As parents have come to know, the advent of the Internet accessed through computers from home, school, or from local libraries presents a lot of advantages and a number of risks, especially for young children. The accessibility of the Internet is like having the world’s most complete informational and entertaining library available at hand. My first thought when I realized what the Internet could be and do was, “Wow, what an amazing teaching tool!” Only too soon parents are learning, however, that there are some real disadvantages to children as well.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education’s Rates of Computer and Internet Use by Children in Nursery School and Students in Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade noted that “23 percent of nursery school children in the United States were already using the Internet and that 32 percent of the children in kindergarten” at that time had already gone online. It’s 2010, we can be sure the trend in computer and Internet use is definitely on the upswing!
Parents, family members, guardians and caregivers should know that when exploring the Internet, children may find websites containing images that are adult in content or that may contain racist, sexist, violent, demeaning, or false information–or just information unsuitable for children’s consumption. It’s often difficult for children to be able to differentiate reliable from unreliable information. As with everything in the print medium that wasn’t and isn’t always true, so it is with the Internet. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean you don’t need to check the facts.
Parents need to know that the search engines children use should be chosen with care. There are several search engines designed especially for children and with some safety options. Parents need to make sure that children tell them, too, if they see something on the Internet that makes them feel scared, confused, or uncomfortable. When possible, parents should help their children navigate the Internet and learn which sources of information are reliable and suitable for children to use. Parents may want to contact their Internet service providers directly to learn if they offer filters to prevent children from accessing websites that are not appropriate for children.
Email and Instant Messaging (IM) contain advantages and disadvantages to children also. While email provides quick communication and easy transmission of documents and photos, there are risks. Children should only be using email services that require parental permission. Spam, the unwanted “junk” mail no one wants to receive, is still considered a risk. And there are people who send emails disguising themselves as someone children may know and trying to strike up a friendship with kids for illicit or illegal purposes.
While social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook have proliferated and allow kids to connect with their friends and other users with the same interests, parents need to be aware of what their kids are posting online before too much information is “out there” and things get out of hand. If your children are IM-ing, tell them to IM only people they know in real life who have been pre-approved by parents! Use privacy settings to restrict contact to only those people you have approved on your child’s friend list. If possible, make sure other users cannot search for your child by using their email address and/or user name. The same is true of sending text messages by cell phone. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children urges parents to go to www.NetSmartz.org where parents can educate themselves to provide safer navigating of the Internet for children!
(With special thanks to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Send for their pamphlet on “Keeping Kids Safer on the Internet”. It is available in English and Spanish from http://www.ncmec.org)