In a previous article we described the risks and benefits of kids networking online — and specifically how this applies to children with learning disabilities (LD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD). In this article we will explain in greater detail how to safeguard your child’s online experience by teaching him how to protect his personal information and identity from being exposed or exploited by others who find him via the Internet. You’ll also learn about various technology tools that block, filter, and monitor your child’s online activity — and guidelines for choosing those tools that best address your concerns.

Whatever approach you take, do your best to tailor it to the specific needs of your child and family. If your child has learning or attention issues, be mindful of any special supervision he may need, as outlined in our previous article.

Perhaps you can relate to the questions one mother posed: “How do we raise children to live in a world with social networking safely? When are they old enough to drive around in that world on their own? What tools do they need to cope with that world? How can we help them to be successful and safe in that world?”

The answers to these questions aren’t simple. The best place to start, though, is to understand your role as a parent. Be confident in your ability to learn enough about technology and the Internet to prepare your child to navigate the online world safely and successfully. After all, you know your child better than anyone else and have been teaching him how to navigate life from the time he was born. This article will help you approach Internet education step-by-step.

Managing and monitoring your child’s internet activity

Just as you have taught your child how to act in public — even when you’re not with him — you’ll want to teach him how to interact on the Internet. How he communicates, and how well he evaluates the trustworthiness and authenticity of other people, are key factors.

Here are some tips for teaching your child to interact safely online:

  • Make sure your child understands that people he meets online may not be what they seem. Explain how the nature of the Internet makes it easy for a person to portray himself as someone other than who he is in real life — and why this can be dangerous. A worrisome example is an adult who uses online connections to establish trust with a child as a way of encouraging the child to meet him in person. In different scenario, one child might pretend to be another child’s friend online, only to bully him later.
  • Teach your child not to disclose information that is too personal. This, of course, includes the child’s name, phone number, and address. Less obvious, but equally dangerous information to share includes his online password(s), school name and location, parties he will attend, and times when he’s alone (e.g., walking to and from school, at home). Even photographs he posts online should not contain personally identifying clues (e.g., the name of his school in the background). It is especially important to help your child develop deliberate strategies to protect himself when he is engaged in fun, lively, direct interactions with other people online. A child needs to understand that even if he believes he is on a friend’s personal blog, or posting to a message board intended only for his classmates, other people may still see his information.
  • Check out the privacy policy and terms of service for each website your child visits. Best practices dictate that a website’s privacy policy should be available through a link on the website’s homepage and at each area where personal information is collected from users. (The law actually requires this for all websites aimed at children under age 13.) Read the policy closely to learn the kinds of personal information being collected, how it will be used, and whether it will be passed on to third parties. If you find a website that doesn’t post basic protections for children’s personal information, ask for details about their information collection practices.
  • Keep the computer in the family room, kitchen, or living room – not in your child’s bedroom. If your child knows you are observing him — or you could walk by at any time — he may be less tempted to engage in something risky or inappropriate online.
  • Discuss the rules for using the computer and post them nearby.
  • If you aren’t comfortable with your child using the Internet at home when you’re not there, find alternatives that you consider acceptable (e.g., arranging for your child to log onto the Internet at his school library).

For additional tips, see the resources listed with this article.

Technology to help manage and monitor your child’s Internet access

Many parents express a desire to monitor their kids’ online activity, but they aren’t sure how much “policing” is necessary and to what degree they will be interfering with their child’s normal need for independence. Furthermore, they’re confused about the monitoring options that are available — what they do, how to use them, etc.

There are several technology tools available to help parents manage and monitor their children’s online activity at home. Keep in mind that none of these tools provide total control, and none of them should be considered a substitute for direct guidance from you as a parent.

How this technology works

In general, this software works by filtering, blocking, managing, or monitoring the images and information that come into your child’s world via the Internet, as well as the information and messages he sends out over the Internet.

The most common tools include:

  • Parental controls: These tools allow parents to prevent kids from accessing certain inappropriate Internet content. This option is free and is built into many Internet services such as Yahoo! and AOL. The settings parents can choose vary from one service to the next. While parental controls are a good first line of defense, be aware that they may not provide the degree of control you want or need.
  • Filtering software: This software screens information on the Internet, classifies its content, and allows the user to block certain kinds of content. Some filtering software allows you to block specific website URLs, while other programs are based on keywords that the user selects. Be thoughtful about blocking certain keywords or phrases. For example, blocking pornography by filtering out content containing the letters “XXX” might also block your child’s access to Internet content containing legitimate information, such as a history website that uses Roman numerals.
  • Monitoring tools: These tools include software and hardware. The software programs don’t block access but they do allow a parent to monitor the websites a child visits, and view the email messages and Instant Messages (IM) he receives and sends. A keystroke logger is a device (hardware) you attach to a keyboard and which records and stores the keyboard activity; this tool is password protected so only a parent can access the data.

Most manufacturers claim that these technology tools are “invisible” to children, but be aware that a child who is determined and savvy enough can probably circumvent the filter or control at home. If not, he can easily get around it by logging onto the Internet at a friend’s house.

There are also filtering/reporting services, but these raise privacy concerns. For example, some of these services send all of your online transactions, including a your passwords, credit card information, etc. to a centralized service where the data is filtered out and reports about or chat logs are kept and reported back to you. These services claim to protect privacy, but any mistake in handling this information can expose people to privacy or credit risks.

How to be a wise consumer

In selecting software or other tools to monitor and manage your child’s Internet activity, you will want to learn as much as you can about the features and reliability of any product you consider. The technology administrator at your child’s school may be a good person to consult, especially if he has experience managing Internet access for a large number of students. Talking to other parents about Internet software may also be helpful.

Know your child

Before you decide whether to monitor your child’s online activity, and if so, how, ask yourself these questions about your child:

  • How old is your child? It’s appropriate to shield a young child from inappropriate websites by blocking certain types of content. An older child, however, may be able to handle more mature content and may need access to certain websites in order to do research for school.
  • Does your child have learning or attention problems? How might those difficulties affect his ability to communicate, understand, and use good judgment when interacting with others online?
  • How mature is he, especially compared to his peers? Does he show good judgment when he encounters something (or someone) who seems too good to be true?
  • What is his general mindset? Is he a risk taker? Is he too trusting of other people?
  • Can you trust him? Based on his usual behavior, can you trust him to follow the rules you set about using the Internet? When you question him about it, are you confident he will be honest with you? Will he follow the rules even when you’re not watching?
  • Does he communicate with you about his life in general, including school and activities? Will he tell you what he’s doing online?

Your answers to the questions above will help determine the type and level of monitoring you need to put in place.

Legislation to protect kids online

Concern about protecting children on the Internet has prompted legislators to establish legal safeguards. While such protection is valuable, it does not guarantee that people will abide by the rules; more importantly, legal standards do not replace the direct guidance and supervision you provide your child.

It may be helpful for you to be aware of the following legislative act:

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)

An important federal safeguard in protecting children’s privacy when they network online is the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The purpose of this act is to protect personal information about a child; it does not directly protect a child from online predators.

  • COPPA requires commercial website operators to take several steps before they collect, use, or disclose personal information from a child under the age of 13.
  • COPPA requires that website operators notify parents about their website’s privacy policies and obtain verifiable consent from a parent or guardian before collecting personal information from children.
  • Website operators must establish and maintain reasonable procedures to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of the personal information they collect.
  • COPPA is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Jodell Seagrave has more than 20 years’ experience in the field of kids’ media. She explains, “Given the growing number of online social networks — and the increase in concern about protecting youth online — adhering to the requirements is critical. However, the mandates established by COPPA are not consistently understood and implemented by all website operators. This void is important for parents to understand — as it further reinforces the need for parents and children to be well-educated about how to keep themselves and their information safe while online.”

Ready to log on?

As your child matures and becomes more (or perhaps, less) safe online, you may need to adjust the degree to which you monitor and manage his Internet activity. Be vigilant and aware, but foster open communication and trust between you and your child. Your goal will be to provide him with a balance of training, knowledge, supervision — and a healthy degree of independence.

As one parent described her philosophy about teaching her child to use the Internet:

“I want her to be aware of how the world is and make her choices because she is informed, not sheltered.”

When you reflect on those words, you’ll realize how easily they apply to many aspects of raising a child — not just teaching him how to navigate the Internet. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the technology in your child’s life, remember your strength and wisdom as a parent. Parenting, after all, is a much more established “institution” than the World Wide Web.