As a learning tool, the internet brings worldwide resources of libraries, museums and historical sites to your fingertips. You can tour the Great Wall of China, view the Earth live from the International Space Station or read historic documents from the Library of Congress just by landing on the right site.
This kind of access can help students with homework and make research papers shine. But there’s a lot of junk along the journey, junk such as websites that range from annoying to dangerous, bothersome or offensive ads, or misleading search results.
How can parents protect kids online while helping them learn how to search safely and identify reputable sources of information? Mike Johnson, Corbett Prep’s director of instructional technology, suggests focusing on these three areas.
Kid-friendly search engines: Several websites offer Google custom searches that direct students to child-oriented results and filter out explicit content. Kiddle.co and KidRex.org have the same simple look as Google with a fun spin. Others – such as KidzSearch.com – provide links to educational videos, games and websites in addition to the search bar. Kidtopia.info is broken down by subject area and indexes educator-approved websites.
Parental controls: Schools will protect students when they search at school with filters that block certain sites. You can take similar steps at home. Wireless routers, some designed specifically for families that work with your existing router, can help you manage what apps and websites kids can access and even set time limits for online activities. Look for a system that allows you to control multiple devices and customize access based on the user. Apps such as Norton Family can block inappropriate content and also give parents information about how their children are using the internet – the sites they access, the time they spend and the search terms they use.
Digital smarts: Filters can’t catch everything, however, and sometimes they block sites students legitimately need. The app Xooloo teaches students to develop good digital habits independently as parents monitor unobtrusively. A family rule to keep computers in central locations is simple and effective. Parents should also talk to their children about what they find online, helping them differentiate between paid and organic results, directing them to .gov or .edu sites for research and discussing the quality of writing on different sites. Does it sound informative or is it packed with keywords and no actual content? Does it have a bias?
Johnson, a Middle School teacher at Corbett Prep and a father, says he understands the temptation for parents to lock everything down but cautions that too many limitations will hurt students in the long run. No filter can block everything, and many kids will find a way around even the strictest controls. What’s more important, Johnson says, is to focus on what to do when they inevitably come across inappropriate content.
“They will see this content, whether it’s at a friend’s sleepover or some other social activity,” Johnson says. “We have a responsibility to teach our kids how to stay safe online and give them strategies to use when they do find themselves in these situations.”
By Courtney Cairns Pastor, Corbett Preparatory School of IDS
Originally published in the January 2018 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.
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