Navigating The Good, Bad And Ugly In Your Child's Online World


What Every Parent Needs to Know

Unless your household is off the grid, you've noticed that hanging out online is an easy, entertaining and often irresistible way for adolescents and children to spend their time....particularly during summer vacation. And this is not all bad news. Let's take a closer look to see the good, bad and, yes, the ugly in your kids' online world.

According to a Neilson Online report, children from 2 to 11 years of age were spending 63 percent more time online in 2010 than they did 5 years previously. Their time online rose to an average of 11 hours (a week) for the month of May 2009 compared to just 7 hours during May 2004.

Increased Reading Pays Benefits, Even If it's Online

Perhaps suprisingly, even with this large increase in computer and Internet usage, researchers have found little evidence of academic harm done to children ages 6 to 12. Moreover one University of Maryland study found academic benefits for two groups: girls and African American boys. Both showed improved reading scores.

Only white boys showed a decline in their reading test scores as their screen time increased. Study investigators associated this finding with boys' greater tendency to randomly surf the web rather than spend time reading individual websites, as girls did. This study adds credibility to the perspective that it isn't the medium that matters as much as its message or content, with one caveat: it only measured test scores, not other aspects of learning.

The effects of "hypermedia"--all that clicking, skipping, and skimming between sites and pages--on a child's working and deep memory are also now being studied. There is evidence that digital technology may be diminishing the long-term memory that is the basis for true intelligence. How so? Hyperlinks and overstimulation mean the brain must give most of its attention to short-term decisions. Of course, there are compensations: better hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, and the very multi-tasking skills the machines themselves require.

Clearly, the jury is still out on how the digitizing of your child's world is affecting his brain. In the meantime, moderation, meaning balancing your child's online time with some good ole fashioned reading of paper books (page turning, not clicking) is an obvious excellent idea.

As I'm sure you've noticed, since Harry Potter, children's and young adult reading are enjoying a renaissance. It's now cool to read. As you also know, urban walks and museum trips, hikes in the country, swimming and playing outdoor sports are still essentials---it's just a matter of getting it all organized, a challenge for busy parents especially during the summer, but do-able with planning.

Too Much Ado About Nothing?

Skeptics of the dangers posed by the rapid increase of online use by kids rightly point out that similar concerns have accompanied each new technology. Something is always lost, and something gained, they say. Some evolutionary biologists claim (only half kidding) that the scholarly mind is a historical anomaly: humans, as with other primates, are designed to scan rapidly for danger and opportunity. If this is so, the Internet delivers this shallow, scattered mindset with a vengeance.

If It's Online, "It Must Be True"

The Kids and Family Reading Survey by Scholastic measured both the quantity and quality of kids' reading habits. One worrisome statistic was the finding that of the 9- to 17-year-olds surveyed, 39 percent agreed with the statement "The information I find online is always correct."

As most librarians and teachers are well aware, there is the persistent tendency for students (and some adults) to hold to this woefully wrong assumption. The antidote many teachers have found is strict sourcing standards for student research, whether online or off. Accounting for who said what and determining whether the content came from a credible source is a skill like any other learned in school.

The Safety Issue: Meeting the Wrong People in the Wrong Places

One random click and a 7-year-old who is looking for an "animal behavior" website can land on a site extolling a wholly different kind of behavior not suitable for his or her sensibilities-or safety. A 2010 survey of more than 2,800 kids and more than 7,000 adults in 14 countries about their online lives found that more than 6 in 10 kids had accidentally landed on web nudity and violence. Many also had a stranger make an online bid to meet them in real life. A parent's worst nightmare is, unfortunately, an existing social reality.

What About Posting Pictures and Data on Your Kids?

An Internet security firm found that no fewer than 92 percent of children in the United States have some kind of web presence posted by their parents by the time they are 2 years old. From photos to full profiles on social networking sites, parents say their purpose is to share with friends and family. Only 3.5 percent expressed concern that such personal disclosures might be available online for decades to follow. Should they be concerned? It's an individual call every parent has to make.

What's a Parent to Do?

Although 7 in 10 kids in the Scholastic survey said they would turn to their parents for help if something bad happened to them online, only 45 percent of parents acknowledged that their children may be having such bad experiences online. The facts present a starker picture than most parents apparently realize:

Around 41 percent of the kids had a stranger try to connect with them on a social network.

About 10 percent said someone they did not know tried to arrange a real-life meeting with them.

One fifth of kids said they regretted something they did online.

Five Internet Safety Tips

Parents are encouraged to set rules for their children's online use. With clear rules, consistently enforced, you can minimize disputes with your kids. This is one of those areas where firm parenting with clear boundaries is called for.

1) Not "friending" people unknown to them, including "friends of friends." This survey provides some reassurance on this point: most youth using social media are associating with people they already know in their offline lives. Texting, e-mail, chat, and online gaming have simply been integrated into their normal social routines.

2) Never agreeing to meet someone in real life without a parent.

3) Make agreements about how much private information the child will put on any web page or social media site. Always exclude home addresses, telephone numbers, social security numbers, and other data that might make the child or family members vulnerable to identity theft or other crimes.

4) For younger children especially, consider installing a content filter on a home computer.

5) Set limits for the child's daily Internet surfing time.

One safety issue deserves special attention.

The Cyber Bullying Problem

As we've all now learned from news reports about acts of targeted online harassment unleased by adults and other teenagers that have led to a handful of youth suicides, acts of cruelty have moved online. As a parent, you are advised to pay special attention to any evidence that a young person may be a victim of "cyber-bulling" whether your son or daughter is the potential victim or the bully.

It's true that this activity is an extension of other forms of bullying. But online harassment brings with it a high level of potential humiliation for its victims. High profile suicides and legal prosecutions of child and adult bullies have put this issue increasingly in the public eye. The take-home message is to report any such bullying actions to school and law enforcement authorities.

In sharing personal information online, youth are practicing self-expression and reciprocity at the risk of losing control over the audience for that information. Bullies are emboldened by the disinhibiting effects of online anonymity. Youth with mental disorders may be especially at risk for the negative consequences of digital living.

As with so many sources of enjoyment and learning for our kids, social media and the Internet are best used in moderation and with parental supervision.

For the latest scientific findings and interpretations on the minds of young people get The Complete Idiot's Guide to Child and Adolescent Psychology, a new book I've coauthored with Dr. Jack Westman, out July 5th from Alpha Books. Order it now, online or at your favorite local bookstore. See my "store" on this site for details.

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.