I was recently reading a social media blog written by a work-at-home mom whose post talked about pool safety. Because this site is dedicated to discussions around social media, I logically assumed she was using the pool as an analogy for parents with children still becoming savvy about the online world.
Turns out, the title of the story, “Pool Safety Tips for Kids,” actually was about swimming pool safety. Silly me.
However, the post got me thinking about Stephanie Painter’s story this month “I Wanna Be Connected” that discusses social media, tweens, and what it means to be a good digital citizen. As I read the post and thought about our story, it occurred to me that a water analogy is perhaps not a bad idea when it comes to discussing parental responsibility and the Internet.
Just think of the Internet as this huge body of water, filled with an array of known and unknown creatures. If we’re taking our children to the beach for the first time, what would we do before allowing them to go out into the water? During those first encounters, we’d probably only let them splash along the shoreline, and get their feet wet. Then, we might wade in with them, holding their hands so as to bolster them against the tide. And if we’re planning on becoming regular visitors, we’d undoubtedly invest in swim lessons, so as to better equip our kids for safety. We’d also set firm boundaries about how far out they could go, boundaries that would gradually extend as they gained more experience. Follow me?
Of course, the Internet isn’t quite like the ocean, though its vastness is comparable. But some of the cautions we should take pertain.
It’s incumbent of us as parents to talk with our kids as they begin to wade in and explore the online world. Thought the Internet can be fun, it can also be a dangerous place. The types of sites children can stumble upon accidently, or out of curiosity, can expose them to pornography, violent content, games, and hate sites. Kids aren’t always aware of what is appropriate and what is not unless we provide them with guidelines.
My son first began his ventures into the online world with visits to sites like Club Penguin. His dad and I explored the site ourselves initially, poking around to find out what it involved and who was behind the scenes. We wanted to make sure, if our son was spending time there, that it was a site we could trust. It had a social element to it, a place where kids could hang out and visit with other online players. And that made us a bit nervous, initially. (Could we trust they were kids and not adults posing as kids?) But in following some of the conversations, it became apparent it was fairly innocent.
As it turned out, this was a good jumping off point. From that time forward (I think Ev was probably 8 or 9), both his father and I began to talk with him about the types of information he might encounter online.
We arrived at three basic rules that were laid down early on: Never give out your last name, keep your birth year a secret, and don’t reveal your home address and phone number.
We wanted to make sure we didn’t have anything going out that compromised his security, or ours. As he’s headed into his teens, Facebook became the next gateway, and we talked about appropriateness of pictures and text, the way he portrayed himself online, and the notion of friending. Does he know all his friends? No, but then, do many of us? We’ve also talked about making smart decisions about his posts, and not letting popularity or emotions cloud his judgment.
The challenge is that the online world puts us on par with each other. My son admittedly knows more than we do about some aspects of social media, and he has the idle time to surf. Perhaps that’s what makes this passage a more neubulous one for parents, especially ones who aren’t as involved with technology. It’s fairly impossible to stay on top of it all. Do I routinely check the history of my son’s computer? No. Do I know where he’s been online? Some, but not to the fullest extent. Yet I think this is also a part of growing up, just like I can’t be with him 24/7. At some point, we have to trust that the values and mores we’ve discussed and modeled as a family will enable our kids to make good choices. The water is deep, but my son is a strong swimmer. He’ll make it.