Trust, Empathy and Communication
When it comes to working with children to manage their online accounts, there are a few basic things everyone should ask themselves. It should be noted here that every child is different, so deciding on how closely you manage your child’s online accounts will depend on several factors. Is there two way trust between you and your teenager? Is there an open line of communication between you and your teenager, and is there a solid relationship of listening and understanding between you? All of these are factors in not only understanding what your child does online, but deciding how closely to track their online activities as well.
Ask yourself a few questions and answer them as honestly as you possibly can:
- Does my child come to me for advice and/or direction on life issues regularly?
- Does my child regularly communicate to me about how things are going in their school life and personal life outside of the home?
- If yes to 1 and/or 2, are these discussions rational and non-combative most of the time?
- Do I know what my child does online?
I do realize that some children are more secretive than others. It should be noted that all children keep secrets from their parents, and that many of those secrets are not dangerous by nature. I do want to make it clear that the questions above will help you perform an honest audit of how in tune you are with what your child might be doing online. If you answered NO to two or more of these questions, you may have a secretive teen. I should stress here that this doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. Maybe the child has an independent streak in them. Maybe they’re hiding something they don’t want you to know about because they think they’d get in trouble. There are a lot of possible reasons folks might answer NO to these questions. I will talk about mitigation strategies for secretive teens later on in this posting.
Start Early, Reinforce Often
Your child’s online persona may begin as early as age 5. Maybe they want to play flash games on a (very safe) kid gaming site such as Neopets, or maybe you’ve bought them a Webkinz plushy and they want to register their toy! It’s actually pretty amazing watching kids this age become savvy online; I highly recommend starting this process early if you have young children.
Here’s how to set them up for online social savvy at an early age:
- Help them create an account on Gmail or some other free email service
- Write down their account name, and their password, in a Notepad file on your computer.
- Save that notepad file to a USB stick, then either bury that file somewhere extremely obscure in your filesystem, or just delete it from your computer
- Now, create an account for them on whatever site it is they want to participate on, use their new email as the registered email address for that online account.
- Open your notepad file back up, and write down the account name and password of that new account you’ve created and save it back to your USB stick.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 for every account they want to create.
- Log in to a few random accounts every once in a while to verify that they have not changed their password(s). Log back out if you are able to log in.
Now, some of you are probably thinking “That’s great. What if I didn’t do that right from the start?”. You’re in a position now where you know your child has created online accounts and you’re not sure you can find out what they all are. Many folks are probably in a similar situation, so you’re not alone. Here’s where the trust and communication bit come back into play:
- Sit down with your child and explain to them rationally that it is your job as a parent to protect them from danger.
- Talk about how the Internet CAN be a dangerous place. Be prepared to have facts to back you up. You don’t have to scare the hell out of them to convince them, but make sure you do have a good rational argument.
- Ask them to talk about all of the online user accounts they have, and tell them that you need to know what the usernames and passwords are for those accounts. Start with their email accounts and continue working with them until you’ve got them all.
- Tell them that you only need to know this in case of major concern or in case of emergency. Electronic paper trails can be a powerful thing to have control over.
- Log in to those accounts to verify that they have actually given you the correct login credentials.
- Write their account name and password in a notepad file, save that file to a USB stick, and then bury that file in an obscure folder on your filesystem, or delete the file entirely.
- Repeat steps 3-6 for all of their online accounts.
Mitigation Strategies for Secretive Kids
If you think your kid might be engaging in activities online without your knowledge, here are some mitigation strategies that should allow you to figure out what they’re up to. Consider it this way: If you would not send your child outside on a cold day without a jacket, you should take the same care to protect them online as well! Here are some tips:
- Don’t allow them to have a computer in their room. Only allow them to go online on a computer in a common area of your home. This is a very effective mitigation strategy and is the first thing I would do to mitigate risk.
- After they have used the computer, go into the browser and look at the internet history and Cookies folders. There is a pretty strong electronic paper-trail that most children are not savvy enough to delete. You can look through the history file and look at every web site they visited during their session on the Internet. You can look in the cookies folder for site names that they have logged into. I will go into more detail as to how to read your cookies folder in a later post.
- If you check the Cookies folder and internet history files after they have used the computer, and both of those areas are completely empty, that means they have deliberately deleted their history right before they got up from the computer. This should raise a red flag that they are trying to conceal where they have been on the Internet.
- If you have done all of the above, and you still are not confident that you know what your kid is up to online, consider investing in a Parental Control tool. Which tool you purchase depends on what you want to get out of it.
- Some tools “block” or “blacklist” dangerous or obscene Internet sites.
- Some tools log every keystroke that your child makes on their keyboard.
- Some tools “whitelist” safe sites, and don’t allow your child to visit any other sites.
- Some tools only allow you to track activity on a single site, such as Facebook.
- You can find a complete list of these types of tools in our “Round-Up of Parental Control Tools for the Web.” An updated download is located on our Resources page.
- If none of the above mitigation strategies work, it might be time to restrict or disallow your child Internet access entirely. This should be a last resort when all other avenues have failed.
There is a lot more to say on this topic. I will touch on more advanced topics in future blog posts!