Think: Internet safety

November 12, 2006|By Helena Oliviero | Helena Oliviero,New York Times News Service

Internet safety expert Parry Aftab begins her presentations by insisting that parents raise their right hand and repeat, "I am the parent."

They giggle at first. But by the third time, Mom and Dad get the message.

Aftab says one of the biggest mistakes parents make is not asserting their authority.

A former Internet lawyer and executive director of wiredsafety.org, a volunteer-run, nonprofit online safety and help group, Aftab doesn't suggest a "Just Say No" approach to the Internet. She says parents need to play a more active role in their kids' cyber activities.

"I try to teach parents to stay involved and read what their children are posting, and if your child won't let you see what they are posting, turn off the Internet," said Aftab, who works out of her New Jersey home and leads Internet safety presentations around the country.

We asked Aftab about strategies for parents dealing with teens and the Internet: Why do parents seem to be so clueless about teens online?

Because parents use the computer totally differently. They use it for work or to plan a vacation. Kids use it 24/7. It's alien to us, so it's pretty hard to be in charge of something that you don't understand. And it's moving so fast.

We buy things like the Xbox, and we don't even know what to look for, and we have to fit this in between making a living and picking up our kids at soccer.

If we don't know the risks of the Internet, how are we supposed to protect our kids?

And the kids don't come to us, because they are afraid we are going to overreact and turn off the Internet. If they don't come to us, how can we help them when things go wrong?

What can parents do to protect their kids from Internet dangers?

Say to your kids, `Let's talk about what you are doing.' Have your child teach you how to navigate the computer. Set up a dialogue and don't make it into this `You are going to die if you are on MySpace' lecture. Do things together online like plan a vacation, or build an online photo album or check the weather online.

If you keep that dialogue going, you don't have to attend my lecture. Your child may get pornography or get cyber-bullied, but if you have good communication, you will be OK.

What do you say to parents who ask you whether they should allow their teenager to have a MySpace account?

Your kids will have a Xanga or MySpace or another social network online. If they have a social life, or want one, that's the way they communicate.

But there's steps you can take to limit the amount of personal information posted. Ask your kids to see their profile page tomorrow. It gives them a chance to remove everything that isn't appropriate or safe, and it becomes a way to teach them what not to post instead of it being a "gotcha" moment.

Talk to kids about protecting their password and talk to them about not doing or saying anything they wouldn't say off-line.

Why do schools need to get involved with teens and the Internet?

Because kids are at more risk. The main concern is teaching kids to be safe, private and responsible, and it's a school's job to teach. You have kids involved in behaviors that are potentially risky and dangerous such as cyber-bullying - and that can turn into something happening on the playground or hall.

You have kids accessing sites they shouldn't at school. There're steps you can take to block some sites, but part of the solution also lies in getting the kids involved.

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