Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our gentle-hearted child started middle school this year and she’s on the internet for homework but also to communicate with friends and for entertainment. We’re concerned about internet safety for her but don’t want her unnecessarily frightened. What do you suggest as talking points or reasonable supervision?
Old School Parent
Don’t miss last week’s column Moving baby from bassinet to crib — Good Parenting
The world of cyberspace has been called “a town square” (Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft), and “a conduit for criminals” (Vinton Cerf, co-creator of the internet). Worldwide communication at our fingertips has had incredible positive impact, such as reuniting long lost loved ones, but also tragic consequences, such as teen suicide due to online bullying.
Human interactions through any means can be helpful or hurtful. Unfortunately, the internet can connect our children with bullies from school, identity thieves and sexual predators. Start with some basic safety discussions and widen the lens of precautions as time goes on. She may yet be naïve about the ways of the world, or she may be ready for parental advice and controls regarding some harsh realities.
It’s a good idea for parents to monitor their children’s use of social media, as well as spend time as a family learning how to make the best use of it all. Tech savvy offspring can certainly teach the adults a thing or two, and the parents can provide wisdom and controls that serve well in any social exchange.
Here are some guidelines to establish as your child widens her social world through technology:
- Only communicate with people you know. If you are unsure if someone may be pretending to be someone you know, wait a day and confirm his or her identity using old fashioned methods (telephone or in person) before continuing online.
- Guard personal information, such as your picture, name, birthdate, phone number, home address and school. Parental oversight can help you determine whether there is a legitimate and harmless reason for giving out such identifying information.
- What you shouldn’t do in person, you shouldn’t do online. A social reputation is a hard concept for a middle schooler to grasp, so use examples of behaviors that cost a real person the respect of their peers. Immodest flirting, malicious gossiping, bullying, etc. through keystrokes and images are just as harmful as they can be in person.
- Don’t ever post things you wouldn’t want a teacher, potential employer or your grandparents to see. What happens online stays there forever.
- Unsettling online messages, such as pressure to do something that’s mean, or dishonest, or illegal, should be brought to a parent’s attention. A parent can help determine any next steps to keep you and your friends away from trouble.
- Find and use age-appropriate sites and platforms. Lying about your age is as wrong and potentially harmful on the internet as it would be in many other situations. Driving has a legal age requirement, as do enlisting in military service and casino gambling. You don’t want to be where someone your age has no business being, nor do you want a stranger to think you are older than you are.
- Meeting up with friends made online should have the same parameters as meeting up with new friends in general. A parent must always know where you are and who you are with, therefore new friends must be introduced to your parents. Going to the home of a new friend requires an introduction between the parents. The more parents who follow this common sense rule, the easier it is for middle schoolers to accept. Once they are driving, we need a whole new set of rules!
Kellie Schneider, a middle school teacher, posted a short list of internet safety guidelines while earning her master’s degree in Education Technology. Start your conversation with your daughter by reviewing Schneider’s simple advice: Be kind. Be cool. Be calm. Be honest. Be clear.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.