This is the first article in a series that the EFG staff will publish regarding ‘Our Digital Future.” The truth is that the world is rapidly entering a digital age and there is no real way to shield our children from that fact. The best we can do is learn to understand it and share strategies to help them thrive. We hope that you will enjoy these articles and will share them with others.
It is very common for parents to treat electronic media as a wild frontier where nothing can be monitored or controlled. These parents will either surrender before they even get started and let their children wander free, or (even worse) they might bar the use of electronic media entirely. Neither of these options is necessary and the answer to that is right under our noses.
All of us have a plan for what to do if we are taking our kids to a park, a play, or a big city. We tell them to stay with us (or within our line of sight). We tell them not to talk to strangers. We tell them not to run off somewhere they’ve never been without at least telling us first. We may even tell them what to do if something bad happens. The fact of the matter is that a lot of those same rules apply to their use of digital media as well.
Stay With Us
The jury may be out as to whether the internet counts as a “place” from a legal perspective. But, the analogy stands when we are talking about how to safeguard our kids.
The internet is a seemingly infinite source of places to get into trouble, but we can help limit that by encouraging our kids to stay “with us.” Encouraging them to stay on sites that you have used, or at least understand and recognize, is a great way to keep them safer. It will also help them have a more fulfilling experience on the web.
At the very LEAST you can encourage kids to talk to you about the sites they want to visit. You can go there together and check it out. If it looks… odd.. then you can look around for something else that is safer and suits there needs.
Do they want to play games in their browser? Send them to Kongregate.com. Do they want to listen to music? Send them to Spotify. Etc.
For example: One of my wife’s relatives bought herself a laptop some years ago and wanted to play games on it. She didn’t want to play the latest and greatest, but she wanted some diversions for the long hours while her husband watched golf.
To do this she started searching on the web for “free games” and found a lot of them, but all of them required the installation of a toolbar. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if she did it once. But, she did it fifteen separate times. This left her browser all but useless and her hard drive choked with spyware and (likely) viruses. She was miserable because she couldn’t use the web anymore, nor could she play anymore games.
The solution to this? She could have asked me (or just about anyone really) and we could have pointed her to any number of safe websites where you can play browser based games for free without having to give hackers a backdoor to your computer.
Don’t Talk to Strangers
We don’t hesitate for a second to tell our kids not to talk to strangers at the park. But, very few of us take the time to help our kids figure out when it is ok to talk people online. The internet is, largely, anonymous so come communication is ok. This is especially true on message boards and social media networks like Tumblr and Twitter and online games like World of Warcraft and Xbox Live.
A lot of the different sites on the internet are built to encourage engagement and conversation between users. This means that outright banning communicating with people that we “don’t know” is a bad idea. First off, it ends up being unreasonable in a lot of cases. It also renders a lot of the best parts of the internet completely useless.
Instead, we can follow a few simple guidelines to help encourage healthy communication online.
- The anonymity of the internet is a powerful thing. We can hide behind our screen names while talking with people online. This alleviates a lot of the challenges and dangers with talking to “strangers.” They can’t pose much danger to you if they have no idea who you are. We can encourage our kids to maintain that anonymity by choosing their screen names and User IDs. Encourage them to choose IDs that don’t identify who they are or share personal details.
- Another way to preserve the anonymity of the internet is to make sure that our kids use the privacy settings on their online accounts to limit access from people they don’t know. The settings will vary across different sites and game networks, but they can use common sense to limit access to complete strangers.
- We can also encourage our kids to not share their information as part of their posts online. This is important because it sounds easier than it is. People can often look at all of your posts in aggregate on various sites. This can give someone a lot of information about you if they dig deep enough.
These are only a few ways we can help our kids maintain their privacy online and while playing games with others and they really aren’t all that different from the way we protect them from harm when we travel in public places. Keeping that comparison in mind should help make the process of keeping our kids safe a bit easier and less overwhelming.