Your daughter is about to turn 16 and wants to get her driver's license, but she's never been behind the wheel. What do you do? My parents took me to a vacant parking lot (far away from other cars or structures of any kind) and taught me how to safely operate the car. And they started with the basics: buckling my seatbelt.
This thorough and meticulous manner of teaching needs to be applied to teaching children and teens safe Internet practices. Just like oncoming traffic, there are many dangerous things out there on the net.
Parents may be hesitant to talk to their children about technology because they think they don't understand how it works. Sure, some parents might not be able to speak "texting" like their kids, or know what a wiki is. But how many of us can look under the hood and point to the carburetor? Or fix the timing belt? Just because we don't know how a car runs doesn't mean we can't teach someone how to safely operate it.
My parents taught me to drive first through example. Child passengers learn that red means stop and green means go long before they get behind the wheel. Kids need to be taught the basics: don't give out personal information, stay on safe sites, don't respond to e-mails from people you don't know. For older kids and teens, talking about the basics might be nothing more then a refresher ("Duh, I know that already, dad"). But just like my folks told me to buckle that seatbelt, the more you hear it the more reflexive the action becomes.
My cousin has a nine-year-old daughter who is quite tech savvy. But my cousin lets her daughter know that only certain Web sites are allowed, and only when the laptop is in the living room. My cousin is making sure that her daughter is safe but still learning how to use the technology that is very much a part of today's culture. As she get's older and understands better how to protect herself, the rules might be changed. She'll have her own computer and might be allowed to have a social networking page.
Some experts will point to technology to keep children safe while online -- software such as filters and parental controls. The problem with this mentality is some parents walk away after installing this software. When buying a new car most people insist it come with airbags, but we really hope they are never needed. Think of filters and parental controls like this -- they are wonderful safety features, but are nothing more than Internet airbags, hopefully never needed.
If your teen passes her driving test, and you trust her, she's usually allowed to take the car to the mall to meet her friends. But you give her a curfew and forbid her from taking friends in the car, and you remind her to drive carefully ("I know, mom!"). The same idea goes for Internet use. You have taught her what and what not to do online, so now you let her IM her friends. But you continue to talk to her about safety and regularly ask her to show you her MySpace page. Let her see you are not trying to spy on her or invade her privacy.
Unfortunately parents now have one more thing to worry about when it comes to their children. It used to just be saying no to drugs, or buckling that seatbelt. Now it is avoiding cyber predators and identity theft. With open dialogue and good examples we can keep our kids safe when they take the keys.
Good Links for Parents
NetSmartz Workshop: http://www.netsmartz.org/
National Cyber Security Alliance: http://www.staysafeonline.info/
Internet Keep Safe Coalition: http://www.ikeepsafe.org/
OnGuard Online: http://onguardonline.gov/index.html