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Kids and technology: The new rules of online safety

Online safety provider Norton asserts that kids average more than 1.6 hours a day online globally.
Online safety provider Norton asserts that kids average more than 1.6 hours a day online globally.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than 7.5 million children under age 13 utilize Facebook, says Consumer Reports
  • Fear of the unknown often leads concerned adults to outlaw new developments
  • Parents can be a shield against negative influences and dangerous liaisons

Editor's note: High-tech parenting expert Scott Steinberg is the author of The Modern Parent's Guide book series and host of video show "Family Tech: Technology for Parents and Kids." A noted industry consultant and business keynote speaker, he frequently appears as an on-air technology expert for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN.

(CNN) -- Between smartphones, social networks, tablet PCs and Internet-ready gaming systems, today's families are more connected than ever, with schools, libraries and organizations nationwide increasingly rolling out programs devoted to extolling the virtues of technology. But in the rush to welcome new generations to the growing high-tech community, we're also making a grave mistake by doing perilously little to prepare children and adults for life in a wireless world.

Consider that more than 7.5 million children under age 13 utilize Facebook in violation of the social network's terms of use, according to Consumer Reports. More than five million of them are 10 and under. Many parents are even actively lying to help underage kids join the service, a new study in peer-reviewed online journal First Monday further reveals.

Upwards of 91% of tots are also now video game players, says market researcher the NPD Group, noting children between 2 and 5 years of age as the fastest-growing audience since 2009. They're followed closely by girls and teens, thanks to the rise of smartphones and tablets.

Online safety provider McAfee cites online music, movie and download sites as a major source of potential threat exposure for kids today as well, while mobile watchdog Lookout claims Android device users are 2.5 times likelier to encounter malware than just six months ago.

More disturbingly, rival Norton asserts that kids spend more than 1.6 hours a day online, 62% of whom have had a negative experience, but only a paltry 45% of parents are aware.

Behind the litany of frightening facts and figures (not to mention fears like those preyed upon in viral-video "Take This Lollipop," an interactive horror film that incorporates text and images from your Facebook profile) lurks a disturbing truth.

As wonderful a source of information, resources and new relationships as the Internet can be, even experts are still struggling to define rules of appropriate conduct and etiquette in a world of 24/7 streaming on-demand connectivity.

Blame the blistering clip at which technology advances. As quickly as new revolutions in social networking, multimedia sharing apps and location-tracking services now debut, there's barely time to begin seriously debating standards before another innovator has completely rewritten the rules of engagement.

Consider it scant consolation for many parents, with more than half of 5- to 8-year-old children now using high-tech devices according to nonprofit Common Sense Media. Even more so for caregivers of college students, 78% of whom alone have been exposed to sexually-explicit text messages per studies conducted by the University of Rhode Island.

Thankfully, the future remains bright regardless.

Widespread community outreach programs designed to keep innocent adults from inadvertently spamming strangers with pictures of their kids on Facebook and neighborhood cyberbullying support groups still remain a distant dream. But for parents hoping to bring a little poise and rationality back to the growingly digital and always-on 21st century lifestyle, a few simple common sense rules can help.

Educate yourself

Repeat the following phrase to yourself as many times as it takes to sink in: Homework isn't just for kids.

Dozens of new services, apps, games, gadgets and online destinations launch weekly, all of which offer myriad options for connecting, communicating and interacting or sharing information. Other existing platforms and devices are constantly being refined and updated, or leveraged by users in new and inventive ways.

Only by actively taking an interest in and researching new developments, features and upgrades can one hope to keep abreast of the shifting tides.

Fear of the unknown often leads well-meaning and concerned adults to outlaw, block or ignore new developments in hopes that the perceived problem will simply go away. But parents, like kids, are better served by willingly immersing themselves in the product, service or title in question for purposes of education and become better equipped to make sound decisions given the benefit of firsthand experience.

Not only do direct studies help you better understand where potential upsides and downsides or misuses of the technology in question lie. They also provide a sense of perspective as to how kids' actually utilize the platform or product in question and give a more accurate picture of age-appropriateness based on children's individual development levels.

By paying attention to high-tech topics of interest to children, your family may also enjoy added benefits. Enabling more informed and constructive dialogue, genuine curiosity on a parent's part shows children that you take an active interest in activities that are important to them.

Active involvement further provides an opportunity to bond over shared subjects of interest. You won't always agree with the options available, or appreciate "helpful" suggestions made by kids' playground buddies or older siblings.

But you owe it to yourself, and your children, to keep a curious and open mind. It's the least we ask of today's youth, and trying to ignore the steady, inexorable advance of progress is like attempting to hold back the ocean with a rusty bucket.

Take advantage of existing tools

A variety of helpful resources including content-rating systems, usage-tracking apps and software such as Net Nanny and Web Watcher, which filter and oversee Web and search results and usage, are readily available on all platforms.

Operating systems like Apple OS X Lion and Windows 7, popular devices such as the iPhone and iPad and video game consoles (e.g. the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360) offer built-in parental controls. (Optional password-protected software settings can regulate access to specific content or even hardware itself by age-appropriateness, Internet connectivity, preset schedules and time-limited usage levels.)

Many software programs and virtual worlds further come with attached age warnings and descriptors and provide integrated options to block Internet access, limit socializing to approved friends lists only, automatically scrub salty language or confine interactivity to kid-friendly activities.

All offer a base line of defense, helping you prohibit online spending, block inappropriate material and keep an eye on how and when kids are enjoying online access. Strictly reactive measures though, such tools alone are insufficient guardians, as enterprising sprouts can often circumvent restrictions, whether by substituting slang for more common words ("hookup" instead of "dating"), or accessing questionable content from more laissez-faire friends' houses.

Therefore it's also vital that you personally sample products and media (easily accomplished via hands-on demos and free trial accounts), discuss their dangers with children and make a point of maintaining ongoing conversation with kids' about online activity.

To prevent $1400 iTunes bills, it's equally important to teach kids how online shopping opportunities work, utilize mobile devices' built-in purchase-blocking functions and regularly monitor credit card and billing statements as well. Similarly vital to positive growth and development is to foster a supportive household environment wherein children feel free to discuss anything questionable or disturbing that they encounter online.

Parents can, and should be, a shield against negative influences and dangerous liaisons. But as martial arts advocates have long counseled, a better approach to battle is not to stop, but rather redirect the force of an opponents' attack. Instead of trying to build walls against the outside world, which can be easily skirted (or may crack under pressure), it's better to provide healthy detours and a road map to more positive routes via informed insight and suggestion.

Set and enforce limits

As an added rule of thumb, it's also best to keep screens out of kids' rooms. To this extent, computers, gaming systems and other connected devices should be confined to common areas. Doing so not only allows you to keep abreast of online activity, it also lets you be present when devices are used, monitor playtime and keep kids from secretly sneaking online to play "World of Warcraft" at 3 a.m. on a school night.

Similarly, house rules should be set and agreed upon as to what content is appropriate, when and how high-tech devices can be used and hours and occasions (e.g. dinner or shared family time) during which access to these gadgets is prohibited.

Specific time limits on usage should also be set, with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending that you limit kids' use of screen time on all platforms to no more than one to two hours per day.

Some parents further recommend that time spent in front of high-tech toys shouldn't be provided as an inalienable right, but rather earned as privilege. Under such a scenario, screen time might be provided as a reward for good behavior, superior performance at school or getting chores done around the house.

Keep the real and virtual worlds separate

Truth and online identity seldom go hand-in-hand. On Google+, Twitter or Facebook, as in popular massively-multiplayer virtual worlds such as "Free Realms" or "MapleStory", as a rule of thumb, everyone's playing a character. No matter how authentic your cyberspace friends may seem, the same rules of conduct and etiquette that apply to interaction in any public space should also be respected in online areas.

Note that many meaningful relationships can and do form online, and to prohibit Internet access entirely would be to rob children of exposure to a wealth of horizon-expanding individuals and influences.

But as in the real world, an ounce of prevention far outweighs a pound of cure. With grown criminals easily capable of posing as innocent grade-schoolers or sunny teens, you never know who's who out there in a sea of splashy headshots or 3D cartoon avatars.

Paranoia pays, insofar as guarding against identity theft, inappropriate material and sexual predation is concerned. Start by communicating openly and honestly with your children and educating them about the possible dangers.

Sites like ConnectSafely.org, WiredKids.org and SafeKids.com make welcome beginning points for discussing possible pitfalls surrounding social networks, instant messengers and online environments. Other basic rules worth remembering for kids and adults include:

-- Never give out personal information such as your name, address, hometown, birthday, school or telephone number online. Never upload pictures or video of yourself onto the Internet or to an online service where they can be accessed by individuals you don't personally know. Never tell people where you're currently located, going soon or planning to visit in the future, including when and where you're headed out for vacation.

-- Don't download pictures, click on e-mail attachments or visit unsolicited web links from an unknown source, and be skeptical of those that arrive from friends bearing suspicious titles or arrive without advance warning.

-- Take everything with a grain of salt, and be skeptical as to the truth of what's said online. Avoid face-to-face meetings with individuals you've met online without supervision from a chaperone, and even then, be wary of possible real-world contact.

Kids who are subject to cyberbullying and harassment are at a special risk. No more clearly are dangers evidenced than by the recent suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a teen whose struggles with sexuality were mercilessly ridiculed online.

Victims of online bullying, which is an illegal offense, are encouraged not to respond and egg aggressors on, and, rather than delete, actually save evidence of all disturbing communications for law enforcement's benefit.

Ultimately, as with other concerns surrounding online activity, it's a parent's responsibility to keep watch for telltale warning signs of both cyberbullying and online addiction.

If you're concerned that your child is exhibiting signs of either problem, it's important not to simply dismiss reservations. Instead, monitor behavior patterns, keep detailed notes and don't hesitate to reach out for qualified professional help where appropriate.

Happily, a growing number of healthcare practitioners, treatment centers and law enforcement bodies are actively working to address such concerns and stand ready to provide aid if issues arise.

Despite its growing ubiquity, the Internet still remains a vast, wild and largely untamed frontier. But it can also be a wonderful source of learning, social interaction and entertainment for all ages.

Parents and kids simply need to know the hazards to look for and educate themselves as to the new rules of engagement.

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