mother and son using digital mediaWhen I was a child, I loved riding my bike. My brother and I would pretend we were motorcycle cops as we rode all over our neighborhood. We jumped off curbs, made our own bike ramps, and rode down the hill by the park as fast as we could. We rode for hours and hours. But those were the days before bike helmets, and we suffered our fair share of bumps and bruises, including the painful day that I crashed my bike into a parked car. That one hurt.

Even though I know through painful personal experience that riding a bike can be a potentially dangerous activity, it’s such an important skill (and it’s so much fun) that we have since taught our own kids how to ride a bike. The difference today is that we require our kids to wear helmets. And based on the scratches and scrapes I see on those helmets, this safety tool has served our kids well.

Many things in life are like riding a bike: healthy ways to spend time with the proper safety equipment. We make our kids wear seat belts in the car, strap into climbing harnesses at the rock wall, and hold onto the rails on staircases. Likewise, with the proper protective measures in place, media use (including Internet use) can be another safe and healthy childhood activity.

As you know from what you’ve seen on the family of PBS websites, children’s use of the Internet can have some amazing benefits. Never before have children had access to so many educational materials. But even though many parents of young children say media has mostly a positive influence on kids, media use is still a significant source of concern. So how do we help our young children enjoy the good and avoid the bad parts of using the Internet? As with any other potentially risky activity, parents are in the best position to help their kids learn and grow.

  • Search engines: Search engines are amazing, but they don’t filter the way parents would. For example, coloring books for adults have been all the rage the past few years. Just the other day, my 7-year-old daughter and I searched for coloring pages for adults. As you could imagine, some “adult” coloring pages showed up. Parents should be involved any time a young child conducts a search.
  • Inappropriate content: It’s good practice to have rules about what websites our kids are and are not allowed to visit. But despite our best efforts, it may be impossible to protect our kids from seeing some inappropriate things. In these cases, empowering them becomes the way to protect them. They need to know what to do when they stumble upon something inappropriate. In our home, we’ve had the sex talk before the Santa talk with our young kids. We’ve talked about what to do and who to tell when they accidentally come across inappropriate content. Conversations are key to empowering and, thus, protecting our kids.
  • Privacy: Kids are trusting by nature, so it’s up to parents to teach them never to share personal information online. Not their name. Not their address, their age, or their gender. And any apps that use the device’s camera should come from a reputable, educational source.
  • Over-sharenting: We want our friends and family to be able to see pictures of our kids, but research shows that many kids wish parents would ask for permission before sharing about them online. Kids may not always understand the consequences of sharing things online, but asking permission first shows respect, and it might actually help to teach children to be more aware of what they share online, too.
  • In-app purchases/advertising: Because young children cannot yet distinguish between an advertisement and other content, limit their app and website use to those without the option for child-directed in-app purchases.

Bumps and bruises, both literal and figurative, are inevitable in life. But we can protect our kids from many risks and help them enjoy the benefits of Internet use through our guiding efforts. In a way, parents become the helmet and the training wheels our kids need to help them learn to navigate the Internet safely. And through our consistent efforts, my hope is that using the Internet safely becomes a skill they’ll take with them into adolescence and beyond — a skill they’ll never forget.

About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

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