Protect Your Tweens from Online DangersKim Boatman
In most ways, Adam and Ryan Ball are growing up in a protected, small-town environment. The 10-year-old twins live in the tiny California community of Sunol and attend a school where attendance mushroomed this fall to 230 -- for grades K through eight. But their mother, homemaker Lisa Ball, knows the world is only a click away.
“I think they’re probably more protected than a lot of kids,’’ says Ball. “But my husband writes software for a living, and we have computers all over the house.” Right now, Adam and Ryan dabble in the wildly popular kids’ virtual world, Club Penguin. However, Ball knows their interest in social networking and connecting with others online is bound to explode. “I’m sure it’s coming. I’m not sure when,’’ she says. “We’re wary of it.”
She’s not alone. It’s not just a matter of helping your teen stay safe online anymore. Tweens -- kids ages 8 to 12 -- are exploring virtual worlds, connecting through social networks and posting videos on YouTube. In short, they’re as adept online as their older brothers and sisters, and they face the same risks. A recent Tween Internet Safety Survey, sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, found that 90 percent of kids have used the Internet by age 9. More than a third of 11- and 12-year-olds have posted profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and more than 25 percent of tweens have been contacted online by a stranger.
Where the dangers lie
Most of us know to caution our kids about posting personal details online. Stranger danger is a familiar concept. But if your message to your tween about Internet safety focuses on contact with strangers, you’re missing the mark, says Anne Collier, co-founder of ConnectSafely, a web site that offers parents and kids tips about online safety practices. “Predation is not the issue in this demographic,’’ she says. “It’s largely irrelevant. The only real danger is cyberbullying. What we need to get across to our kids is that is a human being behind that penguin or fairy on that online world.” The sort of behaviors you remember from the schoolyard, where kids gang up on one kid or spread malicious gossip, can occur today in online worlds.
Impulsive, risky behavior can also pose a threat to your tween, who might not have developed the ability to foresee the consequence of snapping an inappropriate photo of a friend at a sleepover, then posting it online. Another problem is that older tweens want to be where the teens are, says Anastasia Goodstein, author of “Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online” (St. Martin’s Griffin).
“Tweens are always kind of aspirational,’’ says Goodstein. “Lots of tweens go on social network sites and lie about their ages. They’ll create instant messaging handles that are a little bit inappropriate. They’re trying on identities.”
What you can do
You can lay the groundwork now for your tween’s safe conduct online for years to come. Our experts offer these tips:
Hang with your tween
Does your 9-year-old spend time on Club Penguin? Virtual worlds such as this site use characters to stand in for people. Have your tween show you the virtual world where she or he hangs out. Ask your tween to help you build a profile and create an avatar, or a character that will represent you in this world, then play the game, says Goodstein. Make sure the site is designed for kids under 13, and take the time to read the parents’ section.
Be a friend
If you’re listed as a friend on your older tween’s social networking page, you’ll be able to see who their friends are. Older tweens are likely to resist sharing their passwords, but you can ask to see their profile regularly.
Discuss privacy issues
Kids today don’t have the same ideas about privacy with which we grew up, says Collier. Your tween also might not understand the ramifications of posting an inappropriate photo of a friend. Explain that nothing is truly private, says Goodstein. It’s a simple matter for a friend to copy a photo from a social networking site and widely distribute it. Explain that compromising cell phone photos, no matter how funny they might seem, are a no-no and can even have legal consequences. Is your tween going for a sleepover? Talk to the host parents about keeping cell phones off limits for the night.
Set boundaries and limits
Teach your kids to prioritize. Ball, the California mom, doesn’t allow her twins to use the computer for play during the school week. She sits with them when they do online research for school. The twins use a computer located in a public family space. Some commercial software will allow you to set limits on usage, as will some operating systems. Sites such as Club Penguin allow parents to place limits on time and access.
Talk about cyberbullying
Simply having the discussion can make a difference in your tween’s behavior, says Collier. Explain that we sometimes forget the impact we’re having on others online because we can’t see their body language or personal reaction, Collier says. Promise your tween you won’t “take the Internet away” if they tell you about cyberbullying or other negative online experiences, Goodstein says.
Teach them to protect passwords
Tweens are more likely than teens and adults to share passwords with each other. However, their friendships are also more fluid. A friend turned foe can wreak havoc, using a password to access a profile and send harmful messages.
Discuss privacy settings
You and your tween should know whether his or her profile or blog is public, on view for the world to see, or available just to his or her friends. But no matter the setting, your tween should use caution when posting content. “Instill the notion that if you’re posting something you wouldn’t want Mom or Dad or a teacher to see, you probably shouldn’t post it,’’ Goodstein says.
Talking to your tween about their online activities and teaching them to think before they act online are your best defenses. “Interaction with your kid is the very best kind of safety precaution,’’ says Collier.
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