Today marks the eighth celebration of Safer Internet Day, an annual global event to raise awareness for parents and kids about online identity and being responsible citizens in a digital world. This day presents a great opportunity for all of us to assess our current Internet safety measures and learn more about what we can do to keep our kids protected online.
Internet safety is a growing concern for parents – and it absolutely needs to be. With the limitless sites a child can visit on the Internet, as well as limitless content we don’t want them seeing, it is important that we are more vigilant than ever.
Survey results released today from a poll that Microsoft conducted on MSN found that 87 percent of parents have talked to their kids about the potential dangers online. But in spite of that number, only 36 percent use online parental controls or filtering software and 26 percent take no action to limit or control their children’s Internet use at home.
The poll also revealed other stats about kids’ (aged 14-18) online habits:
- 44 percent have lied about their age when online
- 37 percent of those who had been contacted by a stranger
- 15 percent of children also admitted they had communicated something via a social network that was intended to be hurtful or intimidating
- 67 percent of teenagers have cleaned out their browser history and/or cache to make sure their parents can’t see what they were looking at online. 17 per cent say they always do it
- 75 percent of teenagers have been contacted by a stranger via the internet, and as many as 37 per cent of these have responded to them out of curiosity.
These figures aren’t meant to scare you, but rather emphasize the importance of parental awareness around kids and computer time. Thankfully, there are a plethora of options available on the market for keeping our kids safe, from software packages to kid-centric browsers to Internet filters, but the whole process needs to start with parent education on what we can and should be doing.
I had the opportunity to speak with Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC, whose mission is to make the online world safer for kids and their families. As a leading expert on Internet safety, Balkam provides keen insight into this incredibly important issue.
What are the main concerns parents need to be aware of as their kids become more independent on the Internet?
Most parents understand the basic rules of the road when it comes to online safety, but times have changed since the mid 1990s, when most of us initially became familiar with the Internet. We all know that the Internet is available in the palm of your hand, on your smartphones, gadgets, as well as on many gaming systems, but what many parents don’t realize is that gaming systems also allow unfiltered access to the Internet.
So even if your family PC has parental controls, your child may still be able to access questionable content on other devices. Also, many parents worry about their child being bullied online, but it’s equally important to be concerned if your child is the bully.
What kinds of safety measures should they put into place to keep their kids safe?
The most important safety measure is open dialogue within the family. Talk about proper online behavior with your kids and make sure they sign something like an online safety contract. This is the example we offer on the FOSI website - it is a good way to set important ground rules that families should honor when it comes to screen time:
- I will get to know the services and websites my child uses.
- I will set reasonable rules and guidelines for computer use by my children and I will discuss these rules and post them near the computer as a reminder.
- I will not overreact if my child tells me about something "bad" he or she finds or does on the Internet.
- I will try to get to know my child's "online friends" and Buddy List contacts just as I try to get to know his or her other friends.
- I will try to put the home computer in a family area.
- I will report suspicious and illegal activity and sites to the proper authorities.
- I will make or find a list of recommended sites for children.
- I will frequently check to see where my kids have visited on the Internet.
- I will seek options for filtering and blocking inappropriate Internet material from my children.
- I will talk to my kids about their online explorations and take online adventures with them as often as I can.
- I agree to the above.
Be aware of what your kids are doing. Monitoring software can help, but talking to them and building trust with them is invaluable. Filters are great to use with young children and are available for free on all of the major operating systems, through Internet service providers, and on all of the major search engines. For older kids, parents should talk to their kids about where they go online and who they are in contact with online. Parents should also check their browser history.
At what age do you think kids are ready to use computers by themselves?
It really depends on the kid and his or her environment. There’s no right age. As a parent, you should be comfortable and know when and where your child goes online. Talk with other parents to see if your young child’s friends are online, and if so, if there are parental controls on their Internet-enabled devices. It’s important to realize that just because your child may not be online at your home, it doesn’t mean that your child isn’t online at a friend’s house.
What kinds of screen time guidelines do you recommend for kids in various age ranges?
Most parents are setting rules at home about screen time, which is important. Internet-enabled cell phones make it trickier to enforce guidelines, but all of the major carriers provide free parental controls and even more sophisticated controls are available for parents at an extra cost to help set limits on cell phone use for kids.
It’s all about living a balanced life with activities both on and offline. Parents should make sure kids are doing their homework, playing outside, and engaging in the real world. There is no set recipe. There is no one software program, no one set age. It’s all about balance.
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