When Michelle Obama was asked whether her two daughters use Facebook, she said that it was something they did not need. Of course security issues surrounding the President’s family means that it was never a practicable proposition anyway but Michelle Obama was very clear that her kids were not missing out on anything. 

The President himself actually warned some high school students in Virginia to be very careful about what they are posting on Facebook as it could be used against them later on when applying for a job. Facebook profiles and posts are now scrutinized by prospective employers.

How to keep kids safe in cyberspace.

As most of us are normal citizens whose kids use Facebook, the Internet, messaging and cell phones, how do we make sure that they are doing so without taking unnecessary risks? They might be very computer savvy but they are still newbies as regards judging people and making decisions on accepting friendship. They are already likely to watch inappropriate materials as 44% of kids in a recent survey stated that they had seen things which they knew their parents would not approve of.

First let us look at the FBI warning just to set the scene. They say that those kids who are not monitored when using the web are those most likely to be exploited in various ways. Facebook has an age limit which says that children must be at least thirteen years of age.

Here are ten tips to help your kids navigate safely

  1. Talk to your kids about the risks of bullying online, sexual predators and privacy data. There is no need for scaremongering. After all, we teach our kids the Highway Code, the risks of accidents and they can still ride their bikes and cross the road without any great trauma. The same approach should be used with the Internet. There are risks and there are ways of eliminating those risks by taking a few simple precautions.
  2. Make sure that the younger children do not keep their computers in their bedrooms and that all computer activity is done in a communal area.
  3. If you are not computer savvy, make sure that get familiar with the basics so that you navigate on Facebook/ Twitter, the web in general and can mange searches and check on what is being searched etc.  We know that 50% of Facebook users are giving out too much private information which makes identity theft a breeze.
  4. Chat rooms are off limits and you can easily explain why.  According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), about 90% of online enticement cases started in a chat room where predators were waiting to exploit vulnerable kids.  We are talking about a tiny percentage of kids online but why expose kids to this risk, however small?
  5. As regards Facebook or Twitter ensure that you have access and that you are one of their friends. That is an easy way to keep an eye on what is being posted. I know of one parent who insists that all their kids’ friends on Facebook are known to the family personally.  It is no harm at all to check their lists of Facebook friends periodically to see if this rule is followed.
  6. Email accounts. How old should a child be before they actually need an email account?  It is best that they can access emails only through the family account initially and as they get older, you may wish to relax that rule.
  7. Install a filtering software on the family computer and also on their own one so that any inappropriate material is blocked and inaccessible. It is also a good idea to make sure that the child’s sites are bookmarked so that avoids typing in something wrong and getting on to a site with risky content.
  8. Draw up a contract about how much computer time is allowed so that hours of surfing is avoided and also that time can be devoted to physical activities, socialising and playing with real people and also homework! 
  9. Talk regularly about the need for privacy. This can cover not revealing real names, addresses and other confidential information. Help your child to identify spam and attempts at phishing and never to open emails with ‘Dearly beloved’ or ‘ Congratulation’ as the subject line! The rule is if you do not know the person, you do not open the email but delete it instead.
  10. If you find that too much time is spent online with sudden switching off the computer as you enter the room, then you may be suspicious and you will have to monitor more often. Another sign is that less time is spent on other family activities so these are warning signs.

To buy your teen a smartphone or not … that is the question!

All the above tips really apply to pre teens but as they get older, they will be clamouring for the latest tablet, laptop and of course smartphone. With these extremely portable and powerful devices, every one of the tips mentioned above can be ignored or just do not apply because you are not present. Surfing, messaging and so on can be done whenever and wherever they want. On the other hand it will help you to be more serene as you can get them to use the geo location apps responsibly and you always know where they are, at least.

There are no easy answers here and a lot will depend on the maturity of the teen, their sense of responsibility and also how well they have responded to all the tips above in the awareness training period.

Whatever decision you make, you will be happy in the knowledge that you have laid the basic foundations and have taken all the necessary precautions.  Using online devices safely and responsibly will be just one part of growing up.

More resources for parents

Online SafetyRobert Locke MBE, is an award winning author and has written extensively on ADHD, child health problems and parenting. Find out more about ADHD natural remedies here.

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