Keeping Your Kids Safe Online

The Geek Girls have had the privilege of working with and talking to a wide array of people over the last year.  We cover a lot of ground in our discussions and here on the blog.  I have to say, though, that there is one topic that baffles and disturbs me over and over again.  I can’t count the number of times I hear parents talk about how advanced their children are on computers and, by extension, online.  A good number of parents tell us that their kids know more about “this stuff” than they ever will and they basically let them handle it, mostly unmonitored.  I make it a point to never judge how people parent, because everyone needs to have the room to do their own thing.  But I do think that the web is no place to let a child, or an adolescent, run free and unfettered. And with the proliferation of mobile devices, the web is everywhere they are — which is, oftentimes, where parents are not.  I don’t want to mix words here – parents need to accept the expanding landscape of opportunity and potential trouble for their children, they need to embrace the technology around it and take an active role in monitoring their kids in the online space.

When I visited the Pew Internet website to get some statistics around the number of teens online I was struck by this quote in the sidebar of an article I was reading:  “Adolescents have been called “digital natives,” but data suggests that they are both comfortable with new technologies, and yet not always as technically savvy as we collectively believe them to be.”  This is sort of reflective of adolescence overall, isn’t it?  They are ready for responsibility, and yet not quite equipped to handle it all of the time. If we know they aren’t yet totally able to make the best choices, why do we give them the keys to the internet and trust they have the skills to manage anything they encounter when they’re out there? This post is probably the first of several.  This topic really requires relatively lengthy discussion and this is just a starting point.  As access to the internet becomes easier and necessary, this issue will become even more critical.  My first order of business is just encouraging the conversation. 

What is there to be concerned about if we’re separated from any potential problem by a device and distance?  Distance is easily surmountable and a device doesn’t protect you from anything.  Kids don’t think this through when they engage in behavior that their friends endorse.  Cell phones and rich media mean that compromising yourself on the web really just takes a few seconds.  And then it’s there forever.  By now, many of you have heard of ‘Sexting‘ — sexually suggestive text messages that may be accompanied by photos or videos of sexually charged behavior.  This topic is hot right now, and with good reason.  Teens are sexually exploratory by nature.  Sharing sexual materials via a computer or handheld device allows for a false sense of security.  For one, kids aren’t thinking about their futures in the moments when they might be making these questionable choices.  But when you’re talking to your teens about why this behavior is dangerous, its important to aknowledge that its not just about them making themselves sexually vulnerable, its also the fact that anything on the internet is forever.  While a sexually explicit message or photo might feel temporal today, the long term potential for damage is very real. 

Sexual predators are also a very real threat.  With global social networks experiencing massive growth, our kids are connecting to more strangers than we could possibly police.  Let’s face it, our children might have good instincts, but we know it takes maturity to really develop that 6th sense about people.  I like to think I’m a good judge of character or sincerity, and I still manage to surprise myself by investing in the wrong people every now and then.  Our kids need our help and we shouldn’t be apologetic about it.  The Geek Girls are often advising organizations about setting up acceptable use and privacy policies for social media. And yet, very few people ask about similar sorts of policies for their homes and families.  I think it makes sense.  Your family should have a set of values around acceptable behavior online.  You should be vocal about it.  Talk about what is appropriate and what isn’t and revise the list as necessary.  Your kids will roll their eyes at you no matter what you talk about, you might as well integrate online behavior.  But take it a step further.  Talk to your kids about how you plan to monitor their behavior online and what you’ll do if they push the boundaries you have in place.  Again – be unapologetic about your intention to friend them on MySpace or Facebook.  Oh yes — you are their friend! And there should be no social interactions online unless you’re right there.  In fact, here’s a list of 10 ways to keep yourself in the loop where your baby’s online behavior is concerned:

  1. Don’t allow laptops in the bedroom.  Desktops and laptops that are connected to the internet should be used in common spaces.  All teens want privacy, and that privacy can be exploited by predators.  You wouldn’t give your 12 year old the keys to your car.  Why would you give them a laptop with access to the entire world and let them take that behind closed doors?  Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones, your child is ‘perfect’ and you doubt they are at risk at all.  It’s not your perfect child you should be concerned about, it’s the experienced predator who manipulates his/her way into the homes and heads of vulnerable folks FOR A LIVING.  They are pros.  Your perfect kid is not.  Common space means your child is less likely to give a stranger the time they’d need to con them.
  2. Share passwords.  I know, its not a teen’s dream.  But if you raise them in an environment where this sort of information is shared as a matter of practice, it won’t seem so unusual.  Start young — when they begin using the web you establish their passwords for them and that’s just the way it is.  Make it clear that those passwords will be used to monitor activity because that is your job.  Again-be unapologetic about it.  Don’t give your kids grief for info you discover that isn’t dangerous.  Respect their privacy to the degree that you can.  Only respond or react to potentially dangerous or threatening behavior.
  3. Get on the networks your children are on.  If your kids are on MySpace and/or Facebook — so are you.  Don’t let them stay there unless they agree to friend you.  Be active, but not embarrassing.  I think visible parents are a great deterrent for potential problem friends.  But again, don’t say or do anything that your kid could be embarrassed by or this space will just cause conflict and you don’t need it.
  4. If your child is totally resistant to you being around for their online party – there are software options that are so stealth that you can monitor their every key stroke without them knowing.  I think it’s important to know this software exists, but I recommend a more open and honest approach because you get your kid thinking critically about their online behavior and it will help inform the person they become as they mature.  Encouraging that kind of open communication will also ensure that your child will talk to you if someone they don’t know or trust communicates with them online in a way which might be uncomfortable to them.  In fact that is the next point:
  5. Establish guidelines around when your child should inform you of certain behaviors or ask questions.  More is better.  Give them an open line for communication.  Commit to not freaking out on them for poor judgement if they tell you the truth about a person of concern.  Perhaps they did talk to that person and now they regret it – they need only tell you and you’ll pursue appropriate action.
  6. Children should never meet anyone they meet online in person unless you have prescreened that person and are able to attend the first meeting with them – in a public place.  Because the web is so integral in our communications it doesn’t make sense to expect that we won’t be making new friends online.  But there needs to be a screening process.  You should be sure of exactly who you’re meeting before that face-to-face meeting happens.
  7. One house rule needs to be – never share personal details with someone you think you know.  Full names, addresses, phone numbers — those are hard stops to conversations with strangers or new friends.  Unless you know who you’re talking to, this information should be deemed sensitive and not shared.  Once you have an established relationship, you should still avoid sharing this info until you can be sure you know who is receiving it.  Screen and meet in a public place. 
  8. Pictures and videos are easy to take and make and share.  We need to establish family guidelines around how those items are shared.  I’m a big believer in asking permission – encourage your kids to ask permission to share images.  Make them aware that if they don’t ask permission, you’ll find out anyway — you’re on their friends list, you have their passwords.  Talk about what kinds of pictures and videos are appropriate for sharing.  Check their images and videos.  Do not be afraid to enforce the rules you establish to the letter.  Better they have parental consequences to contend with versus long-term consequences of shared media that invites the wrong element into their lives, or demonstrates behavior they didn’t think enough about at the time.
  9. Be aware of where your child goes — check email, social network sites (the more likely place for interpersonal messages between kids), their cell phones.  Set limits on text messages and the amount and kind of media they can share.  Learn your way around a cell phone – not knowing how to text message is no excuse for giving your kid unparalleled freedom with their phones.  Get a family plan, review your statements closely, and grab your manual to learn how to send messages and media so that you can check their phones regularly.  Be open about it.  Remind them that this is your intention.  The shared passwords extend to the cell phone.  And your behavior guidelines apply to mobile behavior as well.  It’s all one web — at home and in their hands. 
  10. My final tip is probably the one I feel the strongest about — don’t leave the web to your children.  Don’t be resistant to the point that you put the burden of the web and technology entirely on your children.  This is the World Wide Web for a reason.  The technology is accessible.  You can do it.  And you can’t break it.  So don’t leave them out there to fend for themselves.  They need you.  The world is getting more and more complicated and noisy.  Your parental duty can’t stop because you’ve convinced yourself that young people know things you can’t possibly figure out.  Take the time to figure it out too.  Find online activities you can engage in together.  Don’t be sneaky.  Don’t act like this is coming from a place of distrust.  Just make transparency a family value and then enforce it.  You’ll all sleep better if you do. And, when in doubt, the Geek Girls are here for you.