These days, it’s almost impossible to find a tween or teen who isn’t permanently tethered to some Internet-connected electronic device. Indeed, a 2010 report from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that, on average, 8- to 18-year-olds spend around seven-and-a-half hours per day using entertainment media. And while that broad term encompasses all forms of media, including TV and video games, the report also notes that kids often engage in “media multitasking,” meaning that they’re likely to be live-tweeting the latest episode of “Pretty Little Liars.” Suffice it to say that today’s youth are on the Internet … a lot.
While you’ve probably worked to establish some sort of ground rules when it comes to online activity in your home, staying on top of your kids’ Internet usage is paramount. We’ve heard the stories of folks losing (or not getting) jobs because of scandalous social media profiles, or horrific tales of online bullying that leave kids depressed or even suicidal, and now, identity thieves are finding that web-obsessed youth may be the easiest target of all.
So it goes without saying that monitoring your child’s Internet activity is a must. Here, we’ve compiled a list of expert tips to make sure that you’re actually doing it right.
According to Michelle Dennedy, Chief Privacy Officer at McAfee, there are some basic guidelines that every home with kids and Internet service should adhere to. She recommends setting a daily time limit — around 30-60 minutes. That gives children enough time to check and respond to emails and briefly peruse social media. “The longer the time spent roaming the many different portals of the web, the more likely a child will end up somewhere he shouldn’t be,” she says. “The only reason to extend Internet use would be for school research projects, in which case you should check in often to ensure that indeed is what your kid is supposed to be doing.”
She also suggests keeping computers in a communal space without a door and making sure that kids aren’t constantly online. “These days, kids have smartphones, tablets and laptops before they graduate elementary school; however, there is no need for children to be connected 24/7,” she adds. “Cell phones without Internet connectivity should be plenty, and if they must have a laptop, keep it in a locked drawer or another secure place and let them use it during their daily allotted Internet time.”
Aside from establishing rules related to the actual time spent on the Internet, it’s also important to establish guidelines for what children are doing once they do venture online. “We must know our children within the whole family system and as individuals,” explains Janell Burley Hoffman, author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know about Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up and a parenting and technology expert. “What are the important values or tolerance levels for the family unit? Is foul language accepted or strictly frowned upon? Are we early adopters or do we like to move slowly with new devices, social networks or online interactions? Once we have a sense of our beliefs and an understanding of our children, we can establish privacy guidelines in our home.”
There’s an App for That
Now that your kids know that dropping f-bombs on their friends’ Facebook pages and posting lingerie-clad Instagram photos is inappropriate, it’s time to make sure they’re actually following the rules. You can certainly set up a profile on all of the top social networking sites and “friend” your kids to get an inside look at everything their saying and doing. Or you can let technology take the lead.
In January, Chuck Chesler launched KwickLook as a way for parents to take a “quick look” at all of their child’s online activity via a single dashboard. Parents log in to the KwickLook system with their child’s user name and password for up to four networks and have immediate access to all activity in a single view, in addition to receiving a daily email that shows the last three posts. And, potentially, because parents aren’t actually friends with their kids on the networks, their child will be more relaxed and apt to engage in their normal activity without quickly deleting a questionable post before Mom or Dad sees it.
While this daily monitoring may seem a bit much to some parents (or, more likely, their children), Robert Siciliano, a McAfee online security expert, says not to worry. “As a youth with parents who paid close attention to my every move to protect me from the world and from my stupid decisions, I don’t recall my privacy being invaded; I remember it as ‘parenting,’” he says. “I don’t know when ‘invasion of privacy’ became a term used by teens, or whether it’s a term created by the media. The fact is, parents are 100 percent legally responsible for every act and decision their 17-and-under child does. It’s in the best interest of the parents to avoid trauma, tragedy or legal recourse by having a tight handle on their kids.”
Live and Learn
While Hoffman agrees with regular online monitoring of kids, she also feels that some families may do better with a more hands-off approach, if only to give teens a real-life lesson in truth and consequences. “In a perfect world, we wish we could prevent our children from making mistakes and make sure their world was comfortable and predictable at all times,” she says. “However, we all learn and grow from our mistakes. That is the beauty of the human experience. Ideally, we are nurturing and developing a compass within our children that allows them to avoid major mistakes and consequences that affect their well being as they grow, but a certain amount of resilience will serve them. Bumps like hurting a person’s feelings and learning to apologize are critical. When a child feels supported—even if they messed up—they can own it, learn from it and move on.”
To be clear, though, respecting your kid’s privacy should never override your efforts to keep them from doing any major harm.
Says Hoffman, “It is important for parents to use this disclaimer before they begin: ‘If I, or anyone else in my child’s life, sense there is real danger, a drastic change in behavior or signs of risk that I can’t fully understand or navigate by talking to my child, then I must override all of my thoughts and beliefs on privacy to keep my child safe.’”