Are you a digitally savvy parent?

An expert shares her secrets to online safety

“If we’re being honest, I think you should know that most kids who go on the Internet lie,” confessed 12-year-old Nikolas to me and the rest of his grade six class. “You’re supposed to be 13 years old to go on websites like Facebook or RuneScape, but, I mean, look at me. I’ve been going on these websites for years.”

Digital kids: Their relationships with their screens are passionate and enduring. And what’s not to love? That little slice of cable connects them to a world of information, friendships and adventures where they can upload their own videos (YouTube), join an elf guild (World of Warcraft) and design the perfect virtual igloo (Club Penguin). Of course, these digital exploits don’t depend on landlocked cable. Kids can log on using their iTouch, hand-held gaming system or smartphone. Which makes Make sure the family computer is in a public space an old-school concept. It also highlights the incredible challenges parents face as they try to mediate their kids’ digital lives.

It can be overwhelming for parents, especially if they don’t “get” the technology. But it’s not insurmountable. Many of the skills required to parent online are those required to parent off-line: encouragement, patience, respect, boundary setting and, yes, no getting around this — time.

While we can’t add hours to your day, we have come up with 10 key pointers to help you keep up with your cyber kids.

Rules rule!

News flash: Kids like digital rules. Seriously.

In the digital literacy workshops I give in schools, kids are constantly comparing the technology rules that exist in their homes (no-media days, never until homework is done, no more than one hour of screen time a day). While kids may argue and fight and, yes, ignore those rules, your expectations and guidelines still provide the scaffolding for the way they conduct themselves online.

“We’re the first generation of parents to supervise a cyber child and there’s not a lot of role modelling to fall back on,” says Lynn Hargrove, director of consumer solutions at Symantec Canada. “Parents shouldn’t assume that kids are going to divulge all their digital exploits, but we do need to have regular discussions about family rules and where we stand on a whole range of issues.”

The rules you establish will depend on your children’s ages, and as they mature you’ll want to review and revise. (See Digital rules for a few worth considering.)

Privacy=safety

Perhaps the greatest privacy challenge for parents is social networks. I meet children as young as eight with personal profiles on social-networking sites, such as Facebook or Piczo. While they think they’ve got it figured out, most don’t have a clue how to program their privacy settings (facebook.com/privacy). Facebook’s privacy settings are challenging for most adults!

Most kids don’t understand the rather abstract concept of privacy, so start by giving it context. Explain that private information includes your name, address, age, school, home phone or cell number, pictures, personal and family stories, activity schedules, holiday schedules and work addresses.

Explain the potential risks when personal information becomes public:

• Strangers can use Canada 411 to find your home address.
• They can sell your information to scammers and identity thieves who can hack into your computer and steal valuable information (iTunes collection, family photos, parents’ financial information).
• People can alter your passwords and post mean messages pretending to be you.
• Strangers (or “friends”) can take a picture, video or story that you’ve published, with potentially embarrassing content, and help it go viral.
• Once your information is public, it’s out of your control and a permanent part of the Internet.

Clue in before you click

Most kids are naturally curious and often blindly follow links. Much of what they click on, however, is bait in the form of “free” downloads, “free” games, dumb tests, “Are you smarter than Simon [Cowell]?” IQ quizzes, “Win a free iPod” and more! Many of these deceptive offers and fake websites specifically target kids through the gaming sites they troll.

According to Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant and winner of IT Security blog of the year, kids need to know that one wrong click is all it takes for thieves to steal private information and sell it to the highest bidder on the Internet black market. “Bad clicks can result in spyware being installed and cyber criminals installing nasty viruses on your computer. Kids know to be distrustful of strangers. Well, they probably need to adopt that attitude on the Internet.”

How safe are the game sites your kids like to hang out on? Use these search engines to check a website’s safety rating before they visit: nortonsafeweb.com or mywot.com.

Consider parental control software

I am a big proponent of parental controls for young children. It’s way too easy for little hands to misspell a website (hotmale instead of hotmail) and be whisked away to a porn site. A Cybertip survey (cybertip.ca) asked grade four students what they thought parents should know about the Internet. Kids said: “There’s a lot of naked people out there.” So, while software isn’t perfect, it takes the stress of the wild, wild web off your shoulders.

There’s a lot of parental control software: some that filter, block and protect kids from inappropriate sites and others that monitor online activities. Young kids have no problem with this. Mostly they’re happy just to be online. Tweens and teens, conversely, see surveillance software as a huge invasion of privacy.

If you opt to monitor/spy (pick your word), you need to advise your kids. Or you may want to go with software that’s perhaps a little less draconian and turns monitoring into a discussion. For a great analysis of parental controls, visit consumersearch.com.

Virtual worlds have real concerns

Many of the websites kids visit have sophisticated game play options. These virtual worlds and MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role playing games) allow kids to create an alternate online identity (avatar) and often, an online community of friends. Destinations, including Webkinz, Club Penguin, Stardoll, Poptropica, MapleStory, Gaia Online, Fantage and Moshi Monsters, are hugely fun and often pack in some serious reading, math or life skills curriculum.

They pose two key parenting challenges: They allow your child to chat with friends or strangers and, often, your child must pay to play. While the chat function on the more popular sites is often monitored by humans, electronically or both, my students often visit chat forums outside of the “walled garden” of the game, which are raw, unfiltered environments (google Club Penguin forums to see what I mean). Parents with young children need to make sure that their kids are using “safe chat” within the actual site. Also, these sites exist to make a profit, which means you need to teach financial literacy to your child. Kids are encouraged to buy memberships, virtual “bling,” game points and more. Many a student has spent hundreds of dollars on these sites, charging the purchase to their parent’s credit card or their cellphone bill because they failed to think before they clicked.

Review these websites with your kids: Are they a good investment — real money for virtual bling? Are the sites safe? Are they well monitored?

When virtual strangers become “friends”

It’s important to recognize that for digital kids, a “friend” may be someone they’ve never physically met and takes the form of an animated character or an avatar. That friendship may exist in a game forum, a virtual world or on a website. For many kids, virtual friends are as important as physical friends and may fill a void when real-world friends are less supportive or in short supply.

According to Constable Monica Cachagee, online risk coordinator for the Crime Prevention Section of the Ontario Provincial Police, it’s important to remind kids that these friends are still strangers. “It’s so easy for kids to get caught up in the moment and, often, too much information is shared and their identities compromised. Generally, kids can’t see the friend they’re chatting with, and that’s the danger. We recommend children stay away from sites where they have to register and enter a user name or email. A general rule of thumb is the less personal information shared the better.”

Text truths

“Why does a child need a mini-computer? Why should it be a smartphone and not a cellphone?” demands Detective Paul Krawczyk of the Child Exploitation Section, Sex Crimes Unit, Toronto Police Service. “I just got off the phone with a mother who bought her seven-year-old daughter an iTouch. The older sister installed a chat app that allowed the child to chat with a male who sent naked pictures of himself. What do you expect when you hand a child that technology.”

According to Winnipeg’s Noni Classen, director of education for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (protectchildren.ca) and the newly launched text education site texted.com, most parents are pretty lenient around cellphones because they love the connectivity it provides with their kids. The cellphone conversation logs that her organization sees show teenagers text-message and transmit pictures and videos that are often completely inappropriate (sexting). “And once a ‘friend’ relationship is established on Facebook, we can see how quickly dialogue becomes sexual and how often kids who then post their cellphone numbers on Facebook are contacted this way. Kids are far less inhibited with mobile technology and often get manipulated into these relationships that are about flattery, attention, and the technology speeds up these relationships.”

Confront the porn issue

My students are desperate to talk about porn and, really, the conversations should start as soon as you hand over a mouse to a child. This conversation is a challenge with young surfers, but, according to Krawczyk, it’s not optional. “This stuff is no longer under your friend’s dad’s bed. It’s a click away,” he says. “A lot of these images are disgusting and vile, and kids can’t see this and not be seriously affected.”

The best way to manage this is to take the pressure off your kids. Acknowledge that porn’s a pretty big and profitable part of the Internet and discuss what you’d like them to do if they come across it. Too many kids feel they’ll be punished and have screen time taken away if they report it to a parent or educator.

Talk about how you, as a parent, feel about porn and some of the laws around it. You might also want to talk about when it’s sexuality and when it crosses the line into porn.

Get in the game

Many digital parents do battle on the time kids spend playing video games. In my parent workshops, many use the word “addicted” to describe the challenge that exists in their homes. In a recent study conducted by Kids Help Phone, an overwhelming majority of kids indicated they thought online gaming could be addictive. Indeed, 11 percent of kids said they couldn’t stop on their own, and 59 percent of kids said they thought gaming was affecting their school work.

The best advice I can give is to front-end parent. Clarify rules and time expectations before you bring the technology home. If school work is being affected, get tough. Make sure the “game centre” is not the bedroom (lots of students admit to muted middle-of-the-night game play), and establish firm rights/responsibilities and a schedule around game time. My 16-year-old son’s advice: It’s just a game. It’s supposed to be an escape from reality, not reality. He thinks too many kids don’t get that. What do yours think?

Online citizenship

Every school I visit is dealing with problems of cyberbullying and the challenge of raising smart, savvy, digitally respectful citizens who think before they click.

Digital respect is really just transferring so many of the rules that exist in the off-line space to the online space. The key message here: don’t type, text or forward a message to someone that you wouldn’t say to their face. According to a study by Microsoft, 67 percent of kids believe people bully online because they can do it without getting caught.

I really love the social-networking site Bebo because in order to log on, kids are reminded that their every action and web transaction on the site can be connected to an IP address. No mean-spirited, anonymous bullying allowed here! YouTube is also asking kids to reflect on what it means to be a digital citizen and asks them to help police the community to keep it fun and safe for others.

Digital rules

Establishing limits and guidelines is key to safe digital use. Here are a few rules to consider for your household:

• homework first, then chores, then tech time
• reading time and gaming time must be equal
• one-hour rule (to game, surf, view videos)
• allowed to play only on bookmarked sites (great way to manage young kids)
• no violent, racist or demeaning games
• no flaming (insults, swearing) in forums
• no sites that require the posting of personal information
• must get parental approval before entering contests (which require loads of personal info)
• must demonstrate responsible password behaviour: document, organize and keep passwords private (not sharing with friends) and in a safe place; choose smart passwords that mix letters, numbers and symbols and don’t contain personal information (for example, dog’s name)
• must show mom and dad safety settings on YouTube and social- networking sites, and demonstrate an understanding of privacy issues
• must understand that social networks are not a parent-free zone; digital respect includes the parent’s right and responsibility not to snoop behind child’s back, but to regularly spot-check for safety and privacy

Debbie Gordon is managing director of Mediacs (mediacs.ca) and has been teaching digital literacy to kids, parents, community and corporate groups since 2001.

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