Parents have both a right and the responsibility to be totally aware of their child's online life, and the earlier you make that clear to your child, the easier it will be to enforce. A 2010 Pew Research study revealed that “the bulk of kids…are getting cell phones at ages 12 and 13 – right as they transition to middle school” and a 2013 study found that 95 percent of teens are online. And while the true incidence of sexting with explicit photos is probably less than 5 percent of kids online, we also know that at least 10 percent of kids report an unwanted sexual solicitation.
Here are two good reasons why parents need to stay on top of their kids’ online activity: Neither young children or teens are a match for a skilled predator; and adolescents have a mature sex drive managed by a not–yet-mature brain. And if you still need convincing, read this report prepared by the Crimes Against Children Research Center and see how many of the cases reported to law enforcement were uncovered when parents checked their kids’ phones!
Parents of young kids can set a precedent starting when their kids use their first electronic devices. Certain security measures are low-tech, like keeping the device chargers outside of the bedroom in order to keep devices off the bed, setting all passwords yourselves, and checking devices daily. The most readily available of the low-tech options is parent-child communication. Let your children know why you intend to monitor their on line use; little ones should not have independent internet access until at least age 12. Their first experience of your limit setting can be when they learn that your plan only covers a certain number of calls, or of you programming their phones limiting the numbers that they can call or receive calls from.
Continuing conversations about online safety provide countless opportunities to discuss your family values around relationships and sexual health, and safety with young teens and adolescents. Discussions about unanticipated solicitation, sexual and otherwise, lead right into a conversation about respecting other people’s boundaries, and being empowered to hold their own. A dialog about predators opens the door to conversations about the importance of really knowing someone -- online or in person -- before placing full trust in them. And when you get to the talk about sexting, don’t stop at the tech-based reminders that photos exist forever and can be shared beyond the intended recipient. Try having a discussion about how normal it is for young people to be confused about making any decisions about sex. Chapters 5 and 6 in my book, The Sex-Wise Parent will be helpful.
Good technology is readily available and should be used as long as it’s not a substitute for parent-child communication. The major wireless carriers offer parental control features for phones and web enabled tablets. They offer features such as GPS tracking, limiting internet access in both time and destination, blocking specific phone numbers for both incoming and outgoing calls and locking phones to cut off usage. Most companies offer these services with the cell phone plan at no extra charge.
New products are coming into the market selling parents additional security tools. Products offer parents the opportunity to keep track of all of their children’s online activities, including e-mail, texting and postings to social networking sites. These products might be considered as ‘training wheels’ for a young child, offering a little extra support to help them stay on balance as they learn to navigate. Older kids will likely balk at this type of intrusion, and will learn how to do as they wish using other technology once they are web savvy. This is not a black-and-white issue; for example, a parent may install security software, but agree to only check it with the child present so they can discuss anything questionable. Surreptitious installation can destroy parent-child trust and should be considered a last resort, only to be used when you fear for the child’s wellbeing.
While technology provides powerful tools to support online safety that parents must learn how to use, none of them substitute for maintaining an open dialog around all aspects of personal and sexual health and safety in your family and community. Discussing how you intend to keep your child safe online can provide another opportunity to foster the kind of discussions that can strengthen your family and help protect your children.
Rosenzweig is also author of The Sex-Wise Parent: The Parents Guide to Protecting Your Child, Strengthening Your Family and Talking to Kids about Sex, Abuse and Bullying. For more information, read her blog and follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.