Stay informed and involved but keep your children safe online
April 21, 2014 00:00 By Gayathri Nair
Keeping abreast of a child's activity on the Internet is part of modern parenting
Even though Cecilia Zamira Louis makes an effort to be aware of what’s happening on the Internet, it is challenging keeping up with her three children who always seem a step ahead. They were on Line – an app that allows them to make calls and send messages for free – before she had even heard of it.
“There are just too many social media applications to keep up with. Of late, something called Line has come up and I realised my kids are on it as well. Whatever it is, I was quick to refer to my good friend Google so I’d know the basics of these applications,” says Louis, who knew from early on that she couldn’t keep her three daughters – aged between 12 and 19 – from the Internet. But she also realised her teenage kids would be vulnerable to negative elements in the virtual world, and she quickly took proactive steps to equip herself with the skills and knowledge to help them navigate the World Wide Web.
Apart from asking children “Where have you been today?”, modern parents like Louis have to also ask them “Where have you been on the Internet today?”
The 48-year-old secondary school teacher understands that her children now occupy two parallel universes – the physical world and the virtual world.
She understands her children’s attachment to the Internet, and that it is very much part of their lifestyle.
“My daughters are online constantly. They are fond of downloading music and games. While I think this is a waste of time, I still permit it, as it is just for entertainment’s sake. However, when they go beyond that and use the Internet for other activities such as chat, Facebook, file sharing and sending e-mails, this is where my concern grows,” shares Louis who took notice when her children signed up on Facebook.
“When Facebook took the world by storm, I knew I had to be on my guard every minute of the day as it opened up an entire new world on the Internet for my children. It was important for me to discuss with my children the pros and cons of Facebook. These days, anyone can be your friend on the Internet. All it takes is just a few exchanges of words over any chat client and before you know it, you have 10 strangers as friends on Facebook,” says Louis.
One of the parenting challenges today is keeping in touch with what children are doing online, especially as the young are so much more adept and quicker at adopting new technology than their parents.
“We are all trying to manage our children’s growing independence and doing our best to defend them from the many serious dangers on the Internet. By taking the first step in being interested in online safety and being willing to learn more, parents are off to a good start in understanding the online environment.
“We believe that in the same way we educate our children about other risks, it is imperative that we educate them about safe online behaviour,” stresses Josephine Hoh, country director of Symantec, a company that specialises in Internet security software.
When Louis set up her Facebook account, she made sure she understood the social media site’s privacy settings. Then, she educated her daughters on the importance of security settings, and taught them how to apply them on their accounts. Knowing that her daughters are aware of how they could protect themselves gives Louis some ease.
“This way, at least they know not to have open profiles or share their information with just anyone over the Internet.”
Louis is also a “Friend” with her daughters on Facebook, so she knows who their friends are.
“To me, Facebook has been a platform to reconnect with my old friends from school and to keep in touch with family members abroad. My eldest daughter has now realised this and uses Facebook for those purposes. But I still need to be wary.
“For a teenager, having a Facebook account can also be a popularity contest,” says Louis, well aware of the balance she has to strike between allowing her teenage children their social space and protecting them from danger.
Louis is wise to look out for her daughters, and her concerns for them are warranted.
There are three types of Internet risks – cybercrime, inter-personal problems and reputation/privacy issues.
“Cybercrime is a real, global and growing issue. Norton (a security software company) has conducted several global studies and interviewed thousands of adults and kids around the world. In the 2013 Norton Report, we found that 61 per cent of adults globally have already been a victim of some form of cybercrime in their lifetime,” says Symantec director of systems engineering Nigel Tan.
Louis takes prides in knowing about cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying and Internet flamers.
“Yes, I know what these terms mean and I think it is very important to discuss them with my kids. Some kids might have fallen into these traps and keep it to themselves. It can haunt them emotionally and mentally.”
She talks to her children openly about these issues because she wants them to have confidence in her. She thinks some kids are not open about their Internet activities with their parents because they feel adults “don’t get it” and cannot relate to their experiences.
Advertising executive Shereen Ahmad’s children are only three and six years old but she has already started teaching them about online safety. After all, they have their own tablets and are already navigating the Internet for videos, games and music.
“My six-year-old girl, Nadyne, knows YouTube and how to search for her favourite videos and which folders to go through to search for her games,” says the 33-year-old mother.
Although she grew up in the digital age, Shereen acknowledges that she has to make an effort to keep abreast of trends and developments online.
“I want to be ready for the next generation. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are popular, and kids like sites such as Instagram and Tumblr for updates on the latest trends and more,” says Shereen.
Her daughter is already talking about how her friends have Facebook accounts, and she wants one too.
“This is why we can’t deny our kids access to these sites. As much as we try to protect them, they will still find ways of accessing it through their friends. So, the best thing we can do as parents is to monitor, educate and limit their usages,” adds Shereen.
While she is happy to teach her daughter how Facebook is used, she has refused to open an account for her as she feels Nadyne is too young.
Shereen is also worried about issues such as Internet identity theft. Since her kids are already skilful at navigating the Internet, they may fall victim to such crimes as they don’t fully understand the works.
“I constantly tell them not to share personal details such as pictures with strangers and to only visit age-appropriate sites,” explains Shereen.
Although Louis and Shereen allow their children access to the Internet, they have set some ground rules on their technology use.
Shereen is worried her young kids may develop an addiction to technology.
“I believe a little discipline goes a long way. I allow my daughter to watch videos on her tablet only after she completes her homework. I also encourage my tots to run around the playground and smell the fresh air so they aren’t too dependent on their digital gadgets,” shares Shereen.
One of the ways Louis monitor her daughters’ usage of the Internet is to place the computer in a common area rather than in their bedrooms.
“Since our computer is placed in a common area in our home, my daughters have no choice but to use it where everyone can see what they are up to,” says Louis. It is to prevent her daughters from exploring the Internet unsupervised, as she doesn’t want them to visit sites with violent or pornographic content.
“It is not only to prevent unethical use of the Internet, but also because viewing such materials can be traumatic for any child,” explains Louis.
However, Louis is conscious she cannot monitor her children constantly as they can also access negative content outside their home, such as on their friends’ computers.
“I can only offer them advice and lead by example. But if they get with friends and wander about the Internet on their own, my only hope is they come and discuss their experiences with me. This way, I can at least be there for them and offer answers to questions they may have,” adds Louis.