Children today are very lucky to be growing up in a high-tech Internet age where any information they could possibly want is only a few clicks away. It was not so long ago that information was not quite as easy or as practical to come by. We would often have to rely on books or other printed media to provide us with the information that we wanted. Today of course, the Internet has changed all of that. And the Internet itself is continuing to change. With the advent of social media for example, we can now use the Internet to communicate not just by email – but by using a whole range of different social networking sites, enabling us to send and receive photos, videos, voice messages and more. The information age then can provide fantastic opportunities for children to learn and interact with others.
However, just as we would want children to be protected and to behave responsibly in the real world, it is equally important for children to be protected and to behave responsibly in the virtual world online.
This is a video that I made with the student council last year about netiquette:
The main message this video was trying to get across to children is that just as we have certain rules to follow in real life, we also have to follow certain rules to follow when using the Internet.
Now, here is advice that I give to parents on what they can do to help:
First, set boundaries:
Ask your child to show you sites that they like to visit. Talk to your child about when and how they use the computer at home. Keeping the computer in a communal area, such as the dining room or lounge, with the screen visible is a good idea. Having a computer in the child’s bedroom, on the other hand, is not advisable. Children may also get into the habit of using the computer late into the night, which has a detrimental effect on sleep.
Agree together which websites your child can visit; perhaps bookmark these so that they have easy access to appropriate sites. It’s also a good idea to set time limits on computer use. Experts agree that children should have a break from the screen every thirty minutes, so you might suggest having half an hour of computer time before dinner, and then half an hour after, for example.
Second, make sure your child understands that not all information found on the Internet is reliable or appropriate:
Using the computer together to research homework topics is a good way to demonstrate to your child that some sites are really interesting and useful, while others are not appropriate. This is as much about keeping your child safe as it is about teaching your child basic information literacy. Since anyone can post anything on the Internet, there is a lot of information, which is actually misinformation. This includes conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and fake histories – none of which is verifiable by the academic community.
As an example, imagine your child has been asked to find out information about the African-American Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King. As many children would do, they do a google search – and this is one of the top search hits that comes up: http://www.martinlutherking.org/
At the first, it just looks like another educational website. On closer inspection though, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a racist site. Much of the information on this site makes racist remarks and serves to defile Martin Luther King’s character. This brings me to my next point.
Third, make sure your child is using child-friendly Internet searches:
There are several good search sites that automatically filter content for children. Ask Kids for example, is a search engine designed exclusively for young people from the age of 6 to 12. Alternatively, the major search engines, such as Google and Yahoo!, have filters on them – the settings button on these sites will have the option of applying a child-friendly filter.
Finally, make sure you are aware if your child is using social networking sites:
The main danger of such sites is that children might share too much information and are more likely to treat online friends like real friends. This is why many sites have certain age restrictions. With Facebook for example, children need to be at least 13 years old to be allowed to have an account. There have also been and continue to be friendship problems that are caused by social networking sites, and it can leave some children vulnerable to cyberbullying. This is certainly a well-documented problem in the UK, but by being aware of your child’s interactions online, such problems can be prevented.
With all of this in mind, it is important not to forget what a fantastic resource the Internet has become – and how much useful information is out there. The very best way to protect your children and ensure they get the most out of their digital technologies, is to become involved and take an interest in their lives online.