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Parenting the digital natives

There’s no doubt that most kids and teenagers love the Internet. Today’s youngsters have grown up with the World Wide Web, and many have spent a lot of time online. They are the first generation of digital natives. They have a more accepting and open-minded relationship with the information technology that is rapidly reshaping the world, while the rest of us are usually playing catch-up trying to work out what is really going on.

Although children may understand the workings of the Internet better than their parents and sometimes claim it as their own exclusive territory, we cannot remain passive observers. At its best, the Internet is a fantastic resource for learning, entertainment and communication. But it can also be addictive, anti-social and downright dangerous.

For kids, the attraction of the Internet is extremely powerful. It offers an exciting world of possibilities: instant company and chat, games, music, and opportunities to meet new people from all over the world. It’s a magic playground. And just a couple of clicks away the Internet is also pornography, child exploitation, gambling, hate messages, bomb-making, and extreme violence. At its worst, the Internet can seriously harm children’s emotional development and lead to situations that put them in physical danger.

We really need to know what they are doing online.

Establishing ground rules

So how can we make sure that children and teenagers are safe on the Internet? Few kids respond well to threats and absolute bans based on parental ignorance. The urge to explore the ‘forbidden’ side of the Web outside the home may only become stronger. Parental control is more credible when we know what we are talking about. It works better when the reasons for the rules are also understood and accepted by the kids.

A constructive security approach is based on talking openly with children about the positive and negative aspects of the Internet and how to use it safely. We need to make it normal and easy for children to discuss their favorite web sites and whatever else they encounter on the web, including unpleasant or disturbing content.

With younger kids, the aim is to shield them from exposure to harmful content and to set rules that keep their online enthusiasm within reasonable bounds. Parents can take the initiative by introducing kids to fun but safe web sites. Recommendations from other parents or teachers are a good starting point.

Locating the computer in a place where you can keep an eye on your child’s Internet activity gives you more control. It’s also important to set clear limits on the amount of time children spend online and what web sites they can visit. The parental control feature on software like F-Secure Internet Security 2009 is an easy way to enforce your Internet policies and enables you to set specific time limits. Without basic ground rules, kids can become addicted to the screen and neglect other activities that involve physical play, normal socializing and being outdoors.

Online behavior code

Most kids enjoy taking on the teacher role, so if your web-savviness is already light years behind your children, ask them to show you where they are going and what they are doing online. Surfing the net can also be a joint family activity.

As kids start receiving spam e-mail and join in chat rooms, they inevitably run into the nasty side of the Internet. It’s our job to prepare them for this by instilling a code of conduct for online behavior. The rules are simple: youngsters should never reveal their real names, phone numbers, e-mail or school addresses on the Internet, or post photos to people they don’t know.

Kids often have good instincts when dealing with strangers outside the home but online chat rooms are more complex and real identities can be easily hidden. The harsh reality is that behind any online ‘friend’ in a chat room there could be a predator attempting to ‘befriend’ your child. Children should never go to meet someone in person if they have only communicated with them online, unless accompanied by you.

Encourage your child to talk about any threatening or upsetting messages he or she may receive. It’s worth learning some of the frequent acronyms used in online chat rooms. For example, ASL stands for ‘Age, Sex, Location’ and LMIRL means ‘Let’s meet in real life’.

Teenage kicks

As kids turn into teenagers they often need more space and privacy – and a more democratic discussion about their Internet activities behind that closed bedroom door. Enjoying the Internet should also come with a sense of responsibility, both on a personal and social level.

Just as it’s morally wrong for students to copy-paste material from the Internet instead of doing their own homework, parents also need to talk about issues like the illegal downloading of copyrighted music and films. In fact, downloading anything from the Internet without your permission, whether it’s programs, plug-ins or games, threatens your own privacy and the security of your computer. Viruses and spyware often spread through the hugely popular peer-to-peer networks where teens share digital content for free instead of buying it from the shops.

It’s also essential to discuss the use of credit cards with teens to avoid online financial disasters. And unless you want porn web sites to be the main source of sex education for your children, then make yourself a more meaningful source of information. Pornography and gambling addictions are some of the most common problems linked to the Internet.

Online bullying and shock videos are other disturbing Web trends on the rise. Posting cruel messages, embarrassing photographs and extreme content on the Internet has become a common pastime among some teenagers. There is a sense that ‘anything goes’ in the online world. Doing things for a laugh or a few minutes of fame on YouTube, young people are often not thinking about the privacy and legal consequences of their actions, which can be very serious. Once the damaging material is on the net, it’s not possible to stop it from spreading.

Parents need to work with schools and other authorities to counteract these trends. We need to make sure our kids don’t become perpetrators of online harassment and crime, and explain how to cope if they become targets of unpleasant attention on the Web. We also need to explain how they should protect themselves and their family’s privacy online. Thirteen-year-olds posting sexually suggestive photographs on the Web don’t have the emotional maturity to understand the longer-term effects this may have on their lives.

Important offline conversation

Today the Internet is everywhere. Kids can also use mobile phones and other devices to get online, in addition to the computers at home, friends’ houses, schools, libraries and Internet cafes. The real-life impact of the time they spend online and the activities they engage in is evident, both in positive and negative ways.

Installing security software on the home computer and tweaking the parental control settings is only part of the solution to the security issues facing children on the Internet. Policing and spying tactics may sometimes be necessary, but the crucial factor in keeping our children safe online is the quality of our offline conversation with them.

Establishing trust and reaching an agreement on safe Internet use requires two-way communication between parents and kids. To be credible and effective, parents need to get informed and have a plan of action for dealing with the Internet. Otherwise we risk losing out to the Internet as the parents of the first digital natives, and that would not be very cool.

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