Let’s rethink how we protect our kids online

Column: The old tricks aren’t working, so Tara Paterson has drafted some new ones.

By , Columnist for the Christian Science Monitor

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    Spencer Lachance-Guyette works on a computer at the new recreational facility in Derby, Vt.
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The news about a study released this week that concluded that teens who watch TV shows with high sexual content were twice as likely to become pregnant in their teenage years came as no surprise to me.

I’ve always thought that entertainment industry executives who argue that TV shows, movies, and commercials have no effect on kids were just talking through their hats. While parents still have the most effect on their children, this new study by the RAND Corp. addresses some obvious questions:

How can kids who watch endless hours of television every day not be affected by what they see? If TV really has no effect on us, why would advertisers bother spending millions of dollars on commercials?

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And if TV has such power over children, imagine how they can be influenced by the Internet, a medium in which they don’t just passively watch, but often actively interact with what’s on screen or with other Internet users.

That’s why I like what Tara Paterson has to say about parents, children, and the Internet: “Kids are so smart on computers,” she says. “They can be doing bad stuff or looking at inappropriate images when you’re only standing a few feet away.”

As she points out, seven out of 10 youths have been exposed to some form on inappropriate content and 79 percent of it is viewed in the home.

Ms. Paterson, a nationally known parenting coach, and I agree that a lot of what we’re doing right now to keep inappropriate material away from our kids isn’t working.

Paterson likes to use a quote from Benjamin Spock: “In automobile terms, the child supplies the power but the parents have to do the steering.”

And when it comes to the Internet, that means you need to know what you’re talking about. For instance, Paterson says that the idea that you can just put the computer in a family room and you’re protected because you’re always around just doesn’t work.

Paterson has been trying to help parents understand what their kids are doing online. But reducing access to violent or inappropriate images is only part of the solution.

Paterson believes, as do I, that we need to be able to talk to our children openly about the kinds of images they might see or the words they might read on a computer screen. She says that parental discomfort over talking about certain issues, such as sex, contributes to the problem. But, as she says, if you don’t talk with your children about what they might find on the Internet and what it means, it’s all too easy for them to find someone else online who will.

So, for Paterson, step one is to establish a bond with your children and talk to them. You’ll be surprised how open they are to listening to what you have to say, Paterson says.

Step two is very important in my opinion: Parents have to learn about what is out there on the Internet that their children can find. And that means learning about things such as social networking (Facebook and MySpace), texting, IMing, and other online activities that occupy so much of kids’ time these days.

It also means learning how to look at a Web browser’s history page so that you can see where your child has been during their time on the Internet. Even better, it means being able to locate cookies (tiny files that are like passports to a website) that spell out pretty specifically what’s been happening online.

Let me put it this way: If your child decided that he or she wanted to play basketball, and you didn’t know a lot about hoops, you would try to spend some time learning about the game.

Well, in many cases our children spend a lot more time in the digital world than they do on a basketball court, so not knowing about that world puts parents at a distinct disadvantage.

To go back to the original point about reducing access, Paterson says parents should not be afraid to set limits. But they still need to listen to their children and encourage them to talk about what they want to do when they are online.

We’re not going to stop our kids from going online. But we can shape the way they spend their time there and help them gain enough awareness to make better choices when they are there.

In case you’re interested, Paterson has a book coming out in 2009 – “Raising Intuitive Children.”
You can also read more about her approach to parenting at her blog: intuitiveparenting.wordpress.com.

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