TechMama: Web Safety is the New Sex Talk

When I was a teenager, my parents dreaded the “birds and the bees” discussion, a tacit reminder that I was getting older and needed guidance and warning of the adult road ahead. Fast forward to 2012. Kids have access to multiple devices with browsers, providing access to the Internet, where they are establishing permanent digital identities. Facebook updates, Google+ postings and comments they make on YouTube and other sites are all easily added together to form your child’s growing (and morphing) presence in the digital world. And that information isn’t just made available to advertisers, colleges and employees, but also to would-be predators.

Guiding preteens and teens as they leave footprints in the digital jungle can make a birds and bees conversation seem easy by comparison. And because a child’s social media presence today contributes directly to their face-to-face social life, it’s a necessary talk. So, what should a parent say when delivering that “Internet Safety talk”?

Unfortunately, simply buying a book and giving it to your child (as my parents and my in-laws did) to explain the birds and bees is not going to do it. Today’s “Internet safety” talk needs to start the moment their kid touches a device with a browser, and must extend past the time they leave the house and live on their own. Central to this discussion are three not-so-simple, but very important, steps.

Step 1: Get Educated

As a parent, the most important part of helping your child with Internet safety is to spend the time to understand it yourself. It’s just like the airplane safety card says: Parents are supposed to put the oxygen masks on themselves first and then their kids. And regular re-education is necessary because technology changes so quickly—and so does Internet safety.

In just the last year, the tech parenting game has changed, thanks to the growing ubiquity of the cloud. Personal information is moving off the PC or smartphone and onto the Web, with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google all pushing their own services. (Do your kids do homework assignments on Google docs? Bingo!) That means kids (and parents) are working, storing, viewing and sharing more personal, education and work-related information online.

Because of this, parents should review all the cloud services their family are using for the following:

1) User authentication so only authorized users can access stored media

2) Is account information, such as credit card number for paid services, kept “masked” or hidden from online viewing?

3) Is there a backup plan included in the services—or do you need to back up your own cloud files? The next step is to remind your children that truly “private” conversations and media needs to stay offline—no matter what service they are using (and especially any online service).

To make your education more challenging, the technology a parent needs to understand varies with the age of the child and a child’s propensity to be “socially active.” The age of social networking may start with texting, near age 13 (younger for many), then lead to such social networks as Facebook and Google+. Parents claiming “I will never permit my kid to be on a social network” are ostriches sticking their heads in the sand. Starting in middle School, socializing goes online and kids will find a way to join in, with or without their parents’ knowledge.

Key to your parental education is learning the ever-evolving world of privacy settings. Luckily, most social networking sites have family safety centers—such as Google Family safety, Facebook Family Safety, Microsoft Safety and Security Center. Similarly, many cellphone carriers (AT&T and Verizon Wireless) have child safety and privacy centers. There are also general sites that help educate parents and their kids on Internet safety, including ESRB, Common Sense Media, NetSmartz.org, i-Safe.org and ConnectSafely.org.

Step 2: Have an Ongoing Dialogue

After parents educate themselves, it’s time to start Internet safety discussions with your children. Then, make that talk a regular habit.

Until recently, it has been relatively easy to set up automated Internet controls and keep your kids safe without directly involving the kids. But with today’s cloud trend, the best Internet controls are educating the kids and having regular open dialogue. This includes honest conversations about cyberbullying, online etiquette, virus prevention and even browser safety. Don’t leave out the uncomfortable details, because every kid, at one point or another, will be faced with these difficult situations.

In our house, we follow a philosophy to discuss real-life situations before they happen. One way or another, we believe our children will be on the receiving end of inappropriate online behavior and need to have the awareness and skills to deal with it.

When my tween son starting using his first smartphone, we explained the conduct and online etiquette we expected him to demonstrate in great detail and the consequences if these rules were broken. Together, we discussed a recent news story of a girl “sexting” a topless picture of herself to one friend who then forwarded the photo to other friends. The picture was soon all around the school. No one intended to cause harm, but sadly, the young girl ended up committing suicide and the boys who shared that picture were arrested for distributing child pornography.

From these talks, my tween understands the serious nature of taking and sharing pictures. He also views every picture, video and comment as something his future college recruiter, future boss or the police may see.

Step 3: Be Open to Feedback

Ultimately, kids need to be educated, but also should participate in setting family online rules and etiquette. Have an open system where you and your child are included in each other’s social networks to help monitor and educate. And, yes, pick your battles. Bite your lip and stay out of “commenting” or “parenting” on the social stream where your kid’s friends can see. Parenting is best done privately and offline. A friend who responded negatively online to her niece’s proud Facebook post of her new lip tattoo was quickly “defriended.”

Be open to feedback from your kids, because even Mom and Dad may need to be reminded sometimes to not share that silly picture of your child on Facebook, no matter how cute it may be. Discuss with your kids (offline, of course) the addicting nature of the Internet so they can eventually self-police their online social life. We tried telling our tween to wait until marriage, or at least college, to post pictures of himself with girls. He didn’t buy it.

 Guest columnist Beth Blecherman covers family technology at TechMamas.com and @TechMama on Twitter.

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