CEO of IMSafer and board member of the Family Online Safety Institute, Brandon Watson, takes time out to answer a few of my questions about online chat safety for children.
At what age is it appropriate for children to begin chatting through community sites?
This depends on the maturity of each child. As a general rule, 11 is a reasonable age for a child to begin instant messaging.
Are there sites out there geared towards specific age groups?
There are a number of social networking sites geared towards children. Sites such as imbee.com and Famster give parents control over their children’s account and provide safeguards against predators. Some other good sites are ClubPenguin and Webkinz. Those two seem to be more palatable for kids, and prove the age old axiom that kids go where their friends go, not where their parents want them to go.
When is it appropriate for a child to have a computer in their room for chatting?
This is a decision that only a parent can make and varies by the child. But if you are not comfortable with your children alone in their room with a boyfriend or girlfriend you should keep the computer in a public area for the entire family to see. It’s much easier to have private conversations on a computer than on a phone, making it easier for things to get out of hand online.
What are some basic rules we should teach our children when it comes to chatting on the internet? Is there specific information that you should encourage your child to never give out?
Educate your kids on the reality of the Internet and talk to them about dangers when speaking to someone online. Maintaining an open dialogue is the key to keeping your children safe online.
When a stranger does start talking to them online and asks personal questions, kids need to be able to tell their parents and not get in trouble. A significant number of children say strangers have approached them online and not only did they feel they had done something wrong—they felt like they were in danger.
How do you keep your child safe from online predators?
I always advise parents use the following tips to keep their children safe online:
- Online safety should be a collaborative effort. Discuss it with your children, don’t lecture them
- Don’t put all your confidence in web filters. Remember they do not keep kids from developing relationships online
- Ask your child for help. Your kids spend all day on the computer. Who better to learn from than them?
- Make sure the tools you use are non-invasive. Remember that if your kids think you’re spying on them, they will find ways around being tracked
- Take action immediately. When you become aware of dangerous online communication, don’t wait to take action
What are some tips for parents for monitoring their children while still giving them their privacy?
Like I emphasize to all parents, online safety is a collaborative effort. When parents sign up with us at IMSafer, we recommend that they log into the account and show their kids what it allows them to see—that parents cannot access full conversations, thus giving the kids space they need to grow and feel independent. This way it becomes a team effort to keep children safe online rather than an adversarial relationship. You have to remember that even for a tech savvy parent, kids have more time than you do to circumvent the filtering software. If they do choose to work around your rules or software they’ll be left completely unprotected and you will be unaware.