Is it impossible to keep tech-savvy teens safe online? A glance at several news headlines lately sure makes it look that way. One in particular caught my eye, a report that says kids are lying about what they're doing online in record numbers. It's enough to make even the most passive parent sweat.
But what's missing from all this news is what we as modern parents can and should do about it. Truth is, we're not as helpless — or hopeless — as you might think.
Teens deceiving parents
A recent survey released by internet software company McAfee showed that 70% of teens hide online behavior from parents. What they're hiding is mostly typical teen-age stuff like taking a peek at violence or porn. But some teens also reported lying, cheating, stealing, hacking, sharing sexy photos, and even cyberbullying. Yikes. This is scary online behavior for young ones that could follow them the rest of their lives, even preventing them from getting into college or landing a job.
Here's the cold, hard truth, Mom and Dad: If this is true, then we're failing at raising our kids in this digital age.
The good news is that it's not all bad news. If you set up a safety gate or put plugs on outlets for your children when they were toddlers, then you can set up tech safeguards as well. You can, you really can — and you should.
1. Set up parental controls on your devices.
Take a few minutes to set up parental controls on computers, smartphones, tablets, and gaming systems — everywhere your kids have online access. Really, this is as easy as following a recipe on the back of a cake box.
Android, iPhone, Windows, Mac, and smart-everythings today have settings or apps that with just three to five steps let you "set and forget" a list of filters. You can password-protect your settings, too, so that your kids can't (easily) outsmart you and undo them. Here's a quick and dirty guide to setting up filters fast on mobile devices.
- iPhone and iPad Settings > General > Restrictions > Switch "On/Off" down the list for content, games, web browsing, and everything else you want to restrict.
- Android Google Play Store > Menu > Settings > User Controls > Content Filtering. Tick any of the boxes next to the ratings listed above that you think are appropriate.
- Windows Start (or Windows) button > Control Panel > User Accounts > Family Safety > Parental Controls. You can create new accounts for each teen, set time limits, and control games and content.
- Mac Apple button > System Preferences > Parental Controls. You can create accounts for each teen, set time limits, and control games and content.
When it comes to surfing the web, browsers like Chrome and Internet Explorer have an internet options folder where you can easily set up security safeguards and content filters for language, nudity, sex, and violence. Again, this takes about five minutes to do.
- Chrome Google Preferences Page > SafeSearch Filtering > Save Preferences
- Internet Explorer Tools > Menu Bar > Content Advisor > Enable. Select the web content categories you're looking to restrict (sex, drugs, nudity, or foul language).
2. Install surveillance software.
The next level of protection is surveillance — with the understanding that you're using these tools to protect, inform, and empower your kids, not to spy on them. After all, teens need to learn about the trust, respect, and privacy that comes with growing up. This isn't about setting up traps or trying to catch them doing something bad. It's a way to make sure they're safe.
One of the best free filters I've used is K9 Web Protection. It blocks sites in more than 70 categories, including pornography, gambling, drugs, violence/hate/racism, malware/spyware, and phishing. Among paid services, I recommend Net Nanny, Safe Eyes, and SafetyWeb. With these sorts of services, you can monitor their activity, get alerts, and set up time controls, among may other features. Most of these services let you keep tabs on your child's cell phone calls and text messages as well.
3. Be in control.
The most important way to protect your kids in this digital age is to step up and parent. You've likely heard this before — but have a heart-to-heart now and often about the rules of cyber-conduct. Keep your tone positive, and let them know this is about keeping them safe, which is your job as a parent.
Print out, sign, and post a family internet contract so that rules, expectations, and consequences are clear. If you haven't already, move computers, phones, handheld gaming devices, and all other internet-connected gadgets out of their bedrooms and into a common area of your house.
If your child turns the monitor off or changes the screen when you come into the room, that's a red flag that it's time for another heart-to-heart.
Used correctly, these tools are teen tamper-proof, and your kids can't turn them off without your knowing about it. Sadly, they are not teen tantrum-free. You'll likely get grief from time to time that you're ruining their lives.
But stay strong, modern moms and dads. It's our job to protect our kids online and off, and it's our responsibility to ultimately teach them how to protect themselves.
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