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Understanding the Internet "Rules of the Road"

If the online world were a fairy tale, would the Internet be the big bad wolf?

That’s what many parents still worry about, but the reality is that the Internet is more akin to Goldilocks being ultra-curious about which bed to sleep in and porridge to eat.

In truth, we fear what we don’t know, which is why when it comes to allowing our kids to go online, we tend to pull the plug quickly one moment and blame it for everything at another. If we took the time to learn how to drive it, we’d find that it wasn’t so intimidating at all and much safer than even our worst fears.

Think about the words of wisdom you tell your child when learning something new such as driving: “Relax. It seems hard and overwhelming at first, but once you learn the steps and how to use the car and have some practice, it’s really easy and you’ll do great! There are a few things you do need to know to be safe, and that’s what driver’s education and practice are for.”

When a young driver learns to drive a car, there are 4 basic steps.

Step 1: Once proper age, register for a learner’s permit at your local registry.

Step 2: Take driver’s education to:

    • Learn the rules of the road and how the roadways work.
    • Learn the parts of the car and how they work.
    • Practice!

Step 3: Take the driver’s test.

Step 4: Congratulations! You’re a licensed driver and now can explore the roadways, following the laws in your state.

Learning to drive the Internet has similar principles.

1. Age parameters: Many sites now have minimum ages, especially social networking sites. This isn’t just to keep the site to a more mature audience but to protect our kids. Social networking looks easy, but it is actually a bit more complicated in the hands of a young teen. Similar to driving, young teens can be impulsive and a bit reckless. Pushing the age of use older allows teens to mature so when they do start using the sites, they are ready for the experience.

2. Technical assistance and tutorials: Learning to use popular Web venues is easy. There are manuals, books, courses, and online tutorials. The popular sites are all very user-friendly and designed to be intuitive and similar to many of our other online experiences. Once you understand how to use one area of today’s Internet, it becomes much easier to adapt to another. As a parent, learning the technology becomes not only essential so you can understand what your kids are doing but quite easy.

3. Fundamentals: Cars have parts and are run by keys. Web sites have sections and are usually run by passwords. Your job as a parent is to be familiar enough with the online areas your kids frequent to

    • Know the on and off switch.
    • Understand the navigation of the site.
    • Understand the privacy and safety features of the site.
    • Know the purpose of the site.

If you know these 4 things, you’ll be able to get around a site enough to see what your child is experiencing, and learn enough to have a conversation with your child about the site.

4. Know the roadways: The Internet doesn’t have a handy map system; it is interconnected via searching. If you understand just enough about how searching works, how to Google, you’ll be able to find your way around the Web and find out where your child is hopping to and from. You’ll also become more efficient in your own searches, which is an added plus.

5. Follow the rules and make sure your kids follow the rules: Just like there are rules to driving and laws, there are online rules, including

    • Etiquette
    • Age of use for sites
    • Age-appropriate content

One of the best lessons you can teach your kids is to follow the rules. If a site isn’t appropriate, don’t fudge the rule—it’s simply not worth it. For example, Facebook’s minimum age is 13. What lesson are you teaching your child if you allow him or her on younger?

6. The real world is off-line: Ideally, our online time will help us learn something about life to make our off-line time more fulfilling. To do so, we need to help our kids balance their media diets so that their off-line life still matters and isn’t completely consumed by their online worlds.

Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD, FAAP
Last Updated
CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media (Copyright © 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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