As the ways of engaging in the online community continues to expand, younger children are beginning to participate in social networking sites and chat rooms. Even from within the safety of your home, the Internet can be incredibly dangerous, and it’s important that you understand just as much as your child does about the websites they are using.
Internet browsers often offer free Internet safety tools for parents, which can limit the sites your child visits. You also should visit the websites your child is using, and check out her Facebook profile to make sure strict safety options are turned on. Ask a friend to show you the ins and outs of the Internet, or take an Internet education course, often offered by local churches or other community agencies.
The Internet can be dangerous for a variety of reasons. False identities are easy to create, and you can never be sure who is on the other end of the computer. Individuals who lie about their age and use chat rooms to speak with children are Internet predators, and they could easily target your child. It is often difficult to recognize an Internet predator until it is too late. Internet usage can also be dangerous because unless you have strict parental controls set up, your child can gain access to adult web sites.
Signs that your child could be in trouble, either because of an online predator or Internet bullying, include if she gets on the computer at the same time every day, is secretive when using the computer or is either very happy or very depressed when getting off the computer. Keep open communication with your child, reinforcing that she never should offer personal information online and she should only speak with individuals she knows in person. If you discover your child is in danger, contact the authorities.
It is difficult to decide when a child should be allowed to use the computer. Because elementary schools often teach children as young as first-graders basic computer skills, many parents allow their children to play educational computer games at an early age. Websites such as Nick Jr., PBS Kids and PlayHouse Disney do not have harmful advertisements on their websites that could be accidentally clicked on.
Towards fifth or sixth grade, children might start using the Internet to research school projects. At this time, you should begin monitoring computer use and setting parental controls, as children can come across dangerous sites without meaning to. Establish rules and trust with your children, keeping an open dialogue about their Internet use, and be sure they aren’t posting personal information or photographs online. Explain why you are setting these rules, and tell them what dangers to avoid when they go online.
Susan Matherly is director at A Children’s Place, a service of Ephraim McDowell Health. She has a bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science and a master’s degree in public health education. She can be contacted at (859) 236-7176.