Some of the most popular gifts for children are electronic devices designed for access to the Internet. Laptops, tablets, cellphones, and iPods are common in every American home.
Many parents find their children are more adept at using these devices than they are. Kids can research projects for school or access information to learn about the world around them.
They use the Internet to connect with friends, play games, listen to music, and follow popular trends. However, parents must understand that the Internet can be dangerous for children. With a click of a mouse or a touch on a screen, children can be exposed to predators, "cyberbullies" and inappropriate material.
The following tips can help parents provide a safer Internet environment.
Understand the technology:Take the time to learn about the technologies and the different online forums: Facebook, twitter, instant messaging, email, blogs, etc. Create a profile for yourself.
Discuss:Explain to children that you want and need to know about how they are using these technologies. Inquire daily about their time online and share something about your own experiences that day on social media. This helps facilitate a daily discussion.
Monitor closely:Keep the computer in an open access part of your home like the kitchen or family room. Screens should be kept out of kids' bedrooms, with no exceptions. This can help you monitor not just the content of their Internet usage, but also the amount of time they spend online.
Privacy:Explain to your children, and remind them frequently, that anything sent online can be shared with the whole world. They must really think twice before pressing the send button. Make sure you review their privacy settings on social media.
Judgment:Encourage your children to use good judgment and care, not just to protect themselves, but also to be aware of how their online activities can affect others. Remind them not to bully, gossip, or spread rumors about others.
Tracking:Be where your children are online. Insist that you and your child "friend" each other. This shows your children that you are there with them online, supporting and monitoring. Create an open and transparent policy with your child that you will routinely check their social networking, emails and chat logs for inappropriate messages, images, content and even improper friends. Invest in software packages that will allow you to monitor and track the sites your child has visited. These technologies are not fool proof but they are a good start. Research your options for parental control settings through your computer and Internet provider.
Limit screen time:The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends total screen time be restricted to no more that two hours per day. This includes computer, TV, video games, cellphone use and texting. Consider a "media curfew" with all devices being put away or recharged during mealtime and at bedtime. Internet and social media addiction is a growing problem among adolescents and preteens. Parents should watch for warning signs: dropping grades, weight loss or gain, behavior issues, and skipping activities, meals or school work for screen time.
Multi-tasking:Parents should repeatedly stress to their teenage children the dangers of texting, talking on their cellphone, or using earbuds or earphones while driving. These activities are dangerous and often lead to deadly results, in addition to being illegal in many states.
Infants and toddlers:Children under 2 years old have rapidly developing brains, and parents should avoid passive screen time. Instead, focus on unstructured play and personal interaction to promote creativity, develop motor skills and problem solving.
Cellphones:Many parents struggle with the decision of when their child is ready for a cellphone. For most families, a major factor is the ability of parents and children to easily communicate regarding schedule changes or making sure parents know where their children are. Parents feel more secure with the knowledge that kids can quickly call for help in an emergency situation. However, the ability to access the Internet, make calls and text can result in major distractions that may affect school work, sleep patterns, and lead to other dangerous behaviors.
In addition, exposure to pornography is another danger for children using the Internet. warns Ryan Bettger, M.A., LPC, a licensed professional counselor at the Arlington Center in Arlington Heights.
"Kids are seeing things that they do not have developmental categories for," Bettger warns. "The consequences are frightening as the innocence of childhood and the beauty of intimacy are left traumatically mangled."
Research indicates that exposure to pornography by children results in a greater likelihood of having sex two years after their first exposure, and of being involved in sexual violence. Early exposure is a major contributing factor in sexual addiction issues.
"In my experience, predation situations are more likely to happen after a child has walked through the gateway of online pornography," Bettger said.
While all of these technologies bring opportunities for parents to improve communication and allow for learning opportunities, they require preparation and constant monitoring to ensure children safely navigate the online world.
• Dr. Adam Aronson, MD, is a pediatrician based in Skokie. The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only. Readers should consult with a physician to evaluate any illness or medical condition. Call (847) 676-5394 or visit www.kidsfirstpediatricpartners.com.