93% of children ages 12 through 18 access the Internet. We all know that the Internet is a very useful tool for information gathering, for social networking, and entertainment. The real challenge confronting parents of teens is the ability to exert control over a world that, by its very nature, thrives on breaking down boundaries and on anonymity. Furthermore, given that teens are, by their developmental stage, impulsive and risk takers, the prospect of problematic behaviors is very high. Horror stories abound of net bullying, sexual abuse, porn and online gaming addiction. “Friending” no longer requires face to face communication. “Sexting” is new to our vocabulary.
The two overarching principles in considering healthy Internet use are:
1) Use of the Internet is a privilege and
2) Clear communication.
Healthy Internet use: Like the issues of safe sex and use of drugs and alcohol, parents need to have very clear communication regarding their expectations. Co-creating a healthy Internet use contract can be very useful. Just as each family needs basic household rules (respect, homework, chores, and curfew), computer and Internet use require a whole subset of rules. Any discussion of rules needs to take into account the age and maturity level of the child and should cover the following areas:
1. Healthy Internet use
2. When and where the Internet can be accessed
3. Family privacy/sharing of personal information online
4. Sharing user names and passwords (Parents must have access to all user names and passwords).
5. Friending/meeting others online and offline (a common rule is no online “friending” without prior face to face meeting).
6. Respectful communication. Online behavior, because of anonymity and lack of rules, is rife with disrespect.
7. Blocking and monitoring: Teens need to know that you are watching. Naturally, or older and more mature teens, oversight might be reduced. Software recommended for blocking is Net Nanny, for oversight, SuperWinSpy.
8. Unacceptable online behaviors: While these may seem to be obvious, a good discussion with your teen can be eye opening.
9. Consequences: This is a most critical component of any contract. Very important is the notion of tailoring the consequence to the violation and not going overboard on minimal violations.
The contract should be signed by all family members and posted in a conspicuous location (refrigerator door perhaps). Any discussion of rules must also include legal issues. Clearly “sexting”, “bullying”, and downloading of illegal material are important topics.
While the above discussion is designed for kids, parents need to be reminded that they are setting the example of technology use. The other day I observed a father tossing a football with his teenage son. The play kept being interrupted by dad’s cell phone calls. His son complained, “Dad, you’re always on your cell. Can’t you just turn it off and spend some time with me?” The dad told his son that he had important business to take care of. How do you think that teen felt about the use/abuse of technology?
Obviously the old saw, “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do” is in play here. Parents set the table for their children’s future by their own example of technology use.