By: Shannon Ralph
As a modern-day mother, I like to pride myself on my enlightened approach to parenting. I think my children are fairly well-behaved (when around human beings who do not inhabit our house), honest (or perhaps just extremely adept liars), intelligent (as evidenced by their constant questioning of every decision I make), and articulate (as evidence by their mastery of the effectively exhaustive argument). With such amazing children, you can imagine my surprise when my sister called me a couple weeks ago with an interesting tale to tell.
I could hear a hint of unadulterated glee in her voice as she told me that she recently heard from my other sister—who heard from her 5-year-old son—that my eldest son was looking at pictures of naked women on his Kindle during our family’s Thanksgiving celebration at my house.
Now, I try really hard not to be reactionary in my parenting, but my initial train of thought went a little something like this:
What the holy fuck?! He’s eleven! My son is a pervert. My son is a freaking pervert. No he’s not. It’s perfectly normal. Does he not understand how those websites degrade women? I’m a feminist lesbian, for God’s sake. How am I raising a pervert? I’m going to kill him! It’s fine. Every 11-year-boy from the dawn of time has been interested in boobs. Is he a moron? In front of his 5-year-old cousin? Seriously? OMG. My wife is going to shit! It’s perfectly normal. He’s perfectly normal. I always knew that one was straight. Every kid does it. It’s no big deal. But he did it behind my back. Did you tell your mom you were looking at boobs online? My son is growing up. My baby! What the holy fuck?!
When I managed to take a deep breath and think about it, my message to my son was a little more like this:
I want you to know you can talk to me about anything. It is perfectly normal for you to be interested in the opposite sex. If you have questions about women—about sex—you can always ask me. I promise I will always tell you the truth. There is information on the internet that is neither true nor reliable. My job is protect you from the misleading, and sometimes dangerous, material on the internet. Therefore, I am going to monitor what you watch on your kindle. And on your laptop. I am putting parental controls on your devices that will keep you from visiting sites that I don’t believe are appropriate for you. Not because I don’t trust you, but because I love you and want the best for you.
As parents, we worry about our children every minute of every day. These days, many of our worries focus around the internet. The internet is an amazing resource for children. They can use it to complete school reports. They can communicate with teachers and friends. They can play mind-blowing games—both entertaining and educational. They have access to tools to express their creativity in exciting new ways. With a few keystrokes, today’s kids can literally access the world.
But that instantaneous access can also pose hazards. Pornographic sites abound. People who do not have your child’s best interests in mind can easily connect with them by posing as someone other than the predators they are. Cyber bullying is a very real issue for today’s kids. It is important—no, it is vital—that we parents are cognizant of both the awesome benefits and the lurking dangers of the internet.
So what can we do to protect our kids?
- Get involved in your children’s online activities. Don’t just sit around assuming all is well. Make a point of becoming actively involved in your child’s online life.
- If you aren’t already, become computer literate and learn how to block objectionable material from your child’s devices.
- Keep the computer and handheld devices in a common area, not in individual bedrooms behind closed doors, where you can watch and monitor their uses.
- Bookmark your kids’ favorite sites for easy access.
- Monitor your credit card and phone bills for unfamiliar account charges.
- Take your child seriously if he or she reports an uncomfortable online exchange.
- Make it a point to know all of your child’s passwords.
- Set up basic rules. Actively talk to your children about internet safety. Set up some simple rules for your kids to follow while they’re using the Internet, such as:
- Never give out personal information such as your name, home address, school name, or telephone numbers on any social networking site or through mobile apps like Snapchat or Instagram.
- Never trade personal photographs with someone you “meet” on the internet.
- Never meet in person with anyone you first “met” on the internet. If someone asks to meet you, tell your parents right away. Some people may not be who they say they are.
- Tell your parents right away if you read anything on the internet that makes you feel uncomfortable.
- Never respond to mean or rude texts, messages, and e-mails. Tell your parents about it right away.
- Go online or play video games only when your parents say it’s OK and limit online time so that it doesn’t interfere with chores, homework or other activities.
- If you wouldn’t say something to another person’s face, don’t text it or post it online.
- NEVER share your password with anyone, including your best friend. The only people who should know your password are your parents
- Sign an internet contract with your child. PureSight.com has a variety of online family safety contracts that can be downloaded and printed for your use. There are contracts for both parents and children to sign, agreeing to abide by basic rules of internet safety.
- Limit the time your child spends on the internet. This is a tough one. Today’s kids are digitally-minded. Their entire lives are tech-centered. But just as we limit their television time, the amount of ice cream they’re allowed after dinner, and how late they stay up on a school night, we must place limits on their use of technology, including the internet. By placing limitations and expectations on our children, we teach them self-monitoring skills they can take with them into adulthood.
- Online protection tools. SafeKids.com has a great listing of parental control tools you can utilize to protect your children. Explain to your child why you are using these tools. Make it a conversation starter. Also think about how you will wean your child off of the online tools over time. What makes sense for young children may not make sense as they get older.
Take a deep breath. Relax. Act, don’t react. Set boundaries. Talk to your child. Listen to your child. You can’t monitor your children forever, but you can provide them with safe decision-making skills that will last a lifetime.
Photo Credit: Flickr member Zietfeinger