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.