Making children safe online requires different tools for 2-year-olds than for teens. I will offer a handy guide on how to make the PC a safe and productive place from pre-school through high school.
For all ages
Microsoft Windows systems offer free parental controls that can be set to block adult content, downloads, and specific websites; set limits on games that can be played based on ESRB ratings, and set time limits for every day of the week. Find parental controls: Start > Control Panel > User Accounts > Set up Parental Controls.
Parents can also set safe search modes for Google, Bing and other search engines used by family members.
All device-specific controls rely on a parent password that is not shared with children. Parents can then use their password to set controls that are inaccessible to kids and tailored to the age and maturity of each child. Kids get their own logins and passwords, but cannot change parental control settings.
But the American Academy of Pediatricians warn in a March 2011 report, “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families,” that technological solutions are not enough. Active participation and communication between parents and kids are important.
“Establish a family online-use plan that involves regular family meetings to discuss online topics and checks of privacy settings and online profiles for inappropriate posts. The emphasis should be on citizenship and healthy behavior and not punitive action, unless truly warranted,” Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, M.D., lead author of the AAP study, said in a statement.
Teens, ages 13 and up: Competing with Facebook
Friends and socializing take top priority in the teen years. More than half of adolescents log on to a social media site more than once a day and 22 percent of teenagers log on more than 10 times a day, according to a survey by San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media.
“Some young people find the lure of social media difficult to resist, which can interfere with homework, sleep, and physical activity,” lead author O’Keefe, said in a statement.
Further, teens may be operating under the belief that “what goes online stays online.” As a result, future jobs and college acceptance may be put into jeopardy by inexperienced and rash clicks of the mouse.
“Pictures can be copied, pasted, scanned, e-mailed, and end up anywhere. Who knows where the photos from your prom will be by the time you’re twenty?” Carly, teen editor of Life Online, the official Girl Scout site, writes. “It’s definitely easier to just not post things in the first place than to try and clean up a mess later.”
What to do? Review Facebook privacy settings with your teen. Every profile should be set to private, but make sure kids have made their photos private as well. Kids should never accept friend requests from people they don’t know. If parents are Facebook users, the AAP encourages them to “friend” their kids and keep communication flowing.
Don’t be shy: 62 percent of parents with 13- and 14-year-olds had friended their kids on Facebook, according to the Consumer Reports study.
Beyond Facebook, periodically check chat logs, emails, and files for inappropriate content, friends, messages, and images. Be transparent and let your kids know what you are doing, the AAP advised.
If parents do discover problems, they may want to consider formal monitoring systems, including automated time limits.
Middle Grades, ages 8 – 12: Getting social
Social media may begin to look attractive to your third-, fourth- or fifth- grader, but pediatricians caution that jumping into the social maelstrom of cyberbullying, gossip and influence from older kids at this age may be too much for pre-teens to handle.
Facebook will not accept information from children under 13 and will delete any profile from an underage child with an inaccurate date of birth. This is based on the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits Wweb sites from collecting information on children younger than 13 years without parental permission.
However, according to Consumer Reports, there are 7.5 million pre-teens on Facebook.
But tween social networking sites are available, such as Everloop that offers a social networking site based on what it calls “loops,” virtual clubs that connect kids with common interests such as story writing, photography, math, and science. Kids can’t join without their parent’s permission (and credit card for authorization purposes, though the site is free) and parents are kept in the loop with alerts on their children’s activity.
Kids can master email and instant messaging within a safe online community.
Early Grades, ages 5 – 7: Internet with training wheels
Once a child can read, they’re ready for a richer Internet experience, complete with a search function, games and entertainment. Browsers designed just for kids are useful at this stage.
For instance, KidZui offers an easy interface with access to millions of websites that have been screened as appropriate for young children along with a simplified navigation where kids learn bookmarking, search skills and how to get around a website.
It offers limited access to sites like YouTube with pre-eselected videos, blocks all chatting functions and allows parents to set KidZui to launch when the computer is turned on and requires a password for logging out.
Pre-schoolers 2-4: Playing in a sandbox
While the age at when a child should begin using a computer has been a topic of hot debate for some time, the fact is that kids want to do what they see mommy doing, and that often includes a computer.
“Parents have to remember that the computer is an additional educational tool to prepare their child for the world,” Ora Segal Drori, child development specialist at the Levinsky College of Education in Israel, told TechNewsDaily. “Young children are born with the computer and they see their parents all day with their computers, so it’s as natural for them as sand or the playground.”
For pre-schoolers, parents can create their own so-called sandlot for tots: a protected space within the unlimited realm of the Internet that provides both early learning and entertainment. Just last month a pair of dads launched Kneebouncers.com, a site designed for preschoolers that does not require a mouse. If your child is old enough to sit up and reach, he can play.
Another option is Zoodles, which features games and activities for preschoolers and allows parents to target specific skills they want their child to learn. Zoodles is a self-contained play- site that literally fills the computer screen when activated, making it impossible for a child to “wander off.”
Partnering with your kids, rather than policing them, will help them grow into responsible online citizens at college, at work and in homes of their own.