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December 16, 2013

Gift Your Kids with Love by Noticing Online Habits

Electronic gadgets have long been on the top of kids’ Christmas lists, and with the ease they bring to life, mobile devices are more popular as gifts than ever.  But before you hand that phone or tablet over, be sure to sit down for an honest talk with your kids about the responsibility that comes with being online.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and Cox Communication reveals that 56 percent of teens have met up with someone in person that they’d first met online. While I know you don’t believe your child would ever do such a thing, take a moment and imagine it. Even if your kid isn’t wandering around the dark Web, how normal would it seem to meet up at the mall with a friend of a friend they met on Facebook? Is this really an area where you want to risk the consequences of blind parental pride?

What’s perhaps more shocking is the number of parents who don’t monitor their kids’ activity online, and of those who do, a full 46 percent have given their kids the password to bypass the monitoring software. One Microsoft study found that 94 percent of parents give kids unsupervised access to at least one online account averaging at age eight.

Kids use creative tools to get around parental monitoring, which include creating multiple Facebook accounts and using services like Snapchat, Tumblr and Vine, where parents are less likely to hang out. (If you ever hear your kid referred to by a nickname you don’t recognize, you might Google it to see if it shows up as an alternate account name.) Public Wi-Fi hotspots are another popular way kids access the Internet when parents aren’t looking.

Image via Shutterstock

Other notable points from the NCMEC survey and a recent Pew Research report on teens and technology include:

  • Most teens readily share personal information online.  62 percent of teens have posted pictures or videos of themselves, friends or family online. About 20 percent of teens have posted their cell phone number online. 71 percent have posted their school name or town online, and 53 have posted their email address publically.
  • Teens do care about privacy. 60 percent have their Facebook profile set to private. Only 24 percent have private settings on their Twitter accounts.
  • 97 percent of teens in Virginia access the Internet using a mobile device, making it harder for parents to monitor Internet activity.
  • 61 percent of teens have received a personal message (an email, Facebook message or chat) from someone they don't know. 76 percent reported ignoring them.
  • Half of teens try to cover their tracks. 50 percent of teens nationally have taken measures to hide Internet activity.
  • Of the Virginia teens surveyed, about five-and-a-half hours are spent online every day, including time spent at school. 
  • Teens spend two-and-a-half hours playing online games in an average day, and 61 percent of them interact with other gamers online.

Setting time limits online is also an important part of safe Web use. Two generations into the Internet age, science is just starting to catch up to how our brains respond to all this interconnectedness. Shockingly, too much time online can impact our brains as negatively as cocaine, alcohol and meth. Internet addiction has become a recognizable disorder, as researchers have noted disruption in nerve conduits connecting parts of the brain associated with self-control, decision-making and emotions. Those suffering from the disorder spend time online to the detriment of relationships, grades and work and may experience withdrawal symptoms when disconnected.

Most of us want to believe the best of our kids, so it may feel mean or intrusive to ask about their online lives. But like sex and alcohol, online access is now a part of growing up, and kids need to know you’re watching out for their safety and health.

Edited by Blaise McNamee

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