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It's clear that children growing up with the internet the same way that my generation grew up with television: it's ubiquitous. Just like my parents worried that too much TV would harm me, it's not difficult to worry about my children being harmed by the 'net. This last week, dana boyd wrote a thoughtful opinion piece for Time Magazine:

What makes the digital street safe is when teens and adults collectively agree to open their eyes and pay attention, communicate and collaboratively negotiate difficult situations. Teens need the freedom to wander the digital street, but they also need to know that caring adults are behind them and supporting them wherever they go. The first step is to turn off the tracking software. Then ask your kids what they're doing when they're online—and why it’s so important to them.

This is great advice and I wholeheartedly intend to follow it. My 10-year-old son certainly is growing up with the internet and we talk a lot about the things he does online. (Mostly he plays Minecraft and watches instructional videos...about Minecraft.) Checking in on his activities (by asking, not snooping) has been reassuring.

However, he managed to install a ton of adware on our family computer. (I suspect he followed some link claiming to make our computer run faster.) Thankfully, I caught the problem early. When I asked him about it the next day, he was evasive. He seemed relieved, actually, when I mentioned that I had turned on password protection for administrator tasks to prevent problems in the future. I suspect he knew he'd screwed up and was worried about how I'd react.

I'd like to believe that communication between children and parents will make his online interactions safer, but what can be done when communication breaks down? When shame prevents a child from coming to the parent for help, doesn't that make boyd's advice somewhat risky?

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What exactly is the question here? Your title question and the question asked at the end are different so I'm not sure which you're looking for. Are you asking if a child does something online (posts images, private information, etc), if there's anything you can do? Or how to teach the child what is and is not safe online? Or just a general 'how can I get my child to come clean about what he does / has done'? –  Doc Mar 19 at 17:39
    
@Doc: I tried rephrasing the title and body. I'm mostly asking about the second question you suggested. But I want to make clear the parenting philosophy that I aspire to so that the answers don't wander into territory where I don't intend to tread. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Mar 19 at 19:39
    
Before I give a shot at answering this, how familiar are you yourself with technology, the internet, and the risks involved with using it? There are some resources you can present a child but if you have a strong enough grasp yourself I feel a parent will have more inherent authority that the child will listen to. –  Doc Mar 19 at 21:22
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@Doc: I think you can safely assume I will understand or be able to do the needed research. ;) –  Jon Ericson Mar 19 at 21:32
    
@JonEricson, hmmm...I don't know. I still have doubts about your ability :-) –  ChristopherW Mar 23 at 5:16

4 Answers 4

You'll forgive me, Jon, I'm sure, for answering your question by ignoring your SO reputation... few adults are tech nerds like us. ;)

Parents frequently ask me which child monitoring/protection software I use. I reply, "Me." I then elaborate by telling them that there isn't any software which can think and analyze like a human being can. The best monitoring software is you, the parent.

I find that all too often children are left in front of a computer like they have been previously left in front of a television... without any serious oversight from the parent.

Keeping that in mind, let's ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Who wants a virus?
  • Who wants some weirdo contacting them?
  • Who wants to see something they weren't looking for?
  • Who wants to view SPAM or other (semi-)malicious content?

The answer in all cases (I sincerely hope) is neither adults nor our children.

When she was quite young, my daughter was chatting on barbie.com. During my regular check on her activity, I asked her what she was doing. She was elated! She was chatting with BARBIE!!! I, however, looked at the chat. It wasn't what she thought. When I pointed out that she was chatting with real people from all over the world, she got disappointed, offended, and closed the window. I didn't have to do anything other than inform her.

Three months ago she got a virus on her computer (yes, I do have her account on Windows as a restricted, child account, but she found my password to install something [long story... let's not go there.]) I repaired the machine and explained what the consquences could have been. She had to change all of her passwords, of course (and mine is now different, too!) Now, whenever she wants to install an addon for a game, she doesn't even feign to get my password... she just asks to make sure she is safe.

Now, directly addressing you, Jon: How many adults have we met that are as risky with their online behavior as our children can be? (No one at my office is allowed to install, upgrade, or respond to dialogs on software.)

My answer to your question is that we educate them as to the threats which exist and do our best to protect them from exposure to such threats -- that is what both we and they want, so there really isn't a debate to be had when presented in a helpful manner. My daughter isn't upset that her account is limited since she has seen the effects interfere with her ability to play games and do other stuff... it's nice that daddy will just take care of it for her.

Now, if the concern is one's child nefariously doing things, then that is a whole 'nother question probably best suited for another forum on SE b/c those who want to do things behind our backs are quite creative and no matter how well-trained we are, will find some way we have yet to have heard of.

Also, the adware installation issue is oftentime by pure accident... a dialog mimicking a regular dialog which causes side effects -- the untrained person is just not prepared for all the hack attempts we are regularly exposed to.

Finally, it was some addon to Minecraft she installed which had a virus, so watch your booty there! That thing took me 3 hours to remove!

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I'm planning on giving my (now two year old) son a computer of his own to maintain when he is old enough to operate it - with instructions to ask for help if he gets stuck or encounters issues.

I think the metaphor of a car works well. You hear a lot of stories about kids fixing up cars with their parents in their teenage years - so they know that it is a privilege and not a toy.

The only problem I haven't yet worked out is which OS to put on the laptop... ;)

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I didn't found such guide yet. I'm planning to develop something like it, maybe even write it in nice form and publish as CC. Currently I can recommend you to get familiar with prism-break.org page. It is listing of many open source project and services designed to help you protect your privacy online (especially against spy agencies). I would treat is as a base for creating habits and good practices for working with computers and internet. This plus some common sense should work pretty nice.

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How can we help children learn to handle free access to media?

The first thing to realize is that this is not a new problem. The ubiquity of the Internet, its breadth of information, and its connectivity to such a vast userbase is new, but the base problem is not new.

One of the earliest media of communication is storytelling. Still today we find ourselves questioning the best way to handle our child's access to stories:

The school has assigned reading I feel is inappropriate for my son to read. How do I approach this problem with the school and with my son?

The invention of writing brought information out of the oral realm into something that could be preserved across time and space without having to be transmitted directly from the source of the information. As more people gained access to writing, our ancestors had to ask themselves

How can we help children learn to handle access to reading and writing?

Today there are various approaches to this problem. We naturally teach our children to take care in what, how, and to whom they write. We concern ourselves with what our children read and have open discussions with them about it.

The invention of printing didn't really change any of this. All it did was increase the access to information.

Television did seem to bring a new set of problems: it presented information in audio/visual form, it broadcast it over large distances, and it didn't immediately open up access for everyone to broadcast. The latter two are really nothing new. Access to information increased again, and like most new things the more powerful had greater control initially. Today we are still dealing with the repercussions of the audio/visual format:

At what age should a child be introduced to the Television?

How is the Internet different?

The Internet is everywhere and it is for everybody, but how is it really different? It is instantaneous. Once given access to an unrestricted device connected to the Internet, our children can immediately gain access to whatever they want and more. Even if you restricted your home devices, Internet-connected devices are practically ubiquitous today. It is not difficult for your child to visit the neighbors and be on the Internet before you even know they've left the house (depending on their age).

What's the point?

I don't think the instantaneous nature of the Internet changes much except that it makes it all the more important that we establish open communication with our kids. If we form the habit of sharing what we (parents and children) experience early on, then we will be prepared (with an understanding of our child's experience) to handle their issues and they will be prepared to share their issues when they occur because they will know we're ready to listen.

Case 1: Gory Flash Game

Open Communication Outcome 1

Child: I want to play some flash games.
Parent: All right, what were you thinking of playing?
Child: Oh, I was going to try out this fighting game on Freshdirt.
Parent: I think that game's pretty gory.
Child: Hm, I didn't know that. Maybe I'll try something else.

Alternate ending: Child: I saw that it might be a little gory, but I think it's just comic violence.
Parent: Well, if you're sure it won't bother you, why don't we check it out together and see why it's so gory.

If the game covers mature themes like "Kill Your Boss", it might be a good time for a discussion about how that kind of thinking isn't healthy.

Open Communication Outcome 2

Child: I just clicked on a flash game, and it was pretty scary.
Parent: Well, what happened?

Parent and Child can discuss what was disturbing. Parent will probably look at the game too to know more specifically what occurred.

Open Communication Outcome 3

Parent: What did you do for fun today?
Child: I played some Internet games.
Parent: Did you find anything interesting?
Child: Well, I did play this one game. It was kind of gory though.

Further discussion, as above.

Notes

Depending on age, this much freedom does not have to be given. As this may be particularly relevant to the title question, see "Easing in access" section.

Case 2: Pornography

Parent: I've noticed you've been spending a lot of time in your room on the computer lately.
Child: Well, I'm just surfing the web.
Parent: With your door closed?
Child: To be honest, I'm exploring a little bit of those things we talked about.
Parent: There's a lot of scams and malware out there, and sometimes you may stumble into more than you bargained for. Can I give you some advice?

Parent explains to their satisfaction what the best practices regarding Internet porn are.

Case 3: Talking with Strangers

Child: I met somebody cool on the Internet.
Parent: What do you talk about?
... Parent: Don't forget to be careful with how much information you give out.

Alternate ending: Child: They want to meet me. Parent: Well, I think we need to get to know them a little better first, and we should probably meet them together.

Easing in access

As your child gets older, there will naturally be less direct supervision of their online activity, but how exactly should this happen?

In regards to mature content like violence, sex, and drugs, it is probably a good idea to have a safe list of sites to visit with your children. As they get older, you give them more freedom to visit the safe list with less direct supervision. For things not on the safe list, you may view them with them the first time or preview them in advance. By making the safe list a social device that you both refer to rather than a technical restriction, this shows that you trust them to make decisions about their own safety as they learn from you how to manage it. You may start out using the Internet with them at all times at a young age, then when they are older they may use it solo in the same room as you. Eventually, they graduate to using it on their own terms but with time restrictions, and then finally they start to learn how to make their own time management decisions.

In regards to communication with strangers, you should be clear with your children early on about what kind of information is dangerous to share with people--and who you can share what with. When they start talking with people online, you should probably be with them at first. As they get older, you may ask to be introduced to their online friends but not have to be present for the whole conversation. If they ever want to meet someone in person, you should be clear that you want to go with them--at least at first.


Is this my opinion?

Yes, but I tried to make it as grounded in the prevailing views of experts as I could, as far as I see it, and also open to many different applications. I am open to criticism and may choose to adopt views of others into my post as I see fit. Leave a comment if something sticks out to you.

Personally, I think by the age of 15 (at the latest) you should have your child ready for unlimited access to the Internet alone whether you like it or not, because they most likely will find their ways to get it no matter what the consequences.

Disclaimer

My answer assumes a knowledgeable parent--that is, a parent who knows about the Internet themselves and its risks and how to protect yourself. I don't think that is a problem with my post. A parent should become knowledgeable about anything before they set themselves as the point of contact for that issue with their child.

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Jon, you mention shame in your question. I think the easiest way to break the shame barrier is to consistently share your own experiences of similar caliber--even if that involves digging up the past. Don't only bring these up when an issue occurs; they should be regular conversations. Is this difficult? Probably, but how can you expect your child to share shameful topics unless you do? –  called2voyage Mar 24 at 20:58
    
And can you explain what "best practices regarding Internet porn" are? I am honestly unsure that best practices exist, and if they do I would assume they would preclude a child accessing that material in the first place, heck if only from a legal point of view. –  kleineg Jun 18 at 15:28
    
@kleineg Yes, legal ramifications, malware, privacy issues, etc. would all be part of such a discussion. –  called2voyage Jun 18 at 16:10

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