Increasing numbers of elementary school-aged children are socializing on the internet. Using instant messaging, email, chat rooms, and other techniques, they can communicate with school friends as well as strangers. Unfortunately, parents are often unaware of this “virtual social life” until trouble begins. To avoid problems keep the following in mind:
1. Internet socializing can be like any other unsupervised gathering.
It may involve harassment and foul language, scapegoating, bullying, teasing, and pranks. Some of this is in good humor, but children can easily feel hurt and ganged up on.
2. Internet Socializing can also be unlike traditional socializing.
The “remote” nature of online communication means that children typically don’t see or hear each other while “chatting.” The lack of non-verbal cues can encourage inappropriate behavior and misunderstandings.
Children may assume that the internet offers a private, safe means of sharing personal information, which can become problematic if private details are later broadcast publicly.
Children may also draw wrong conclusions about the identities and intentions of strangers they “meet” online--a potentially dangerous habit.
3. Learn about computers and the internet
Like any other appliance in your home, a computer shouldn’t be available to your children unless you understand how it works and the risks and benefits of use.
4. Be specific and emphatic about which personal details are absolutely restricted.
Children should never share their real name, address, telephone number, credit card number, social security number, birthdate, or any other identifying detail over the internet, even with someone they think they know, without your permission and participation. You can explain that this is to protect the safety and financial well-being of the family.
Violations should be cause for serious consequences
5. Monitor and supervise internet use by elementary school-aged children
The computer should be in a public room with the screen easily observable to others. Parents should have no hesitation about observing the child during computer use. If children feel this is an invasion of privacy, explain that privacy in internet use comes when they are older and have proven that they are mature and responsible.
Maintain the passwords to all email accounts and check them regularly.
The internet is an extremely poor babysitter, akin to leaving your child alone in a bus station. Restrict the activity to times when you are around.
6. All in-person meetings with internet friends are to be arranged by and through parents
While good friendships can be initiated and sustained over the internet, initial meetings must be carefully screened and monitored by parents. You should be very suspicious of any child whom your child "meets" online and who wants to arrange an in-person meeting with your child. Telephone the parents of this new contact and be present when the children meet.
7. Insist on basic social decorum for internet communication
Let your children know that you expect them to use the same tact, manners, and politeness on the internet that they use at home and in school. If your children are involved in any inappropriate interaction involving this kind of behavior, they should expect to tell you about it, and they should expect consequences.
8. Parents need to be informed if children are the victims of internet harassment
Joking and teasing among kids is normal, and different children have different thresholds of sensitivity, but when individuals are singled out for especially harsh or vicious treatment, parents need to be notified and involved. If your child reports harassment, learn about the episodes and attempt to contact parents of involved children, the internet service provider, or the police. School staff can be helpful in reviewing your options, but are not responsible for internet socializing which takes place away from school.
9. Don’t hesitate to restrict or remove internet privileges if problems occur
Parents should take firm steps when internet socializing interferes with family life, schoolwork, social life, exercise, or time management.
10. Consider Internet Monitoring Software
Some packages allow monitoring of all social discourse, so you would know exactly which messages your child sent out, and which were received. If you use one of these, be sure your children know it, and be prepared for them to use lots of abbreviations and code words that they may need to translate for you.
11. Know your child!
Some children can handle internet socializing responsibly while others run wild. Make a careful and realistic assessment of who your child is. Personalize your internet management strategy based on the needs and characteristics of your child.
Dr. Kline is Associate Director of The Human Relations Service, Inc. in Wellesley, Massachusetts and a clinical psychologist in private practice. He can be contacted at HRS, 11 Chapel Pl., Wellesley, MA 02481, 781-235-4950. Email: MKlinePsyDcomcast [dot] net