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22 Mar, Wednesday
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Montreal Families

Kids and Internet safety

A few months ago, I pulled my toddler nephew onto my lap with a book and began to read him a story. When I came to the bottom of the page, he swiped his little finger across the page. Nothing happened. I watched in amusement as he tried again and again to change the page by swiping it. I was astonished to realize that his primary exposure to stories happened through an iPad. He didn’t know how to turn an old-fashioned page.

But I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the past 10 years, tablet computers and smart phones have increasingly been taken over by young children. Go to a restaurant today, and the little ones are more likely to be playing with those gadgets than drawing or colouring with crayons. I have no romantic notions that the “old ways” were better. In fact, there are many fabulous, creative and exciting applications for little ones on these devices (though I do believe every baby should know the feel — and taste — of a crayon as well).

However, if our children are going to be using these devices, we must ensure they do so responsibly, starting from the moment they are ready to swipe a screen.  Waiting until they are doing research projects online for school is simply too late.

Here’s a good example of why these conversations need to start early.  At one of my Internet safety workshops, a mother told me about how her child’s school had created an online reading log for each first grade student, to track the amount of time spent reading, numbers of books finished, etc.

The children were each given a user name and password based on their first and last names. Many of the 6-year-olds figured out the pattern for those names and passwords. Soon they were logging into each other’s accounts, without permission. They weren’t being malicious; they were just curious. However, it was clear to all the adults involved that these children had no awareness or understanding of the need to respect privacy online.

This was a golden opportunity for the school staff to address the issue. They talked about how passwords are private and shouldn’t be shared, and how accounts online (whether it’s email, a game site or a school reading log) should be treated like personal possessions. Just as kids wouldn’t dream of eating someone’s lunch without asking, they shouldn’t log onto another person’s account without permission.

I know from personal experience how tough it can be to keep up with all the challenges presented by the digital world. This past winter, I blogged about how shocked I was to learn that my 9-year-old daughter’s friends were flocking to the picture-sharing social media site Instagram. It had never occurred to me to tell my daughter she couldn’t have an account. Luckily, she assumed that because I’d banned her from Facebook, I wouldn’t agree to Instagram either.  I research and write about kids and technology and I’m still sometimes caught by surprise.

So what’s a parent to do? Stay informed through articles, blogs and conversations with your children about the newest technologies and popular websites. But even more importantly, teach your children how to be good “digital citizens.”  That means that as soon as your toddler grabs your iPad to play games, it’s time to start talking about managing screen time, taking turns and respecting other’s possessions. Keep the conversations going as they grow up, so children can make good choices.

Here are some general guidelines by age group:

Infants and toddlers: Our littlest ones need to be taught how to respect these expensive devices, which aren’t really well suited to grape juice spills or being flung from a high chair. Their screen time needs to be carefully monitored, since it is almost always preferable for them to be exploring the world in more physical and tactile ways.

Preschoolers: Proper care and respect of devices, as well as limiting screen time continues to be critical. Three and 4-year-olds can also be introduced to the concept of respecting other people online, whether they are playing a game against another user online, Skyping with grandma or helping a parent post family vacation pictures. Talk about the importance of being polite when speaking or writing as well as asking people before posting a photo of them on the Internet.

Grade schoolers: Controlling the amount of screen time is still important. As kids open email accounts or learn about social media, we need to discuss respect of others and protecting themselves online. Passwords should never be shared. They need to be introduced to the idea that the Internet is forever, and anything they write or post can be copied or taken out of context. Other important concepts include safe searching and learning to critically evaluate the things they may see or read online.

Alissa Sklar, PhD, runs the site www.risk-within-reason.com, which helps families think critically about technology, risk and online safety. She offers workshops to parents, teachers and children on issues such as bullying, social media, and being a good digital citizen.

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