Robotson has recently made some virtual friends by getting involved in online gaming sites (specifically for kids, and with parental oversight). Navigating this online world is exciting for him because he can share his enthusiasm for robots, Daft Punk, and LEGO-like building creations in one place. It's like he's found his own little niche on the web. There are other benefits that he doesn't realize, but that I see. He's able to chat with other kids that only know him in his element. They haven't seen him meltdown because his emotions overwhelmed him. They don't know that he struggles to keep his temper from getting the best of him. They don't see the kid who struggles with self-esteem and finding his place in the social hierarchy. They just accept him as someone who is knowledgable because that is who he is in that world. And I see him growing a little as he finds his place there. I think anyone who has ever used the Internet knows how nice it can be to show only the parts of yourself that you like. It's freeing to have friends and family that accept your total self, but when you are still working on the hard bits and they sometimes overshadow your wonderful bits it's nice to have an escape. At least I've always thought so, and I think it's the same for Robotson.
That's not to say that I think being online is simple and without consequences; it's not. Fortunately both B and I are well versed in social media and have already discussed the most important aspects to keep our kids safe. Kids can be online, safe, and retain their privacy relatively easily if you follow a few basic precautions. Our house rules for Internet usage are as follows:
- No Internet devices in non-common areas. This is the biggest, most important, and will be the hardest to maintain rule. There will be no computers in bedrooms or behind locked doors. Unfortunately, with handheld devices becoming more prevalent it's going to be more of an issue. For example, Robotson already wants to save his money to buy the new iTouch. I don't mind his buying one, but he won't be allowed to take it to his room if he wants to access the Internet. We have the ability to block any IP address through the router so he'll need to make a choice. He can follow the rule and keep it in the common area or he can use it as a larger iPod. The number one way to keep kids safe is to know what they are doing. That doesn't mean I will stand over him while he chats, but it's hard to get into something you aren't supposed to when mom and dad could walk by at any moment.
- Use only age-appropriate websites. Many of Robotson's friends are getting on to Facebook, but he is not. By the terms of service you must be 13 years old to sign up, but that aside you are required to use your real name and we don't do that. Even if his account was locked down tight, it's still a risk. Nothing on the Internet is 100% safe. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ - none of these are for 10 year olds, IMO. Two sites that we have allowed the kids to become familiar with are YouTube and Blogger. Sometimes the benefits outweigh the risk, though we are still very careful. Robotson makes a lot of music and it can be a good tool for sharing his work - as is the blog. On the other hand, there are websites specifically for kids. The good ones have parental settings so an adult can choose the level of interaction. Parents don't get to spy on their kids, but they can familiarize themselves with the site and understand the environment. You can (and should) log in and look around to see that the site is living up to it's safety commitments.
- Teach your children about Internet safety and etiquette. There are a lot of websites for kids on these topics, but parents need to understand them too. B and I have enough online experience that we can help Robotson deal with trolls, avoid flame wars, not give personal information to strangers, and to take a breather when necessary. But we must also be empathetic and patient. Just like all parts of growing up kids need to be able to trust that they can come to their parents when they need help. If you aren't willing to listen when their online crush breaks their heart or while they rant about some troll that keeps bugging them, then they will stop telling you what they do online. They will make mistakes; help them learn from those moments and you'll both be better for it.
Here are some great sites to help you:
Webonauts Internet Academy
Internet Learning Lab
BrainPOP - this one is not completely free, but what is is still good.
I think the most important thing is to let them enjoy their online experiences and make connections with others. The horror stories we hear are the exceptions, not the rules. The Internet is too important and too vast to be kept from our children. Just be safe, open, and active with your kids and they should be fine.