Teaching your children to use the internet is almost like teaching them to cycle. For the first few days, you must push them around from the back, allowing them merely to keep their foot on the paddle. Then, slowly and carefully, you must release your hold and allow them to soar freely as you keep a watchful eye from behind. Finally, once you feel sure enough, you must learn to let go, respecting their independence and allowing them to figure things out for themselves. It is not an easy procedure, and there is more than one way to screw things up real bad. You may end up losing your ward’s respect, or worse, their trust. But if you do it right, just the way you should, you will have successfully introduced your child to one of the most fascinating inventions of the modern age.
It is true that there is no single cheat-sheet on how to introduce your kids to the internet. After all, every parent must do what is best for their child in their immediate environment. However, a few general guidelines, for you, the parent, can go a long way towards getting things right. You won’t believe how many emails I continue to receive each day from parents too afraid to allow their child to use the internet. They are so concerned, or rather, afraid, for their kids’ safety that they would much rather keep them from a magnificent discovery that has changed so many lives, than undertake the risks that come with. Yet others have spoken proudly of their parental intelligence as they snoop around their child’s every move, tracking their cell phones, reading their texts, going through their emails, all in a stupendous attempt to safeguard them from threats that do not exist, all the while curbing their independence and insulting their trust.
I have spoken to rather few parents who actually get it right when it comes to teaching their children about using the internet responsibly. Most of them are my own colleagues, friends from the Silicon Valley. Rarely do I encounter a person outside of the technology sector, someone with no professional expertise in the particular field, who understands the importance of teaching their kids to use the internet properly. In fact, many of the teenagers that I have spoken to can’t even tell the difference between advertisements and actual content, or know the exact distinction between a search engine, a website and a blog. Most of them have little or no idea how to secure their goings-on online, with no concept of data encryption or internet security.
Ignorant children make ignorant adults. Which is why, it is no doubt that when these children grow up to be young men and women, they still have no clue on how to use the internet right. Hell, they can’t even tell if a website or news resource is worthy enough to be trusted. Or tell the difference between content and advertisements, Or tell if a given connection is encrypted for privacy. They still use the internet, of course, every time they need to look up a new word or get a gist of the daily news. But without even the minimum know-how necessary for public and personal safety.
All that said, how do you teach your children to use the internet responsibly? There is no one answer. As a parent, you have better insight into the developmental maturity of your child than some techno journalist from far away, and no one is better equipped than you are to educate them about the internet in a way that is most developmentally appropriate. Every child follows a unique path into maturing into an adult. Some are more mature, understanding and well-reserved than others. Some tend to act impulsively and without deep thinking. As a parent, you must understand the emotional and psychological state of your child before you decide what kind of a conversation you want to have with them about the world wide web. To start with, let’s tell them what the internet is all about. If you’re talking to someone in junior school, you could say that the internet is like a spider’s web, beautiful and vast, full of individual people who contribute material to it. You could say that there are all kinds of people on the internet, both good and bad, and that while the web is generally a wonderful place with lots to learn, they might encounter certain things that aren’t generally appropriate for kids, in which case, they should log off and tell an adult.
As a child matures into the middle grade, it is important that they understand how to deal with inappropriate stuff like pornography or cyberbullying. While it’s never a good time to expose your kid to this kind of material, it is also no excuse to keep them away from the internet for simply this. As long as your child understands the way the bad side of the internet works, as long as they can tell which sites to visit and which to avoid, as long as they know what kind of company they should keep and what kind of people to ignore, everything will be fine.
As you have just introduced your child into the seamless new world that is the internet, it is wise to monitor their activity for a while before they learn what is best. Keep in mind though, that the aim here is not to be a helicopter parent. You should never pry on your children’s private conversations without their consent, nor should you examine their browsing history without letting them know first. It is imperative that you are upfront and honest with your child, so that they, in return, do the same. When I discussed this issue with the executives of parental control software mSpy, they were very clear about what kind of surveillance is okay and what is not. Informing your child that they are being monitored for their own safety and that it will stop once they have learned to use the internet well is okay. Unconscientiously sneaking into your child’s private life is not.