Today’s kids grow up online. Even before they’re allowed to use a computer, they’ll be looking over your shoulder as you check social media on your mobile phone. Once they’re handed the controls, it’s not long before they are perfectly comfortable browsing and interacting with their friends online. Sharing personal information over the internet seems normal to 21st century kids, and it’s hard for them to realise that what they post now can come back to haunt them later when they’re applying to colleges or looking for a job.
You can activate parental controls and make rules about internet usage, but in reality, by the time they’re teenagers, your kids will probably know more about the internet than you do. They’ll quickly be tempted to break any rules you set, just to see how far they can push their boundaries.
So, how do you instil respect for online security and privacy, without losing your ‘cool parent’ status? It’s important to help kids understand the real consequences of internet usage while they are still kids. As they grow up, you’ll quickly lose control over what they post online and they can get into trouble if they don’t already have a good sense of what is and isn’t appropriate.
Building the Foundation
To begin with, you’ll need a good working knowledge of the internet yourself. If your kids see you as out of touch with online culture, they won’t listen to what you have to say. Don’t settle for being the old-fashioned parent who doesn’t use Facebook and can barely write an email. Inform yourself about the internet and start experimenting with social media, either personally or professionally.
Secondly, take stock of your own online habits. Oversharing starts with you. If you share every baby picture and post about every funny scrape your toddler gets into, your kids will grow up believing this is normal.
Thirdly, you will need to describe online security in concepts and language that kids can relate to. Even physical safety lectures quickly get boring for kids, and online safety is even more abstract and difficult to conceptualise. If you can turn security into a game that you play with your child, you’ll make it more fun and you’ll build a precedent for communicating about what they do online.
- Passwords – Strong passwords are the key to online security for both children and adults. If you can make creating and remembering un-guessable passwords a habit for your kids, you will have given them a valuable tool. Today, almost everyone has to manage multiple log-ins in their professional lives. Introduce your kids to the idea of turning a memorable phrase into a string of letters: ‘Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow’ becomes ‘Mhallifwwas’. Substitute numbers and symbols for some letters to make the phrase more complex. Then practice creating passwords no one could guess, even their friends.
- Public Versus Private – A personal computer screen in the family sitting room seems private. It’s hard for kids to realise that what they post there could be visible all over the world, depending on their privacy settings. If necessary, let them experience this first hand by showing them how grandma and grandpa can pull up the same pages on their computer. Help them adjust privacy settings so they see it’s possible to change what is visible to other people.
- Oversharing – Appeal to kid’s natural sense of embarrassment when it comes to what they post online. Ask them if they want their teacher to see a compromising picture, or if they would be comfortable having grandma read what they say to their friends. Remind your kids how boring they would find it if you shared every meeting, lunch and conversation online to discourage them from writing about every single thing they do. If you’ve had problems with oversharing or made mistakes in the past, talk about them with your kids so they know you are speaking from experience, not making arbitrary rules to stop them from having fun online.
- Listen to Your Kids – Communicating with your kids about what happens on the internet is key. Encourage them to talk to you about what they are doing online, and avoid being overly judgmental or critical. Let them know they can come to you with all kinds of issues, even ones they find uncomfortable or embarrassing. With cyberbullying and harassment becoming increasingly common, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, and make sure you are the first person kids talk to when they have a problem.
Download our Personal Online Privacy Guide below