids have eight more hours in a day to use their cell phone, gaming devices, or laptops but this doesn’t mean that’s where their time should be spent. Set clear limitations: restrict their computer time and their gaming time to only a couple of hours a day (this time may vary depending on the household). Ideally, these times should be limited to when adults can supervise this activity; however, in today’s busy world this isn’t always possible. For those parents who can’t supervise 24/7, there are tools to help you out.
2. Parents: Play Defense and Offense
Let’s face it, technology has offered up some pretty exceptional things. I, for one, don’t know where I’d be without my Blackberry, instant Internet access, iPod and social networking sites. However, there are inherent dangers we all face when it comes to these technologies, and when it comes to kids and technology, parents need to be the first line of defense.
To use a sports analogy here, a defense can’t win a game without some offense. This summer is the perfect time for parents to play both roles in keeping kids safe in this digital-world. Defensively, parents need to be aware of what kids have access to, and identify any possible dangers. For instance, did you know that kids under the age of 13 aren’t allowed on most popular networking sites including Facebook and Myspace? Did you also know that, according to a study by Harris Interactive, approximately 1 in 5 kids under 18 have sexted (sent a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves) to someone else? While it can be daunting to learn about these things, it’s imperative that parents are aware so they can take steps to ensure their children’s safety. Offensively, parents can set clear rules when it comes to technology and stay actively involved in their child’s usage of it. Let them know what you expect, including what sites you will allow them to visit and what sites you won’t, and let them know that there will be consequences for violating these rules. To ensure they’re following the rules, parents need to be actively involved in what their kids are doing – including monitoring their technological behavior, such as monitoring their kids social networking sites, emails, and cell phone usage.
3. Filter, Control, Check…Repeat!
After you’ve set some limitations and created clear rules for your kids and their technology use this summer, it’s important you make sure they’re following these rules. With so many devices at their fingertips (or in their pockets, for that matter), this can seemingly be a daunting task. For parents, there are a lot of devices to monitor including iPods, tablets, laptops, cell phones, gaming consoles and more.
How can parents actively keep their kids safe when there are so many tools to learn and so much instant access? Taking it one step (or device) at a time is a good place to start. First, learn about what you’re putting in your kids’ hands. That iPod Touch you gave them for their birthday may have made you the “coolest Mom/Dad in the world,” but did you know that they can connect to any open wireless network for full Internet access? Did you know they can rack up your bill by adding unlimited apps – without needing your permission? If your kids are already walking around with one, don’t worry. There are parental controls that you can set up on these devices to make them a little bit more kid-friendly and I highly recommend using them. When it comes to cell phones, the same thing applies. I always recommend disabling the Internet on phones for kids — they really don’t need to be walking around with a portable computer in their pockets. I also recommend disabling the picture messaging capabilities for their phone line, which will ensure your child will have a summer that won’t include any incidents of sexting. Both of these things can be done through your cell phone provider. Most importantly, these tools are available to help you – but not do your job. So, use them – but don’t rely on them. At the end of the day, checking in on what your kids are doing (i.e. monitoring their cell phone and Internet usage) is most important. My motto is when it comes to keeping kids safe (especially when it comes to technology) there is no such thing as “snooping” — it’s simply being a good parent.
4. Use the Buddy System
This was a trick that my Dad used to pull out of his hat when I was younger, and it got me every time! I recall rollerblading one time in high school without a helmet, which was not allowed in my family, but I thought I’d get away with it because my Dad was out on his boat and wouldn’t see me. When I got home that night, I was grounded for not wearing a helmet and was completely perplexed as to how he found out! I thought it was one of those magical parenting moments, where somehow the phrase “I know everything” meant he had some superpowers where he could be two places at once and find these things out. It later came out that another parent saw me and told him, as my Dad had previously let her know that I wasn’t allowed to rollerblade without my helmet.
This buddy system has been used for years, and can be an extremely effective tool when it comes to kids and technology. You’ve already set up rules within your household, so let other parents know what your rules are as well. This can help in two ways: 1. If you don’t allow social networking in your house, but your child’s friend is allowed to use it, you don’t want your child going over there and having all your rules go out the window. By letting other parents know where you stand on these issues can help to prevent such incidents. 2. You can’t be everywhere at once, and monitor each and everything your child does on their cell phone or online, team up with other parents to monitor these things. It’s possible (much like my friend’s Mom who caught me with no helmet) that they may catch something that slipped by you — such as an inappropriate comment or picture. The buddy system has worked for years, and can be really helpful when it comes to keeping your kids — and their friends — safe this summer.
5. Talk Away
Unfortunately, a lot of things that are happening today with technology are really affecting your kids. Cyberbullying seems to be getting more and more aggressive and common, and the perpetrators and victims are getting younger and younger. The same thing goes with other types of crimes, such as sexting and solicitation — two very scary realities that parents must now tackle head-on. With all the tools available to parents, such as monitoring software for computers and parental controls on iPods/iPads, there is one other extremely powerful tool parents have to keep their kids safe from all of these things: conversation. With technology being such a huge part of their lives these days, it’s amazing what parents can ascertain by simply asking a few questions or striking up a conversation about their child’s day.
My Dad has always asked me this simple question: how was your day? Ten years ago I probably would have told him about a comment my friend made in gym class, or about a grade I got in school. Today, my daily updates almost always include some interesting status message or new pictures I saw of our family on Facebook, or even a text message I received from an old friend. When it comes to things like cyberbullying, a lot of parents of victims have said that they had no clue it was going on because they simply never asked. They often noticed that their child was grumpy and had huge mood-swings, but didn’t think anything of it. While mood swings can be a natural part of adolescence, I recommend constant communication to ensure that they’re OK. Do you notice that every time they get off the computer they’re irritable? Or after receiving a text message they all of the sudden shut down? These may be signs that your child has been upset by something, so don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re doing, or what’s going on. By asking these simple (non-prodding) questions, you can get really good insight into their lives, while letting your kids know that you’re there and that you care.
Your summertime activities as a child may have included going on family vacations, heading to the beach, or hanging at the local park with friends; today, your child’s activities may include some of the same, but I guarantee there is most likely one fundamental difference: they won’t be without technology. Whether it’s using the iPad in the backseat while you drive to visit grandparents, or updating their social network with pictures of themselves with friends at the beach from their wireless devices, kids have instant access to way more than we ever could have dreamed. While this can sometimes be extremely beneficial (instead of “are we there yet” on your long drive, kids are quietly entertained by the movie playing on the iPad), there are also some dangers and risks when it comes to complete and unlimited access to technology. By being actively involved, setting some clear rules and limits, and talking to your kids, you all can enjoy a cybersafe summer.
About Katie LeClerc Greer
Katie LeClerc Greer is the former Internet Safety Program Coordinator for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, and former Intelligence Analyst for the Massachusetts State Police. Her nationally recognized Internet/technology safety programs have been delivered to thousands of students, parents, school staff and law enforcement agencies around the country. Katie is the Director of Content and Internet Safety at www.WhatsWhat.Me, a “kids-only” Website that provides safe, secure social networking for kids ages 7 to 13 and utilizes patent-pending facial recognition technologies, moderation and kid-friendly features. WhatsWhat.me is compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and fosters an age-appropriate, “no-bullying allowed” community while teaching positive online behavior, Internet safety and related life skills.