Mark J. Kline, Psy.D.

1.  How old is old enough?

  • Very young kids have no business on the internet unless a parent is with them at all times. 
  • Some internet related activity,  like e-mail to a relative, may be appropriate for a small child in conjunction with a parent, as it gives you the opportunity to monitor and gradually teach about this medium.

2. No right to privacy for young kids on the internet

  • Elementary and middle-school aged kids, despite what they may tell us, are not endowed with a divine right of internet privacy.  
  • Parents should maintain passwords to all e-mail accounts and kids should know that parents will check in periodically, and more frequently if they suspect trouble.  Parents can also make it a policy for kids to regularly change screen names, email addresses, and passwords, to start fresh and remove potentially compromised addresses. 
  • The computer your child uses should not face a wall or be in a place where you cannot easily see what is going on. A family room is appropriate, with the screen facing the middle of the room.   
  • Computers with high-speed internet access in a child's bedroom or other private space are an invitation for trouble. 

3. Monitor your child's internet use frequently and carefully.

  • Make it a regular family activity to have them show you the sites and activities they like the best.  
  • Learn how the internet works and how to work the internet. Some of this knowledge can be acquired from your child, but you may have to do some learning on your own as well.  If you aren't willing to become savvy about internet use, your children probably shouldn't be using it. 
  • Kids are exposed to a barrage of fact-like data on the internet--they are often unable to discriminate what is credible from what is not, so they need adult assistance. 
  • Pay particular attention to downloading,  Is the computer left on for long periods of time, even overnight, unattended?  
  • Reserve the right to carefully inventory what kinds of files are on your child's computer. 

4. Protect personal information and privacy

  • Make it clear that certain information must never be shared on the internet.  This includes personal identifying details which could allow someone to identify, manipulate, or harm your child, including their real name, address, phone number, date of birth, , name of school, place of employment, social security number, home town and even their e-mail address. If strangers obtain your child's screen name and password, they can do tremendous damage. 
  • Make it clear to your child that they are not to send photographs or movies of any kind to anyone over the internet without your permission and oversight.  Once these images are on the internet, they can end up virtually anywhere, and easily in the hands of those with malicious intent.

5. Beware of strangers and in-person meetings

  • School-aged children should agree to report any contact with strangers on the internet to their parents.  Your child should understand that there are some potentially dangerous people lurking on the internet  It should be clear that some internet users represent themselves as someone different than who they really are.  While there are also nice genuine people out there, it can be hard for a child to discriminate between the two. 
  • In-person meetings with internet friends must be strictly monitored and overseen by parents.  I know of occasions where kids connected with others who had similar interests but lived in different towns, and became great friends in real life.  Usually this followed an in-person meeting, but in some cases they found each other on the internet.  Given the risks that an adult might misrepresent themselves on line and try to harm your child, you should insist that no such meetings occur without checking them out thoroughly yourself, and arranging to meet in a public place with an adult present, if a meeting seems acceptable.

6. Connection and communication with your child is essential

  • Don’t let internet connection lead to personal disconnection.  For some teenagers, the internet makes it even easier to live with your parents but never actually speak to them.  Withdrawal from parents, family, and in-person socializing is rarely a good sign, and should be discouraged and limited by parents before iti gets out-of-control.
  • Make your children aware of the fact that they may be exposed to upsetting and confusing things on the internet, even if they don't go looking for it.  The privilege of  internet use requires that they are mature and responsible enough to report  anything threatening, upsetting inappropriate, or potentially dangerous to you.  If you find that your child is unable or unwilling to do this, reconsider the internet privilege.  These days internet service providers are often interested to learn when they are providing inappropriate or harmful content and they may help if you contact them, as some courts have found them liable for some threatening and dangerous material.

7.   Collaborate to create an internet plan

  • You and your child should agree on a set of guidelines, and your internet plan should also review the specific, practical details of internet use, including: when your child will have access to the internet, and when access is prohibited, how long they are allowed to be online, and which areas are OK and which off-limits.  
  • Just as you would set limits on TV and telephone use, the internet needs to be limited as well.  
  • Too much time in front of screens is not healthy for growing children--other activities and outlets should also be encouraged.  

8.   Consider Internet Monitoring or Filtering Software

  • Although it is no substitute for parental involvement, software is available to monitor your child's internet use and limit their access to some areas of the web.  By some reports, a third of all parents make use of this type of software.  Be aware that software that monitors your child's activity within the browser program or AOL may not pick up what they are doing using other internet communication and file exchange programs.
  • If you choose to use this kind of software,  explain it to your children openly and in advance.  You should be clear about your reasons for choosing to take this step--not to punish your kids but to protect them from potential bad influences on the internet.  If your children appreciate this, they are less likely to feel spied on or intruded upon.
  • Some internet security software programs focus on restricting access to web sites that are inappropriate for kids.  Unfortunately, the sponsors of such sites are very crafty about changing their addresses slightly and they are sometimes able to stay a step ahead of the blocking mechanism.  Guardian's Monitor software instead allows you to examine every activity your child is involved in.  Ultimately, you can choose to restrict access, but knowledge of what your child is actually doing can lead to useful discussions and collaboration on internet matters. 
  • Consider using specific programs to capture random samples of instant messages.  Some versions of AIM have this built in, others are available such as IM Grabber. 

9.  Don't treat the internet like the TV

  • The internet is an inappropriate babysitter!  Stay educated and up-to-date about the internet, and don't assume it is a passive entertainment medium like TV.  With the internet, you bring a broad spectrum of risks and opportunities into your home.  Parental wariness, concern, and attentiveness is essential.

Dr. Kline is Associate Director of The Human Relations Service, Inc. in Wellesley, Massachusetts and a clinical psychologist in private practice. Through his work as a school consultant and clinician, Dr. Kline has become aware of the issues and difficulties that come up when children use the internet. Dr. Kline speaks frequently to parent and school groups on this and other issues. Dr. Kline can be contacted at HRS, Inc., 11 Chapel Pl., Wellesley, MA  02481, 781-235-4950.  Email: MKlinePsyDatcomcast [dot] net