Nowadays, it is accepted that most children have access to computers and other electronic devices. Using a mobile phone and accessing the internet are currently the most popular pastimes for children of all ages. However, there is a growing understanding, among parents, of the risks associated with internet use, and a debate has begun about how to address this issue. Is it proper, for example, for parents to allow their children to open this ‘window’ to the web, with all its risks and potential threats? Or should we protect them by denying them access to it, thereby cutting them off from the positive opportunities the internet affords?
There is a consensus among most parents, when it comes to discussing electronic innovations and their impact on children, that this generation is completely different from previous ones because of the options available. Young people are surrounded by innovative means of entertainment, as well as rapid media that allows them to easily find out what is available, and where and how they might access it. This can be positive, as well as negative. Therefore, it is not advisable to prevent children from using the internet altogether. It would be more productive to turn our efforts into thinking of effective and realistic ways to help our children choose the right things for themselves. They need to know some of the risks and be able to identify any potential misuse of the net. So, as parents, we must unite in an effort to understand the risks to our children and thereby take some control.
We can make a start by introducing self-protection procedures and monitoring our children’s daily interactions with the internet. Without denying the internet’s potential for harm, we need to find ways for our children to take advantage of the best that it can offer. This way, both parents and children can experience the satisfaction of safely navigating this invaluable new source of information, entertainment, and education.
For parents, it is a balancing act between creating some kind of awareness of cybercrime and protecting children from it – finding a way to gently prepare our children to meet the challenges they will surely face.
Those parents who are tempted to ‘blanket ban’ their children from using the internet, must understand that the world wide web is in a constant state of development and growth. Society itself continually encourages children to navigate through this new world, and even if there is no access at home, it will be in the homes of friends and at school.
Here are some ideas for meeting some of these challenges:
Before acquiring an internet-linked computer, parents are advised to clarify where in the home it will sit; preferably a shared space, such as the living room. The rationale for this is that the computer is for use by all members of the family. Of course, some children will wish for their own private device and will press for it. But it is now widely understood that it is not possible to properly supervise internet access when children have computers in their own rooms.
When buying a computer or tablet, it is essential that parents establish ground rules. For example, time limits on sessions and permissible sites, etc. Involving children in the establishment of these regulations at the outset will head off many a future battle.
Using the internet as a source of information is to be encouraged. However, parents should be clear in specifying which type of information is allowable, especially when children are not old enough to discern the appropriateness of some sites. For example, a child may be told they can use the internet for finding the information required for a school assignment, but only when one or both parents are present, or even assisting. This kind of clear directive will help to establish that the internet is associated with fact-finding, for school or general knowledge.
Parents can protect children from stumbling upon undesirable sites by setting up a password. This is essential when it is not possible to supervise the child 100% of the time.
It is especially important for parents to warn their children about the hazards of chat rooms. Such sites always tempt children because they hear about them from their peers and find it exciting to interact with new ‘friends’ online. It is, therefore, essential for parents to be aware of themselves, and talk to their children about them and the risks they can present. Online friends may not be who they seem, and children must be warned not to reveal any personal information, such as, for example, their address, a parent’s credit card number, or the name of their school.
It is clear that the benefits are many for children using the internet, but only with certain caveats. Indeed, spending long hours each day facing the computer screen could lead to a kind of addiction; preventing them from engaging in conventional human interaction and thereby hampering the development of important social skills.
Finally, it is advisable, as parents, to keep abreast of the technologies that children will be exposed to, thus enabling properly targeted support and guidance as they negotiate an ever-evolving online environment, with all its potential for good, as well as its pitfalls.
Dr. Mona Janahi
Counselor in Early Childhood and Behavioral Therapy