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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Common Sense Social Networking - Safe Surfing

As the mother of teens and tweens, it's a daily task to observe and reinforce good Internet safety to my children. There was a time about ten years ago when my eldest daughter was eight years old and was checking out an Internet site and innocently chatting with someone who had a site with all sorts of G-rated jokes. She was laughing and giddy about the chat conversation she was having.

Unfortunately I was under the wrong impression that she was chatting with a school friend. Somehow, a stranger got her chat name and started a chat conversation with her. At the time I didn't know about parental controls on the Internet or blocking.  For those of you who don't know, "Blocking" is where you can prevent unknown and unwelcome people from knocking on your virtual chat door or sending a message. In any case, my daughter revealed that in fact she was not chatting with a school friend, but rather some unknown person. Who and how old, we had no idea!

In my surprise about this, rather than be calm and instruct her on Internet safety, I blew up at her for being so careless and foolish about what she was doing. After my tornado of words spewed out at her, I realized, how could an 8-year old know about Internet safety, it was my job as a parent to teach her what to do, just like it was my duty to teach her how to cross a street safely and not talk to strangers.   I was angry with myself, but directed it wrongly to my daughter.

Ten years ago, the Internet was relatively new. It was uncharted territory to me as a parent. I was barely aware of instant messaging myself. It was pre-Facebook and pre-iTouch.   Oh, how things have changed!

In the eighteen years we have been parents, my husband and I have had high tech jobs. Our children grew up seeing us work on our laptops, emailing and instant messaging our colleagues.  But that was something adults did. In the blink of an eye, it is not something only employees do as part of their job. Now our children have access to all sorts of tools to get on the Internet wirelessly and email and text their friends as soon as they can use a mouse (which is really around two years old). But, just like teaching our children about safe sex, Stranger Danger, and "Just Say No", I realize it is just as important to teach safe Internet socializing. We can't assume our children understand as we do how to prevent a computer virus, how to understand what a spammer is, and how to know when an official looking email comes in from your bank or credit card company but is in fact a fraud. Therefore, to be sure I was doing all I could about it, I attended an Internet safety presentation in Palo Alto last November.

The presentation was sponsored by LeapFrog, and presented by Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely. What I learned and found fundamentally valuable is it is not about putting up barriers and parental controls at this stage for my children because that does not teach them how to be wise internet users for the rest of their lives. They are of an age where they can be taught how to handle a situation and pass this along to friends and eventually their children.

Larry's presentation put into perspective those sensationalized headlines we see and hear about all the time, such as "Teen Abducted by Internet Predator", "Cyber-bullying", and "On-Line Harassment". Those headlines and news stories tend to focus on what catches the audiences attention. They create fear and trepidation. They increase viewership of those media sites. But Larry presented statistic after statistic that dispelled inaccuracies about these headlines. The internet itself is not the cause of newsworthy issues such as teen abductions or bullying. (But they sure makes a great headlines.) The best analogy Larry used was that of a swimming pool. You can put up fences, create barriers, install alarms and lock gates. But at what point are you going to do the smartest thing which is to teach your children to swim and the next step beyond that, to teach them how to save another life in the pool of life?

If we continue to restrict our children from using these tools creatively and usefully, it restricts their freedom and educational value. Which, ironically, is what schools and public libraries do when they set up restrictions preventing access to various websites and tools. Of all places, shouldn't the public library and public schools be about educating "the public" about the internet? If you restrict access, how do you learn to be a safe user?

Larry's philosophy about internet safety is about common sense. Is common sense lacking these days because we interact more by Facebook and less face-to-face?

I came back with a new perspective and had a great discussion with my children about internet use and internet safety. I'm not as articulate as Larry, so check his ConnectSafely site and of particular interest is the link on Virtual World Safety Tips for Parents of Teens - and tips and suggestions on what to look out for with your children.  There's also a great report called "Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks" which was presented to Congress by the FTC.  The report helps debunk some common myths about the risks of internet safety and gives a clearer view on what parents should be aware of.  Educate yourselves as parents so you have the facts.

The main points I learned are:
  1. The first priority is to educate yourself.  Read up on the links in the paragraph above (ConnectSafely, Virtual World Safety Tips, Maping the Risks). Be sure you have your facts straight.
  2. Have an open and honest discussion with your children.  Find out what sites they frequent.  If they are under 18 years of age, they should not hesitate allowing you to view their Facebook account (they should not have one without your approval anyway) or their email inbox for possible Spammers or cyberbullying messages.
  3. If you have teens or college age children - teach them how to understand if their bank or credit card account  is asking for sensitive information or if it is a fradulent email account trying to steal information for illegal use.  If they are in college, they will probably have their own checking or credit card.  So this age group in particular is targeted by lots of illegal activity.  Basically, your children should learn never to give any sensitive information out by email without verifying who the sender is first.  The subject line may look like a valid company, but when they look closer, the sender email address is clearly not from that company or bank.  I've even seen emails that use a valid company logo and what appears to be a valid email address,  but upon closer inspection the sender clearly is a fraud. 
  4. Go in with the basic premise that it is better to teach your child how to safely surf the Internet than having them fear it.  Just as you would teach them to swim before they dive into a pool, or take drivers education before they get behind the wheel of a car, you have to teach them common sense social networking. 
We welcome your comments to this blog, - what internet safety tips or Internet surfing stories do you have?


  1. It sounds like you got so many great insights and I couldn't agree more. The internet is such a wonderful place for discovery and creativity. As parents, we just have to be sure we're giving our kids the tools to stay safe. Great post...thanks for bringing such an important topic to light.

  2. I agree that safety tools alone don't do the job. I even disconnected one blocker because it wasn't allowing any of us to do what we wanted to do online! And just as I watch them in the pool, the PC is kept in the living room so I can see what they're doing online.


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