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How to Keep Your Child Safe in Cyberspace

Technology is everywhere. Personal computers and smart phones grant us easy access to games, chatting forums, and countless threads of information that seep into every corner of our lives. 

When we think of children's cyber safety, we most often think of monitoring Internet use on computers. And some parents do, though not enough. One study of teen Internet safety reported that 75% of teens said that their parents almost never monitor their use. Additionally, almost one-third of teens surveyed said their parents would disapprove of how they spend their time on the Internet. 

Besides computers, other devices need monitoring, too. Kids and teens now chat, share pictures, and watch videos on cell phones and gaming systems. Downloaded games on smart phones and gaming devices often have a chat component within them—and these games can usually be played with random online ''buddies.''

What technology does your child have access to? What technology does your child have that allows others to have access TO your child? Do you trust blindly or monitor closely?  Would your child know what to do if she came across inappropriate content or if someone asked her questions through a chat?

Recently, the playroom door in our house was closed. It is never closed, so it caught my attention. I opened it and my 7-year-old son, with his gaming device in hand, looked up with an ''Oh, no, I didn't expect you to walk into the room'' expression. Without thinking, I blurted out, ''Put your hands where I can see them and don't move!'' (Perhaps I need to cut back on TV.)  I took his game and found that he was watching a video that was borderline inappropriate for his age—I would deem it ''okay,'' but only with adult explanation of its content. Unbeknownst to me, the system regularly gives the (child) user notifications and access to new games, music videos, and the like. 

It became clear that a ''switch'' had turned on in his little brain, and he had to be monitored more closely than I'd realized. 

Internet Use

Internet use among children is rampant. In a study by McAfee (the computer anti-virus company), it was found that approximately 80% of children under the age of 5 use the Internet, and 90% use it regularly by adolescence. The study also reported that 70% of teens hide online behavior from their parents (e.g. deleting Internet history, or meeting someone in person who they initially met online). 

Ironically, as I was writing the above paragraph, a colleague came into my office and told me about her daughter's friend, who met an older man online and later met him in person at a coffee shop. She is bright and college-bound, comes from a responsible and close family with educated parents, and…she should know better. But she didn't. And many adolescents don't. One media group study reported that one-third of teens have had intimate relations with someone they met online. 

Why do teens do this despite what they are told? It is called the personal fable. They feel unique and invincible, and they insist that nothing dangerous could possibly happen to them.

Clearly, there are pros and cons to the information super highway and the relatively new virtual world we live in. As a society, we must somehow balance our fear of what is out there with the usefulness of what is out there. And, as parents, we must educate our children.

What Should We Consider?

Trying to keep our children safe is nothing new. Trying to keep our children safe in the developing virtual world of cyber space is a newer and growing concern.
On the one hand, the Internet can be educational—it provides us with access to unlimited information. Schools often subscribe to online programs for math, spelling, or foreign languages. We can watch footage from Mars, experience a rainforest, or see a far-off country in real time. For children with developmental disorders and social anxiety, some studies cite benefits from social networks.

On the other hand, there is a high risk for exposure to inappropriate content (the average age of first exposure to Internet porn is 11). Today's youth engage in increasing amounts of cyber bullying (20% of teens report being bullied online). Playing violent online games has been associated with aggression and delinquency. Additionally, time spent using electronic devices takes kids away from engaging in more active pursuits. (I recently heard the brilliant phrase, ''More Laps, Less Apps.'')  Spouses, parents, and children have replaced face-to-face time with technology (25% of parents admit to using smart phones instead of toys or pacifiers to distract their youngest children while shopping or cooking).

What Should We Do?

Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing on the Internet, and should monitor how they spend their time online. Research suggests that children's usage and attitudes change depending on parents' attitudes, engagement, and monitoring. Be proactive. Be aware of the inherent dangers of Internet usage, as well as the addictive pull that the Internet can have. (Did you know that there is such thing as Internet Addiction Disorder?  In South Korea, there is even a boot camp for Internet-addicted adolescents!)

Awareness and monitoring can be practiced in multiple ways.

• Use privacy settings (especially on social networking sites) and parental controls (even on gaming devices), and check browsing history (be wary if your child has turned off the browsing history). Weigh the risks and benefits of what you block and what you don't block. Consider your child's age, developmental level, curiosity, technological prowess, and friends' behaviors.

• Think about computer placement in the home. If you have a laptop, establish rules about when and where it can be used. If your kids use a smart phone, be clear about what they can do on it. (I just learned that a friend has a particular phone that can password protect specific applications.)

• Be transparent and open with your children. View online content together. Educate them about various websites that they can use. Depending on your situation, share your concerns.

• Ask your child's school how they protect children from the potential dangers of Internet usage. Federal law now requires schools that receive funding to block inappropriate content on school computers and to have a cyber-safety plan.

We will never be able to monitor 100% of our children's time. But we also need to pull our heads out of the sand and take the precautions necessary to keep our kids safe in our ever-growing technological world.

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