How to Keep Your Child Safe in Cyberspace


By: , – Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D.
  :  17 comments   :  22,126 Views

Technology is everywhere.  Personal computers and smart phones grant us easy access to games, chatting forums, and countless threads of information that seep into every corner of our lives. 

When we think of children's cyber safety, we most often think of monitoring Internet use on computers.  And some parents do, though not enough.  One study of teen Internet safety reported that 75% of teens said that their parents almost never monitor their use. Additionally, almost one-third of teens surveyed said their parents would disapprove of how they spend their time on the Internet. 

Besides computers, other devices need monitoring, too.  Kids and teens now chat, share pictures, and watch videos on cell phones and gaming systems. Downloaded games on smart phones and gaming devices often have a chat component within them—and these games can usually be played with random online ''buddies.''

What technology does your child have access to?  What technology does your child have that allows others to have access TO your child?   Do you trust blindly or monitor closely?  Would your child know what to do if he came across inappropriate content or if someone asked her questions through a chat?

Recently, the playroom door in our house was closed.  It is never closed, so it caught my attention.  I opened it and my 7-year-old son, with his gaming device in hand, looked up with an ''Oh, no, I didn't expect you to walk into the room'' expression.   Without thinking, I blurted out, ''Put your hands where I can see them and don't move!''  (Perhaps I need to cut back on TV.)  I took his game and found that he was watching a video that was borderline inappropriate for his age—I would deem it ''okay,'' but only with adult explanation of its content.  Unbeknownst to me, the system regularly gives the (child) user notifications and access to new games, music videos, and the like. 

It became clear that a ''switch'' had turned on in his little brain, and he had to be monitored more closely than I'd realized. 

Internet Use
Internet use among children is rampant.  In a study by McAfee (the computer anti-virus company), it was found that approximately 80% of children under the age of 5 use the Internet, and 90% use it regularly by adolescence.  The study also reported that 70% of teens hide online behavior from their parents (e.g. deleting Internet history, or meeting someone in person who they initially met online). 

Ironically, as I was writing the above paragraph, a colleague came into my office and told me about her daughter's friend, who met an older man online and later met him in person at a coffee shop.  She is bright and college-bound, comes from a responsible and close family with educated parents, and…she should know better.  But she didn't.  And many adolescents don't.  One media group study reported that one-third of teens have had intimate relations with someone they met online. 

Why do teens do this despite what they are told?  It is called the personal fable.  They feel unique and invincible, and they insist that nothing dangerous could possibly happen to them.

Clearly, there are pros and cons to the information super highway and the relatively new virtual world we live in.  As a society, we must somehow balance our fear of what is out there with the usefulness of what is out there.  And, as parents, we must educate our children.

What Should We Consider?
Trying to keep our children safe is nothing new.  Trying to keep our children safe in the developing virtual world of cyber space is a newer and growing concern.
On the one hand, the Internet can be educational—it provides us with access to unlimited information.  Schools often subscribe to online programs for math, spelling, or foreign languages.  We can watch footage from Mars, experience a rainforest, or see a far-off country in real time.  For children with developmental disorders and social anxiety, some studies cite benefits from social networks.

On the other hand, there is a high risk for exposure to inappropriate content (the average age of first exposure to Internet porn is 11).  Today's youth engage in increasing amounts of cyber bullying (20% of teens report being bullied online).  Playing violent online games has been associated with aggression and delinquency. Additionally, time spent using electronic devices takes kids away from engaging in more active pursuits. (I recently heard the brilliant phrase, ''More Laps, Less Apps.'')  Spouses, parents, and children have replaced face-to-face time with technology (25% of parents admit to using smart phones instead of toys or pacifiers to distract their youngest children while shopping or cooking).

What Should We Do?
Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing on the Internet, and should monitor how they spend their time online. Research suggests that children's usage and attitudes change depending on parents' attitudes, engagement, and monitoring.  Be proactive.  Be aware of the inherent dangers of Internet usage, as well as the addictive pull that the Internet can have.  (Did you know that there is such thing as Internet Addiction Disorder?  In South Korea, there is even a boot camp for Internet-addicted adolescents!)

Awareness and monitoring can be practiced in multiple ways. 
  • Use privacy settings (especially on social networking sites) and parental controls (even on gaming devices), and check browsing history (be wary if your child has turned off the browsing history).  Weigh the risks and benefits of what you block and what you don't block.  Consider your child's age, developmental level, curiosity, technological prowess, and friends' behaviors. 

  • Think about computer placement in the home.  If you have a laptop, establish rules about when and where it can be used.  If your kids use a smart phone, be clear about what they can do on it.  (I just learned that a friend has a particular phone that can password protect specific applications.)

  • Be transparent and open with your children.  View online content together.  Educate them about various websites that they can use.  Depending on your situation, share your concerns.

  • Ask your child's school how they protect children from the potential dangers of Internet usage.  Federal law now requires schools that receive funding to block inappropriate content on school computers and to have a cyber-safety plan.
We will never be able to monitor 100% of our children's time.  But we also need to pull our heads out of the sand and take the precautions necessary to keep our kids safe in our ever-growing technological world.
Did any of the statistics in this article surprise you?  Do you really know what your child is doing on the home computer, on a smart phone in the backseat of the car, or on a social gaming system?  What do you do to protect your child from the potential dangers of the Internet? 

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

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  • 17
    Great article with important information. - 8/26/2012   2:54:22 PM
  • 16
    I don't know how young parents can afford all of the technology for their kids, or even for themselves, for that matter. I have a go-phone for travel. - 8/26/2012   1:59:40 PM
  • 15
    The world has really changed. My "kids" are 23 and 26 now, so while they were part of the technology revolution, they didn't have smart phones and laptops in their formative years like the young children of today. I don't envy today's parents in having to be so diligent - but of course they must. The safety of our children is the number one priority - today, as it has been in generations past.
    . - 8/26/2012   11:29:03 AM
  • 14
    Extremely important article, thank you so much for this information - 8/25/2012   10:51:03 PM
    My children are 27 & 25. They use the computer for information. If I'm in my computer they ask me for the information because they don't want to turn on the computer. They don't have account on Facebook, etc, - 8/24/2012   9:08:22 PM
  • 12
    I was in my mid teens when the internet was first becoming used regularly. Parents had no idea what really went on online, and neither did teachers. I did a few things online that any parent would cringe at, but I also made some wonderful friends who cared more about me than my family ever have.

    I believe more importantly than policing everything your child does, parents should be a conduit for their children to learn how to be proper adults. If my parents had allowed me to have self-esteem, treated me like I had worth and intelligence, and had showed real concern for the person I was becoming, I wouldn't have had to go online to find that. I wouldn't have felt the need to talk to a few dangerous people and then learn how to get out of it completely on my own if I felt I could get the love and attention from my family. They yelled at me and threatened me when I spent so much time online (I kept them from knowing anything I was actually doing), but then denied me the positive attention I desperately craved.

    Unfortunately, I've not been given the chance to have children to see how I could shape them. I do know that I would be more involved with my child and doing my best to give them the support they need to know right from wrong, and moreso that I'm there to guide them, not just to tell them everything they're doing wrong. - 8/24/2012   4:20:13 PM
  • 11
    My "kids" are now 22 and 19. They were given computer access at early age to prepare them for the changes in technology. They were not given internet access until they were 13 and 10 respectively. They had their own computer in the hallway outside their rooms. My sewing room was right there, and I knew how much time they were spending and what sites they went to. I investigated each site for appropriateness, set rules for those that weren't, and even blocked content access. When they were old enough for Myspace and Facebook, the rule was they could create the account, but I was to have full access to everything at all times. I made my own accounts, was "friended" by them, and anything that I considered inappropriate was immediately deleted. My 19 year old does use language I find appalling, and even though she is an adult I tell her I'm offended by it. If she posts it, I leave her a public comment like "language, young lady" or "you might want to rethink this post". 9 times out of 10, she deletes the post and thanks me for pointing it out to her.

    Instead of making our kids afraid of the information out there, we'd be better off being honest and telling them that it is out there, it's wrong, and what to do when they encounter it. Forewarned is forearmed. The bigger the deal we make of it, the more likely they will go looking for it, but if we tell them it's there first, then it's not a secret and less interesting. - 8/24/2012   1:39:48 PM
  • 10
    Our kids (10 and 6) regularly use the computer. It is in the family room with the couch situated in such a way that not only do we see the screen the entire time (only four to five feet away from us) but for anyone to leave the room they must walk right behind the computer chair. They get 1 hour a day and no more than that to look at the sites they like to visit, usually game sites for kids. Everything is monitored and they lose privileges if they do not stick to the rules. Whether their friends have cell phones or laptops (or claim to) or not, they aren't old enough for that kind of independent browsing. I completely disagree with anyone allowing that kind of freedom (lack of supervision) to children where there are predators present. Do the kids complain and ask for more time or independence with the internet? Absolutely. They can ask. But they aren't old enough for it. As far as a lot of this goes... if they get a cellphone for themselves, you can control what that phone is capable of doing as well when you buy one and what service plan you provide for it. Parents giving in to all the wants and sense of entitlement of children is what I find to be the real problem. There's nothing wrong with children asking for more, it is what they do, push boundaries, find new boundaries and freedoms. But as a parent it is up to you to be the adult and enforce those boundaries for their health and safety. - 8/24/2012   12:14:23 PM
  • 9
    I manage a website for children. The average ages of my participants are between 12-15, but they go up to 18, and as young as 9 or 10.

    It is honestly HAIR RAISING what these kids share and do online. I have to monitor them very, very closely to ensure everyone's safety. They don't think twice about sharing personal details such as cities, landmarks, private details of their personal lives. I've seen waves of suicide threats (seriously!) go through the forums. It's terrifying! I shudder to think of children using communities where things are not so closely monitored (like Facebook!) and how little these children are monitored by their parents.

    I've seen it first hand. And it terrifies me! Please, watch what your kids are doing. Even if they're on a "safe site" like mine, you have to be carefully, closely watching what they are doing. A 14 year old child is NOT entitled to complete internet privacy. That's a privilege they earn later. Don't trust the internet to keep them safe... it won't. Even if they're primarily interacting with children their own ages, they will be exposed to ideas and situations that you can't imagine. I've had to deal with sex, bullying, profanity, suicide... it's utterly terrifying. My kids on my website have me to watch out for them.

    But too many sites, even sites for children, or sites that are marketed at children but include adult participation, have no such monitoring. - 8/24/2012   9:52:57 AM
  • 8
    It's a scary world out there, people. And the scariest thing is we can't watch them 100% of the time. Sure we can attach parental controls to the devices at home...but what are they doing at their friends' houses?? - 8/24/2012   7:23:06 AM
  • 7
    I laugh about how it is today that kids see everything and know it all, when I think in 1965, when I was 15, I wasn't allowed to call a boy I'd met at high school, since only BOYS could call a girl IF he was interested. When he went to college, I wanted to write him about our school activities and asked his brother to bring me his address. The reply I got from his mother was "If he wants you to have it, HE will sent it to you from college." WOW, how different things are today. - 8/23/2012   4:55:23 PM
  • 6
    Another point to watch out for with teens especially is when they start sending pictures of themselves via internet or phone. Depending on age and content what they are sending even to friends is illegal. I am mainly talking about any nude pictures that is child porn even thought the 'child' is the one taking and sending it. Most teens do not see it as this nor realize what they are doing is illegal. - 8/23/2012   1:11:49 PM
  • 5
    This is a very good article. I know adults with little or no internet sophistication. Just because kids have a better handle on using the technology doesn't mean that they're not still kids. - 8/23/2012   1:01:56 PM
  • 4
    This article is right on time, I my 8 year old has been on site that we assumed were for her age. Dressing up their mee/mii and listening to music. But we soon found out there were older individuals on site asking about sex.. - 8/23/2012   11:34:04 AM
  • 3
    Thank you for this eye-opening blog. I am a mentor to a 14-year-old and while I don't monitor her use of the Internet I know this is a talk I should be having with her. It is best to be forewarned of the dangers that exist in cyberspace. - 8/23/2012   10:55:27 AM
    This can be an issue, even for great kids, who are normally not prone to problems. There is a growing sense that what is online isn't really real and "doesn't count". Plus something just a little rawer is only one click away. It's easy to let those clicks get out of hand. - 8/23/2012   10:35:58 AM
  • 1
    I have heard of many things that danger are kids on the internet, we need to educate all who are involved with kids, schools and parents have to be diligant in preventing and educating on what awful things a kid can be exposed too. I have a 15 year and I monitor all he does, he did tell me his friend has watched bad things on his phone, how can we prevent that? - 8/23/2012   10:32:03 AM

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