I’m a geek. I like to talk about science, electronics and aliens. I know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow and that if you are going to stamp a huge lion, you should do it when they’re small. I also watch a lot of sci-fi, particularly Star Trek. Back in 2012, I met Sir Patrick Stewart; an event that, as I assured Melanie, did not surpass the day we were married on my list of best-days-ever. I guess I can see why she looked skeptical since I was moving our wedding picture to make room for my signed Captain Picard head-shot when I said it.
But if I had to pick the most prominent of my geek-defining qualities, it would be my love of information technology. Yes, it’s my livelihood but it’s also my hobby. I’m just as content spending a Saturday afternoon analyzing network traffic as normal people are at the sports field — or disco — or that hot place with the sand. It was my biggest passion for a long time.
And then I had kids. Actually, I’m not sure how that happened given everything I just told you about me, but it did and I’m so glad! Imagine my excitement! Here were two fresh, impressionable minds with whom to share my dorky pursuits… and then it hit me. Particularly the “impressionable” part. Suddenly, it was very important to know how to protect my kids when they got old enough to venture into cyber-space. The internet wasn’t a thing when I was really young, and even when it did come about, it was nothing like today’s internet. Where do you start?
#3. Keep it Where You Can See It
Allowing children to have unsupervised internet access can dangerous. Sure, it can be convenient for your kid to have a computer in her bedroom to do homework or play games while you quietly piece your sanity back together after a long day, but you need to be able to keep an eye on what’s happening. We’ve all heard about the risks. Cyber-bullies, sexual predators, scam artists – the list goes on. You need to know how your child uses the internet, and who they talk to if you’re going to be able to offer meaningful guidance.
The same goes for any internet-connected device, not just computers. Cyber predators use online video games to lure children, especially young boys. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that parental controls are enough. Those may work for younger kids, but the older ones will find ways around them. You may be tempted to banish the Wii to the bedroom after hearing “Mama mia!” spill out of Mario’s mouth 15,000 times, but keep these devices in family areas.
#2. Understand the Risks of Social Networking
Obviously, cyber predators are a threat here, too. In an attempt to appear popular, many kids treat ‘friend’ collecting as a competitive sport and often it won’t matter whether or not they actually know the person requesting to be their friend. Why they can’t just collect starship models to become more popular, I’ll never know. I mean, that’s what I do. Nevertheless, friend collecting is a thing and boys are some of the worst offenders. Many boys incorrectly believe that girls are more vulnerable to stalkers than they are so they let their guard down.
In addition to the dangers of predators, there are other threats that younger kids are particularly vulnerable to. The American Academy of Pediatrics coined the phrase “Facebook Depression” to describe what can happen when a child sees statuses and pictures that make them feel excluded. This is one of the reasons that age restrictions on these types of sites should be respected. How often do you take pictures of mundane or unpleasant things and put them on Facebook? Probably not often. You may let your friends know if you lost your job, or your cat is sick, or whatever, but mostly status updates are about the good things in your life. When a young child compares his life to the skewed snapshot of his peers’ lives that Facebook’s rose-colored timeline presents, it can be damaging.
Lastly, is important to teach your children that their reputation matters. Maybe your child already knows this, but what they might not think about is how their online behavior affects their real-world lives. The internet has a long, long memory. Employers and even universities look at social media when screening applicants.
#1. Talk First, Talk Often
It’s exciting to think that our kids are part of the generation that will lead the way forward in this relatively young digital world. They can learn so much about the world though the internet, but they should learn about the internet from you. Take the lead. Talk about the risks, but don’t be a fear monger. Most importantly, be honest. Encourage them to ask for advice and earn their trust by giving practical, truthful guidance.
Access to the internet is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and one day your kids will be beyond your protection (unless you happen to work for the NSA), so it’s important to arm them with the knowledge to protect themselves. Then you’ll have the peace of mind to worry less and really enjoy that disco.