We have arrived at the season that can inspire considerable joy and fear. Yay! You can take that family vacation. Yelp! Your kids are always around—and seeking entertainment. You may be asking yourself: How in the heck am I going to occupy my offspring all summer long? And, egads! How can I keep them out of trouble?
For many American kids, summer vacation means more time spent online. Appropriately, June marks National Internet Safety Month, which has a range of groups rolling out advice to empower parents and kids in the virtual world.
First, a little perspective. Internet use comes with risks, but they may not be the ones you imagine. The fear of sexual predators online, for example, may be inflated. Among the 50,000 arrests made in child molestation cases in 2009, only 850, or less than 2 percent of them, involved offenders who met the victim online, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. It's possible, he argues, that the Internet has enabled more intervention of such crimes. In any case, the vast majority of sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by acquaintances or family members of the victim. "Far greater concerns are things like cyberbullying," oversharing, spending excessive time online, and easy access to mature material, says Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, an international nonprofit that works to make Internet use safer for kids and families.
At the same time, let's not forget the sheer wealth of educational and social-enrichment opportunities afforded by the Internet. So how do you guide kids through that morass? It's not easy. Especially since there's still so much we need to understand about the impact of these technologies and so-called "screen time," says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), which provides homes, schools, and businesses with tools to secure online activity. As a result, parents are often left comparing notes on the playground and making their best calls, even as wired devices like smart phones and tablets increasingly find their way into younger hands, Kaiser says.
Meanwhile, experts offer plenty of tips to help parents protect and support their children's online activity.
1. Talk to your kids. "One of the best practices is one of the oldest practices in the world," Balkam says. "Talk to your kids early and often about being safe online." Kaiser emphasizes "positive engagement." That means asking your children about the websites they like just as you'd ask about their recent baseball game. Parents should also teach their kids about the potential hazards of links, downloads, and sharing too much information online, he says. If a threat emerges, help your child devise a response, such as blocking communication or filing a report.
But what if you discover inappropriate behavior by your own kid? Then what? Assume a "dispassionate cop" persona, Balkam says. "Stay really cool and calm, and just go through what the facts are as you see them, how that piece of behavior or posting made you feel, and explain what you want from them going forward. And if it requires a sanction, like privileges are taken away for a day or two, well, then give them a sanction," he says. "Parenting has never been easy," and it has become "a lot more complicated in the digital age."
2. Secure your equipment. "Having the latest security software, Web browser, and operating system are the best defenses against viruses, malware [malicious software], and other online threats," according to Stop Think Connect, a public-service campaign led by the NCSA and Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Be sure to use software that updates automatically and secure all other devices that connect to the Internet and your computer. These measures also help protect against children's identity theft, which Kaiser calls an "emerging" threat.
Reinforce safety through parental controls, which can even be applied to your child's smart phone. In addition, you can find kid-friendly E-mail accounts online and establish filters on your Internet search engine. And don't forget the computer's history button, which Balkam calls one of the best ways to monitor your child's online activity.
3. Establish rules. "You should have rules that you and your children are clear about," Kaiser says, noting, for example, the amount of time allowed for Internet use. "Surfing the Web should not take the place of other important activities, including homework, playing outside, or spending time with friends," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which "recommends limiting total screen time in front of a TV or computer to no more than one to two hours a day for children older than two years." William Powers, a former Washington Post reporter, took the idea several steps further in his quest to combat hyper-connectedness. In his book on the subject, Hamlets' Blackberry, Powers discusses his family's adoption of an "Internet Sabbath" each weekend to let them unplug and reconnect the old-fashioned way.
4. Get online. Become familiar with your kids' world by friending them on Facebook or frequenting their favorite sites. But also, the Internet is a tremendous resource for you to learn more about, go figure, the Internet. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, provides a "Media Time Family Pledge" and many other resources on its site, http://safetynet.aap.org. The Family Online Safety Institute provides safety contracts as well as Internet safety tips for parents and kids. The group will soon unveil an online program called "A Platform for Good," which will provide kids, parents, and teachers with tips and activities promoting online safety. Check out www.aplatformforgood.org/summer for ideas for online fun this summer.
The many other resources available online include: Sprint's www.4NetSafety.com; www.NetSmartz.org, a project of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; the federal government's www.OnGuardOnline.gov; NCSA's www.staysafeonline.org; and the Stop Think Connect campaign at www.stopthinkconnect.org.
Corrected on 6/19/2012: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.