Dear Mr. Dad: My 9-year old son is pretty computer savvy and my wife and I haven't had much issue with letting him use the computer on his own. He likes to play games, visit a few sites, and read online comics. I've been hearing more and more about the threats on the Internet, and both my wife and I are becoming more concerned that we might be letting our son put himself in some dangerous situations without knowing it. What can we do to make sure he stays safe while he's online?
A: You're right to be worried. The Internet is filled with tons of information (some of which is actually accurate), and all sorts of things to improve our lives. But as hard as it is to imagine life without the Internet, we sometimes forget that it can be an incredibly dangerous place, home to any number of threats, from identity thieves to viruses and pedophiles. You wouldn't let your child go outside alone without a firm understanding of basic safety rules (don't talk to strangers, look both ways before you cross the street, etc.), right? So why would you let him go online without having similar boundaries in place?
Before you can establish any rules for your son, you and your wife should spend some time reading about cyberbullying, predators, and everything else that make up the Internet's dark side. Once you've scared yourselves half to death, you may never want to allow your son (or yourself) to go near a computer ever again. But since that's not very practical, you'll need to establish firm guidelines.
Start by identifying some safe browsers and search engines. If you need some guidance, Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.com) has some great recommendations. Next, talk with your son about responding to online requests for personal information. Make sure he understands that he should never use his real name or give out seemingly harmless information such as his address or phone number. He should also never give his passwords to anyone but you.
You're not going to be able to get away with, "Don't do this" and "Stay away from that." So be sure to explain why you're setting up those rules and what the consequences are for breaking them.
Talking with your son is only half the battle. You and your wife have some important work to do as well. Begin with moving your son's computer (or yours, if he uses it) to a place in the house where you can supervise. You don't have to stand over his shoulder and track every keystroke (there are programs that do that for you, if you decide to go that route), but your son should not be alone while he's online on the computer, tablet, phone, or any other connected device.
In addition, insist that your son friend you on Facebook and other social media and that he give you his email and online passwords. All of them. He'll complain that you're invading his privacy, but don't cave. It's your responsibility as a parent to know what your son is doing, and sometimes being nosy is just part of that responsibility.
When it comes to the Internet, there's really no such thing as being too cautious. As your son gets older and proves that he's behaving safely and thoughtfully, you can relax - but not eliminate - some of the rules. But until then, be aware, be informed, and pay attention.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at DadSoup.com, send email to email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @mrdad)