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When Is My Child Ready
to Go Online?

(Excerpted from Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace by Donna Rice Hughes)

While going online together is a wonderful opportunity to instill cautious and responsible use of the Internet into your child, I realize that this may not be a realistic option for many parents. So let me just suggest that whenever possible, join your child as he or she explores the valuable resources on online. If your child knows more about getting around the Internet than you do, ask him or her to be your guide! This is a great way for you to empower and build self-confidence in your child. Sharing the experience of surfing the Net is an effective, proactive parenting technique.

Very little formal research has been done to identify how information technology affects children of different ages and when is the best time to start various activities, such as computer usage. But common sense tells us that younger children need more supervision than older ones.

Ages Four to Seven

Children at this age begin to make greater use of computer games and educational products. Older children in this age range, with their parents, may also begin exploring online children's areas. Children learn intuitively and quickly, but at this age they still depend on parents for reading and interpreting directions.

Between the ages of four and seven, children begin to form their first friendships, grasp the basics of gender differences, and acquire morally relevant rules and behaviors. This is a good time to begin talking about rules for using the computer and going online.

Spend as much time as you can with your child while he or she uses the computer. Print work your child has done on the computer or resources he or she has found on the Internet. You and your child should have the same address, so you can oversee his or her mail and discuss correspondence. Check with your child's teachers and librarians for suggestions for good online activities.

Ages Eight to Eleven

At eight to eleven years of age most children begin to directly encounter and appreciate more fully the potential of online experiences. For example, they can begin to use online encyclopedias to do research and download graphics and photos for school reports. They may correspond via e-mail with pen pals around the world. They may also be exchanging information with faraway relatives and online friends. Be aware of your child's e-mail habits and do not allow correspondence with strangers. Get to know your children's online friends just as you would get to know their friends at school or in the neighborhood. Remember, even in cyberspace, the most vulnerable children are those with low self-esteem. Encourage your children to find friends and interests outside of the Internet.

Set clear guidelines as to how much time is spent online. Even if a child's online experience is educational, recreational, and enriching, relating to a machine will never offer the benefits of relating to other people face-to-face.

Children between the ages of nine and eleven are the most likely victims of child sexual abuse. Make sure that your child is aware that not all "friends" whom he or she meets on the Internet will be well meaning. Teach your child to end any experience online when he or she feels uncomfortable or scared by logging off and telling you or a trusted adult as soon as possible. Discuss the unique aspect of anonymous behavior in cyberspace and what it means for your child and others. Explain to your child that many of the people that he or she will meet on the Internet do not use their real identities. For example, a man may identify himself as a woman, or, in some cases, adults may attempt to pass themselves off as children. Explain that while these actions may seem funny and harmless, many children are often seduced and lured into dangerous situations by such predators.

As your child moves toward independence, you need to stay "hands-on" and help guide him or her to appropriate online content. Children of this age are also prime targets for programmers and advertisers. Help your child evaluate content and understand what's behind advertising. Discuss the difference between advertising and educational or entertainment content. Show your child examples of each. Begin to show your child the difference between sources of information that are credible and those that are not.

Ages Twelve to Fourteen

Adolescents are capable of using the sophisticated research resources of the Internet, accessing everything from the Library of Congress's collection of magazines and newspapers to letters and archives from around the world.

Just as most teenagers are interested in chatting on the phone, many will want to be involved in chatting online. However, these areas are often the playgrounds of pedophiles, criminals, and unscrupulous marketers who may target your child.

According to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, thirteen- to fifteen-year-old teenagers are at the greatest risk of sexual exploitation by Internet predators.

While you (and your teen!) may feel that he or she doesn't need the same restrictions that are placed on younger children, I want to encourage you to consider the risks of allowing your teenager unlimited Internet freedom. This age group is more likely to explore the Internet and reach out to people outside their peer groups, which increases the likelihood of being preyed upon by sexual predators.

Parents must set up clear rules for teenagers. This means agreements about Internet access at and away from home, time limits, and periodic check-ins. Help your child understand the laws governing online behavior (including pornography, predators, and stalking) and the consequences to them or anyone else for breaking them. Remind your son or daughter that possession, distribution, and production of some pornographic material is illegal. Ask your teenager very specific questions like:

  • Have you seen any pornographic pictures?
  • Has anyone online talked dirty to you?
  • Have you met anyone online whom you don't know?
  • Has anyone asked you for personal information?
  • Has anyone asked to meet you in person?

Ages Fifteen to Nineteen

Teenagers often want to have a computer in their bedroom. In spite of a teenager's need for privacy and independence, I do not recommend that a computer with Internet access be placed in his or her bedroom. It's very difficult for a parent to monitor a teen's online activities when the computer is behind a closed door. Some parents have reported seeing a blue glow coming from under their teen's door in the middle of the night. Later when they received their phone bill, they put the puzzle together and discovered unauthorized computer use. When it comes to Internet access, keeping the computer in a common area of the home is the safest option.

Older teens can use the Internet to search for information about job opportunities, internships, and colleges or universities. With their increased skills, curiosity, and freedom come more ways to run into undesirable and even dangerous experiences. Parents must find creative ways to stay in touch with their teenage children about online activities. I highly recommend following the above guidelines (for the 12-14 preteen) for your older teenager.

( Adapted in part from Parents' Guide to the Information Superhighway, The Children's Partnership)


© 2001 by Donna Rice Hughes. Request permission if you wish to reprint or post.