This is the final installment of my 10-part series of essays that have coincided with “Internet Safety Month.” Many of these essays have focused on the variety of parental controls tools on the market that can help parents better control, or at least monitor, their children’s Internet usage or online communications. (See parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.) Other essays focused on the importance of education, building public awareness, and the need for stepped-up law enforcement efforts aimed at prosecuting online predators. (See parts 7, 8, and 9).
In this final installment, I want to focus on what I believe is the most important—and most frequently overlooked—part of the parental controls and online safety discussion: Good parenting!
Specifically, it is important to realize that many household-level rules and informal parental control methods exist that represent the most important steps that most parents can take in dealing with potentially objectionable content or teaching their children how to be sensible, savvy media users. Indeed, to the extent that many households never take advantage of the many technical tools I outlined in earlier essays, it is likely because they rely instead on the informal household media rules and strategies discussed below.
Household Media Consumption Rules
Household “media consumption rules” are a very important part of any online child safety strategy. A 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that “Almost all parents say they have some type of rules about their children’s use of media.” For example, a different Kaiser survey of families with infants and preschoolers revealed that 85 percent of those parents who let their children watch TV at that age have rules about what their child can and cannot watch. Of those parents, 63 percent say they always enforce those rules. About the same percentage of parents said they had similar rules for video game and computer usage.
Parents use a wide variety of household media consumption rules. Some can be quite formal in the sense that parents make the rules clear and enforce them routinely in the home over a long period. Other media consumption rules can be fairly informal, however, and are enforced on a more selective basis. Regardless, these household media consumption rules can be grouped into three general categories: (1) “where” rules; (2) “when and how much” rules; and, (3) “under what conditions” rules.
(1) “Where” Rules: One of the most important steps that parents can take to better control their children’s media usage is to establish firm rules regarding where their children can do so. For example, parents can assign a specific television or computer for most media usage and then take steps to ensure that those devices have screening or filtering controls installed and programmed. Additionally, parents can require that their children consume media (TV, Internet, video games, etc.) in a specific room or area of the house where they can keep an eye or ear on what their kids are doing.
At a minimum, parents can start by at least getting televisions, computers, and game consoles out of kids’ bedrooms so they can monitor what is going on. According to a Kaiser survey, 68 percent of 8 to 18 year-olds have televisions in their bedrooms and 31 percent have computers. Parents who let their kids lock themselves in their rooms with media devices have surrendered their first line of defense in protecting their children from potentially objectionable content. Luckily, the reverse appears to be true for computers. A 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey of teenage media usage revealed that 74 percent of homes with teenagers have their computers in an “open family area.” That result was consistent with Pew surveys taken in 2004 and 2000.
(2) “When and How Much” Rules: Parents can also limit the overall number of hours that children can consume various types of media content, or when they can do so. (Several technological tools mentioned in my essay on monitoring tools can help parents accomplish this.) For example, parents can impose restrictions on the times of the day that children can consume media with rules like, “No Internet after 8:00 PM.” The Pew Internet & American Life Project survey mentioned above found that 69 percent limit how much time their children can spend online.
(3) “Under What Condition” Rules: “When and how much” rules represent a carrot-and-stick approach to media consumption / exposure. Parents can incentivize their children by requiring that other tasks or responsibilities be accomplished before media consumption is permitted. For example, many of us are familiar with this very common household media rule: “You have to finish your homework before you get to watch any TV.” Similar rules can be used for computer- and Internet-related activity.
More creatively, parents can formulate a “media allowance” for their children (especially as they get older) to allow them to generally consume the media they want but only within certain boundaries. Again, incentives can be used with this approach. For example, better grades at school might be rewarded by adding one more hour of media time to their overall weekly media allowance.
The Importance of a Good (Media) Diet
The efforts described above represent commonsense approaches parents can use to establish basic ground rules about how media are consumed in the home. But what about the substance of the media that are being consumed within these preestablished boundaries? This might constitute a fourth category—“what” rules—that could be added to the list of informal household media rules listed earlier. For example, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 77 percent of parents already have rules for which TV shows their kids can watch, 67 percent have rules for the kinds of video games they can play, and 85 percent have rules about which Internet websites they can and cannot visit.
How can parents do more to encourage their kids to consume media that they feel are appropriate and enriching? Although every family will have a different set of values and preferences, when it comes to media consumption, parents need to think about what constitutes a sensible “media diet” for their own families. Toward that end, parents should consider taking a “food pyramid” approach to media consumption: Teach kids the importance of a balanced media diet while also teaching them the types of things that you think they should probably avoid altogether.
The federal government has a recommended food pyramid for nutritional purposes, of course. But just as government doesn’t enforce the food pyramid through regulation, neither should it enforce a media food pyramid through mandates or restrictions. In fact, we don’t need the government to tell us what is in a “media food pyramid” at all. This is something that parents can do quite effectively on their own, especially in light of the differing values each household will bring to the job.
A family’s media food pyramid might have specific time allotments and recommended “portions” of different types of content. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one or two hours of “screen time” per day, but families might vary that depending on their desires and their children’s ages. Once parents decide roughly how much media they will allow their children to consume, they can determine what are the best portions to be served.
Again, every family will bring a different set of needs and values to this task. And the needs of children will vary by age. The proper media diet for a 5-year-old will be much different from that of 15-year-old. In other words, no two family media diets will be the same. The bottom line: While different families will always have different values and approaches, there is something to be said for a balanced diet when it comes to media consumption, just as is the case with child nutrition.
Finally, it should be stressed that not everything in a family’s media diet must be completely educational in character. Sometimes parents and kids just want to relax and enjoy various types of entertainment, whatever they may be. A certain portion of every family’s media diet, therefore, will be non-educational media content—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Teaching Good Etiquette in a Multimedia World
One of the most important parenting responsibilities involves teaching our children basic manners and rules of social etiquette. For example, we teach them proper dinner table manners, to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, to hold doors open for others, or simply to say “thank you” when given something. When we become parents, no one from the government gives us a handbook instructing us to do all this. Rather, these are social conventions that come to us naturally, just as they did with our parents and the generations of parents that came before them.
These informal social rules of etiquette are essential to well-functioning civil society. And it is commonly understood that these are “rules” that families, communities, and other social groups or institutions are primarily responsible for instilling in children. Few would seriously argue that government should have a role in mandating proper etiquette in a free society.
Why should it be any different for media usage? It shouldn’t. Proper online etiquette is a private responsibility, albeit one that is probably not taken as seriously as “offline” etiquette. Again, most parents repeatedly drill basic manners into their kids until it’s clear that they “get it.” Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for online manners. This might be the case because the Internet and digital communications technologies have taken the world by storm and caught the current generation of parents a bit off guard. Unaccustomed to using modern computing or communications devices, some parents may be neglecting their duties in terms of teaching good online etiquette. Of course, as a blue-ribbon panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences noted, “It may be that as today’s children become parents themselves, their familiarity with rapid rates of technological change will reduce the knowledge gap between them and their children, and mitigate to some extent the consequences of the gap that remains.”
Nonetheless, here are a few lessons children need to be taught as they begin using interactive communications and computing technologies, including cell phones, mobile media devices, interactive video games, instant messaging, social networking websites, blogs, and so on. To begin, kids need to be taught to assume that everything they do in the digital, online world could be archived forever and will be available to future employers, romantic interests, their children and grandchildren, and so forth. This admonition needs to be repeated frequently to remind minors that their online actions today could have profound consequences for them tomorrow. Beyond this warning, children need to be encouraged to follow some other sensible rules while using the Internet and other interactive technologies:
> Treat others you meet online with the same respect that you would accord them in person;
> Do not cyber-bully or harass your peers;
> Do not post negative comments about your teachers or principals online;
> Do not post or share inappropriate pictures of yourself or others;
> Avoid talking to strangers online;
> Avoid using lewd or obscene language online or in communications;
> Do not share your personal information with unknown parties; and,
> Talk to parents and educators about serious online concerns and report dangerous situations or harassing communications to them.
To better formalize such guidelines in the home, parents might want to ask their children to sign the “Family Netiquette Plan” and the “Internet Respect Plan,” documents that the National Institute on Media and the Family produces. The one-page “contracts” contain many of the listed guidelines and ask both parents and children to sign the formal household agreement pledging to abide by those rules. Parents can then devise penalties if their children break the rules. The National Institute on Media and the Family recommends the following punishment if the rules are violated: “If there are any violations to expected behaviors, there will be no Internet, TV, or video games for the following three days except for necessary school work.”
Finally, I want to highly recommend that you read Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn To Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly, a wonderful new book by online safety expert Nancy E. Willard. If you only have time to read one thing about sensible parenting strategies in the Internet Age, make it this book. But I do hope you have time to read one more because I also want to recommend you take a look at MySpace Unraveled: A Parent’s Guide to Teen Social Networking by Larry Magid and Anne Collier. It’s a great guide to teaching kids responsible social networking skills and proper Internet etiquette in general.