Although personal computers and the Internet have made research for school assignments a snap and all but eliminated emergency trips to the library for reference books, they have become yet another source of parenting dilemmas for those with teens and tweens. Every so often, a newspaper story elicits parent’s worst fears by reporting on an unspeakable tragedy that occurred when a young teenage girl set up a rendezvous with a man she “met” on the Internet. Reading or hearing about these incidents only compound the struggles of today’s mothers and fathers to manage the fast-paced changes brought about technology—especially, how to monitor what kids are doing on the computer and provide the appropriate supervision to make sure they stay safe.
What makes this parenting responsibility even more challenging is that most teens and tweens are far more comfortable with technology and markedly more competent than adults in navigating cyberspace. They easily circumvent “parental controls” that are supposedly in place, giving their parents only the illusion of security. If parents don’t know a blog from a web cam, how can they insure their kids aren’t misusing the Internet, gaining access to inappropriate material, or doing things that will put them at risk?
The good news is that parents don’t have to take an intensive crash course or get an advanced degree in this field. You can familiarize yourself with the most salient safety issues by reading one of the many fine books that have been written on the subject, talking to savvier parents or IT personnel you may know, and following some general, common-sense guidelines.
The first step is deciding where to place your daughter’s computer. While most kids lobby vociferously to have their computers in their own bedrooms, it is easier for parents to casually monitor what their preteen children are doing online when it is placed in public areas such as the kitchen or family room. Alternatively, you may decide to give your daughter a computer in her room strictly for her homework and place the one Internet connection for the entire family to use in a more public space. That way, if she wants to talk online, she can be monitored more closely. As girls mature and develop sounder judgment and better self-discipline, the need for close supervision will hopefully diminish.
It is crucial to make absolutely clear which Web sites your daughter is allowed to visit—and those that are forbidden. AOL and MSN, for example, offer password-protected parental controls that filter kids’ access to Web sites as well as restrict their messaging capabilities. In addition, a variety of affordable software is available to help you regulate your preteen and teen’s online activities.
Unfortunately, however, these devices cannot protect kids completely. And, truthfully, neither can you. That is because anyone can receive e-mail or instant messages containing inappropriate language or material. Also, since there is no way to know who is at the other end of a computer, when kids visit chat rooms they can be interacting with just about anyone, including pedophiles. That is why it is so critical to educate kids about the real dangers that all users should be on the lookout for, such as that a screen name can disguise someone’s true identity. Teach your daughter never, ever to give out any personal information—name, age, phone number, address, school, etc.—or, heaven forbid, to arrange to see in person anyone she “meets” on the Internet.
Part of keeping kids safe on the Internet is establishing the limits of privacy. This can be a thorny issue. Do you believe you are entitled to read your daughter’s e-mails and/or instant messages? Her files? Are your rules for computer information similar to or different from your rules about her diaries and letters? Where do you draw the line? Although these issues are rarely clear-cut, it is most important to be absolutely clear about where you stand. Inform your daughter about your expectations and the parameters of privacy, whatever they are, in advance, such as if you plan to read her instant messages and emails. Best to avoid misunderstandings. Keeping your daughter safe on the Internet should not be accomplished at the expense of the trust in your relationships with her.
Another word about privacy. It is wise to educate teens and tweens about the real limitations to privacy in cyberspace. Many kids have no idea about this. They falsely believe that what they write to their friends is confidential. Then they learn (often painfully) that their e-mails can be forwarded and their instant messages can be seen by people other than their intended recipients. The sense of anonymity afforded by the computer can also encourage kids, especially tween girls, to feel less inhibition about writing hostile or cruel things that they would never say in person.
Perhaps most crucial is to keep open communication so that your daughter feels comfortable coming to you with any concerns or problems she encounters. A study of 13-to-18-year-old girls, conducted by The Girl Scouts of America, reported that 30% of girls surveyed had been sexually harassed on the Internet. Even worse, only 7% of them told their parents, undoubtedly because they were afraid of losing treasured computer privileges. Keeping this in mind, do everything in your power to insure that you are one of those 7% of parents who would be able to intervene helpfully.