Through the Internet and social networking sites, children can now hangout with their friends without leaving their homes. But unlike sitting in a friend's basement, you're not always sure who else is there. There are unseen risks involved with virtual communities. Depending on the settings of one's web profile, their personal information, photos, etc. may be open to anyone who wants to see them. Children may be more lax about what they share on-line. They may say and do things on-line that they would shy away from in person. Teens may also feel pressured by their virtual community to post comments or pictures that may be inappropriate or elicit unwanted attention.
Parents and pediatricians need to address the dangers that children may encounter while using the Internet. Just as parents prepare children for the outside world by teaching them to look both ways before they cross the street and not to get into the cars of strangers, parents need to teach their children what behavior is safe and unsafe on the internet.
Computers should be in a common room in the house and your child's use of them should be monitored. Parents should discuss with their teens and children what type of information they share on-line and how to maintain their privacy. Most social networking sites have options available that allow you to keep your page private so that only friends you approve of have access to your information. Parents should check and make sure that their children's personal information is being safeguarded from strangers.
Younger children need it explicitly explained to them that when they are on the computer it is similar to being out in public. There are many strangers on the Internet and you don't talk to strangers on-line, even if they seem nice. In order for young children to maintain a sense of autonomy while using the computer, you can bookmark a number of appropriate sites for them and store them all under a bookmark heading with their name on it. These bookmarked sites are sites they are allowed to visit on their own whenever they have computer time. Any other sites they would like to visit need to be first approved by a parent.
Teenagers are much harder to monitor on the Internet. However that does not mean that parents should not be involved in their teen's virtual life. Parents should let their children know that they are going to regularly check their teen's Facebook or MySpace pages the same way they would pop into the family room if their child and his friends were hanging out at home. This is not invading your child's privacy. It's parenting. The only way to know what is happening in your child's life is by being involved and knowing where they are. Most parents would not let their child roam around for hours without knowing where they were going or with whom. These same rules should apply to the Internet. It is important to know what sites your child is visiting and with whom they are chatting.
Given how much time children and teens spend on the internet and in virtual communities, it is incumbent upon us to find the time and make the effort to make sure they are safe on-line. Setting up some basic ground rules for Internet use is a good first step in protecting your children on-line.
For additional information:
Dr. Cross has written a AAP Grand Rounds commentary and blog post on the AAP's Council On Communications and Media blog on this topic.