Keep Your Kids Safe from the Big Bad Web, No Matter Their Age
(Flickr: Tim & Selena Middleton)
We were having a wonderful time, eating great food and enjoying actual adult conversation with five other couples at our friend J’s house. That was back when the kids were young and we could just toss them together like kittens and let them play. There were eight of them, ages 5 through 10, upstairs watching TV. Or so we thought.
We were opening a third bottle of wine when my friend’s 7-year-old son appeared at the end of the table with a troubled look on his face. There were pictures of naked women all over the computer, he said.
So much for adult conversation. We quickly abandoned our steaks and headed upstairs. It turns out that one of the boys had been told by a schoolmate to search for the words “sexy women.” You can guess what they found. This was not exactly the gentle introduction to the birds and the bees most of us had imagined.
Our hostess had broken two of the cardinal rules of family computing: 1) Put the computer in a place where you can see what the kids are up to, and 2) Use some kind of filter to keep them from getting sucked into the Net’s slimy underbelly.
This was in the mid-2000s. Back then, it was a lot easier to safeguard the Internet, because most families shared a single home computer with their kids. Now there are so many ways for your progeny to reach the Internet — smartphones, tablets, laptops — it’s a flippin’ nightmare.
But it’s not impossible, provided you have a strategy for managing Web access. You’ll have to get your geek on and become familiar with the tools available for filtering websites. Most importantly, you’ve got to start early. The sooner you teach your kids the good habits of digital citizenship, the more likely those lessons will stick.
Net management through the ages
How early kids should start surfing the Net is something only a parent can decide, says Caroline Jones Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, which rates thousands of websites, apps, games and movies for age-appropriate content using child development guidelines. Common Sense’s rating system begins at age 2, which seems to me a sensible age to start surfing. Your mileage may vary.
Age 2 to 5: Lap surfing
The best time to introduce kids to the Internet is when they’re still small enough to fit on your lap, Knorr says. Co-surfing lets you teach them the basics of how to navigate the Web, as well as things like the difference between Web content and ads and the kinds of information they should never share.
At this age, you really want to limit their access to a small collection of sites you know are kid-friendly and safe, like those offered by Common Sense Media. Seeking out quality, age-appropriate sites for your kids is one of the most important things you can do, Knorr adds.
Age 6 to 9: Training wheels
By the time they’re too big for your lap, your kids should have a decent grounding in how the Internet works. They’ll be surfing the Web at school and plagiarizing Wikipedia for their homework. So the rules need to relax, slightly. (Except, of course, for plagiarizing Wikipedia — that’s a no-no.)
At the very least you’ll need to expand the list of sites they’re allowed to spend time on and use the safe search settings inside your favorite search engines to limit what they’re exposed to. If they love to watch videos (and what kid doesn’t?), create a YouTube account for them and subscribe them to channels of your choosing, Knorr suggests. Take care to limit the time they spend online, and make sure you’re in the room when they’re browsing.