In today's wired world, it's not uncommon to see a child as young as two or three tinkering around online. With interactive games, e-books, and educational websites, the Internet, for kids, can be a rich resource with which to foster curiosity.
In fact, about one-third of preschool children use the Internet every day, according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. For kids aged 6-9, the number grows to 50 percent. "For many of these children," the center reports, "computer use is a regular occurrence: 22 percent of 5 to 8-year-olds use a computer at least once a day, and another 46 percent use it at least once a week."
Despite the wealth of information the world wide web can provide, the Internet certainly has a dark side—and it's impossible to block every piece of unsavory content available. If your child's just starting to explore the online world alone, how can you be sure she's protected from Internet predators and unfiltered information from around the globe?
- Set Limits. Get her used to boundaries from the beginning. Early limits for your online newbie could mean restricting the amount of time she spends online, or only permitting Internet access in a public space of the house, such as the living room. Enforce both penalties and rewards to reinforce the rules. For example, if your kid shuts down the Internet immediately—and without a fuss—after 30 minutes, allow her 10 more minutes later. If she doesn't comply, she loses 30 minutes of Internet time. Rosen's rule for penalties is to "start small, then double it every time," finding that kids quickly learn to stick to the boundaries.
- Embrace Technology. While it's natural to be cautious, introducing her to the Internet is essential. "Today's young children are natural explorers who face a media cornucopia that is unprecedented," says Dr. Michael Levine, Executive Director of the Cooney Center. As early as preschool, parents and educators alike should encourage and embrace the responsible use of digital media "to make sure that every fourth grader is able to read, compute, inquire and participate confidently in a global environment."
- Filters. Lock your device with a password to prevent unsupervised access, or use the built-in settings on your computer to filter the Internet and ensure your child isn't exposed to questionable content. But remember; no method is foolproof. In fact, Dr. Larry Rosen, Professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation and iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold On Us thinks the only message you're likely to send with a filter is "lack of trust."
Instead, Rosen suggests moms and dads follow the "TALK Model"—Trust, Assess, Learn and 'K'ommunicate—to protect kids from the outset.
- Trust. Actively attempt to build trust from an early age, Rosen urges. As soon as you pass your phone to your preschooler to keep her occupied, it's time to start brief weekly chats about technology. Sit on the ground—so that everyone has a roughly equal power level—and ask questions, like "What fun things do you like to do with the phone?" "What's your favorite app?" and "What do you like about the Internet?" Make sure you listen to your child's answers, and don't over-react. "No judgment," says Rosen. Otherwise, your child won't feel comfortable confiding in you.
- Assess. Weekly meetings are your chance to assess your child's Internet interactions. Make sure you listen to her answers, and let her control the conversation. Aim to allow five minutes for your child to respond to every one minute you spend talking. Assess her reactions to potential problems. For example, as her age and use of the Internet increases, ask her about cyberbullying: "That sounds scary, huh? Do you know anyone who's been bullied online?"
- Learn. Make it a point to understand your child's online interests. Almost instinctively, children are more computer-savvy than their parents, and navigating the Internet certainly wasn't in our Kindergarten curriculums. But to guide your little computer whiz, you'll need to learn what she's interested in. If she's playing with an unfamiliar game, give it a go yourself. You might find there are potential problems you never even considered. Most parents, Rosen observes, are "blown away" when they listen through the headphones on online interactive games, and hear all the participants talking.
- 'K'ommunicate. Unsurprisingly, communication is a key component to Internet safety. Family dinners are a good time to talk—but you need to make sure the world wide web doesn't intrude. Instead of banning phones and devices completely—causing kids to rush through the meal—put them in the center of the table for 15-minute periods, briefly checking on messages in between each interval. Lead by example; these rules apply to mom and dad too.
There's no special Internet for kids; it's up to you to teach your child how to log-on and use the online world safely. Ultimately, the goal is to make sure your child knows to come to you when she experiences a problem online. By starting early and teaching her to talk about technology from toddlerhood, you'll make it easier for her to trust you down the road.