As parents, we do everything in our power to keep our children safe from harm.
The first time we bring our children to a public playground, what do we tell them before they run off? The two statements that usually top the list are: “Make sure I can see you at all times,” followed by, “Don’t talk to strangers.”
Do you remember the feeling you had in your chest the first time you lost sight of your child at a public playground for just a few seconds? I know what I felt. My heart pounding so hard that it felt like it was about to jump out of my chest!
One of our worst nightmares is having our child kidnapped, never to be seen again. So we make sure we teach our children never to talk to strangers or walk alone on the sidewalk or go to a new (or any!) location by themselves.
But in today’s rapidly changing, technology-filled environment, we are not providing this same guidance about strangers to our children as they play in virtual playgrounds. The moment we hand our children a digital device, we invite them to play in virtual playgrounds that are accessible via every smart phone, tablet, computer and gaming platform. These devices literally invite our children to talk to strangers, send pictures to strangers, send videos to strangers, and have live video chats with strangers, all from the comfort of their bedroom or any other part of your home.
As parents, we are socializing the fun and excitement that comes with using the latest technology of the day without teaching concepts related to cyber ethics. The topics of privacy, security, and communicating with strangers in an online context must be addressed with children as soon as we hand them an Internet connected device.
Every now and then I run into parents who tell me that their child is too young to be concerned with such issues. Or that their child would never meet a stranger they met online in the real world. Or that their child only plays a simple game or app and communicates with other players. So they have nothing to worry about.
Please don’t be that parent! Take responsibility that you brought a stranger (many strangers actually!) into your child’s bedroom and do something about it.
So how do we communicate the concepts of privacy, security, and strangers to toddlers and young children?
- First, create a place in your home where technology goes to bed at night. Just as you and your child need a good night’s rest to recharge from the day’s events, so too do the devices that have been used all day long. We go to sleep in our bedrooms, and technology should go to sleep in a charging area somewhere in your home, perhaps an area in your kitchen.
- Second, devices should never be used at night in a child’s bedroom. The first item we discussed helps mitigate this issue, but make sure you stick to it! Technology use in the evening when a child is supposed to be sleeping can cause all sorts of problems, including not getting enough rest, sexting, watching pornographic (and other inappropriate) videos, and video chatting with strangers.
- Third, have your child use technology around you or another trusted adult. Even if you do everything in your power to educate and protect your children, something still may happen. It is better that you (or another trusted adult) are there to explain what your child just saw, heard, or experienced than if your child was off in a secluded area of your home.
- Fourth, start discussing the concepts related to cyber security, privacy, and strangers when your child is three years old. Do you know what happens if you start discussing cyber ethics concepts with really young children and continue to reinforce those concepts? The concepts become ingrained in their minds. How awesome is that?! We can increase the chances of success for our children as they grow up in a world filled with technology.
Ben Halpert is the president and founder of Savvy Cyber Kids, a nonprofit organization, and author of the three-book series Savvy Cyber Kids at Home, available on Amazon ; see http://www.savvycyberkids.org for more info.