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Talking About Internet Safety

FOR AGES: 9 to 12

THE SCENE
"I don't get it," your 11-year-old complains. "You're so paranoid about the Net. I mean, I don't give out my phone number or anything. Don't you trust me?"

The Internet is adding a new twist to the age-old tug-of-war between a preteen's growing need for independence and a parent's understandable concern for safety.

It is relatively easy to protect young children from the perils of the Net. But as kids get older, their fascination tends to intensify. For many preteens, email and chat rooms have become a favored form of social interaction.

FINDING THE WORDS
Ongoing conversations about the perils and pleasures of Internet access are a good way to educate kids about its responsible, safe use. But preteens may interpret your concern as an attack on their privacy. Here are a few neutral ways to approach the subject.

The Words: "It may seem like I'm paranoid, but I love you and I want to keep you safe."

The Reason: Acknowledge your child's perception, but let her know how much you care about her.

The Words: "It's not that I don't trust you, it's that the Internet can expose you to things you may not understand or be ready for ?just as there are still movies that I think you're too young to see."

The Reason: There's a lot of pressure on preteens to grow up before they're ready. Don't be afraid to let kids know that they don't have to.

The Words: "The Internet is exciting, and it may seem safe, but there's a big problem: You can never be sure whom you're in contact with. People can lie about their age, whether they're a boy or a girl, or all sorts of other things."

The Reason: Children need to be reminded that they really have no idea who they're chatting with online.

The Words: "We need to establish some rules."

The Reason: It's important for kids to be clear about your expectations for their behavior on the Internet. Not giving out any personal information, not purchasing anything, not arranging to meet someone you get to know online, and using an online pseudonym are four of the most common rules imposed by parents.

The Words: "Let's talk about privacy."

The Reason: This needs to be an ongoing, evolving discussion with kids. How much privacy you allow your child will depend on your own values, your child's age, and your sense of his or her judgement. Some parents check to see which sites their kids visit. Others want to see the addresses, but not the content, of their kids' emails.

Computer-literate parents can check up on kids' Internet activity without their knowledge, but this is a clear violation of trust. Think long and hard about the potential costs versus the benefits of electronic snooping. Do you have cause for concern that your child is at risk, or a reason to believe that your child can't be trusted? Keep in mind that it's possible for computer-savvy kids to delete information about the sites that they visit.

The Words: "If anything happens while you're online that concerns you, or if you have any questions about what's okay and what isn't okay, let me know and we'll talk about it."

The Reason: Let your children know that you're available to help them if they need it.

BEYOND THE RAP
As with most important topics, talking about safety on the Internet requires more than one conversation. You'll probably need to renegotiate limits as your children grow and develop. Talking with other families about your concerns and their Internet rules will help you think about the limits you want to set. Keeping the computer in a shared family space is a good way to help children feel a sense of supervision without having someone constantly peering over their shoulders.

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