Still, as with many good things, there are also drawbacks. The Crimes Against Children Research Center has found that one in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log on have been approached by sexual predators via the Web. And we all know about the increased risks of identity theft, the opportunity for cyber bullying, and the number of pornography sites.
But don't lose hope! There are six practical steps you can take to help you guard your family from danger in cyberspace.
Step 1: Get motivated! Before you can set up precautions, you have to know how to navigate your computer and the Internet. You may find that your children know leagues more about your computer than you do. So use this opportunity as a bonding experience and recruit your kids to help!
Step 2: Put safety before trust. Too often parents determine not to monitor their child's Web activity because they want to show trust in their children. There are other ways to do that. When it comes to the Internet, it's not about trust; it's about safety. It may be that your child is being watched by a predator without even knowing it. And, if any irresponsible or illegal activity is occuring on one of the devices you own (including cell phones), it won't be your child who's held accountable for it - it will be whoever owns the technology. If something inappropriate is being viewed on your computer, that Internet service provider (ISP) is probably registered to you.
Just to make it clear how important the issue of security is, consider a scenario. Say your child has a friend over regularly. Though neither you nor your child view anything inappropriate online, the friend has been viewing child pornography in your home. If the content is traced back to your ISP, you will be held responsible. You have no way to prove it was the friend. If for no other reason than keeping your own name off any sort of watchlist, it is crucial to keep an eye on all technological activity in your home.
Step 3: Understand the risks. In a presentation on Internet safety in April 2009, Marsali Hancock, president of the Internet Safety Keepsafe Coalition, discussed three safety touch points involved with online activity.
Contact: Who are your children contacting through the Internet? Are they meeting new friends online? Making friends online doesn't need to be forbidden, but it should be monitored very closely.
Content: Are there any parental controls or filters activated on your systems? If not, guaranteed at some point your children will stumble across offensive pictures or articles. They don't even have to look for it.
Conduct: How are your children behaving online? It is not uncommon for well-behaved children to have a different set of behaviors online. So check in with them frequently about the importance of kindness, on- and off-line.
Step 4: Know what to look for. Protecting your family in the cyberworld is not only about the Internet, but all electronic communication. You'll want to set parental controls on all desktops and laptops, cell phones, games consoles, and iPods with wireless access. Parental controls should be available on all of them, and they should be utilized. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that only one third of U.S. households with Internet access protect their families with filtering or blocking software.
Still, your children can bypass the parental controls on their cell phones. And that Internet access is not monitored! Consider contacting your phone company to have cell phone Internet access blocked.
Step 5: Stay involved. Marsali Hancock also suggests you stay up-to-date with your kids. She warns, "If you're giving your kids privacy online, then everyone in the world knows what your kids are doing online except you." Here are three ways to stay involved:
Keep Current: Put an effort into keeping yourself familiar with whatever Internet involvements your kids have. Do they have Facebook or MySpace accounts? If so, then you need to get one too. What are their favorite websites or chatrooms? Make sure that you are spending time on those sites so that you can know what they're dealing with.
Keep Communicating: When all is said and done, there's only so much monitoring that you can do. It is important to communicate with your children. Help them understand the dangers of Internet activity and let them know what kind of behavior you expect. Also teach them about all of the wonderful resources available, and encourage them to seek out the content that will improve their lives. If they want to find a way around you, they will. So make sure that you're facilitating open communication.
Keep Checking: Do random checks on your child's Internet or cell phone history. They may have come across something accidentally; they may even be getting mean text messages. If so, you'll need to talk to them about what they've seen or read. Checking on them can provide great teaching opportunities.
Step 6: Make it a bonding experience. Make a family experience out of keeping your home safe. Sit down as a family and discuss your concerns. Allow your children to share with you what they hope to get from the Internet, and decide as a group what you want to do about it. Then, when you've come up with some goals as a family, ask your children to help you make it happen. Have them show you parental controls and look some up together. Then have everyone leave the room so that you can set the password. Parental controls are also available for game consoles, iPods, and cell phones.