Preschool-aged children are not too young when it comes to discussing how to properly and safely use technology, an Internet safety expert said Thursday.
Just as a parent starts laying the groundwork for healthy behavior when children are very young, it's equally important to start talking to kids early about how computers, cell phones, video gaming systems and other media should be used, said Marsali Hancock, president and CEO of the Internet Keep Safe Coalition.
Technology talks can begin with children as young as 4 years old, she said.
“If you hand a child a cell phone, talk about technology,” Hancock, a mother of six children, said.
Since parents today grew up without computers, e-mail and social media, they have a lot to learn, Hancock said. Their children are on the cutting edge of technology, learning each new gadget or tool quickly, so they view technology differently than their parents, she said.
“I see technology as a tool that is efficient and effective,” she said. “Kids connect emotionally with their digital devices. What they do online affects how they feel about themselves.”
Because children and teenagers feel so close to cell phones, it can often be referred to as their “digital pacifier,” she said.
“If children are connecting emotionally through their digital devices, we as parents have to be there for them,” Hancock said. “We have the capacity of guiding them.”
Eleven- and 12-year-olds frequently have cell phones, and some children as young as 7 are starting to have them, too, she said. More than 90 percent of high school students have a Facebook page, and many children under the age of 13 use false ages to create one, she said.
Hancock said it is often middle-school children who do what they see as silly pranks but end up doing something that could have a damaging or lifelong effect.
One example is sexting, in which a lewd photo or message may be sent to one person and ends up being quickly distributed to an entire school or community, she said. Another is assuming another person’s identity or hacking into someone else’s email accounts, both of which can lead to civil or criminal cases. Cyberbullying can have drastic negative effects in the sensitive middle-school years.
If parents talk to their child early, they're are more likely to make an impression on the child about the need to respect technology and appreciate the consequences of online actions, Hancock said.
She advises three steps to help parents guide their children to safe media use. They should:
- Keep current on the latest technology. High school students know and talk with their friends about what is the latest and greatest social media sites, Web sites or smart phone apps, and parents need to know, too. “Kids are faster adopters” of online tools, Hancock said. “There’s always something new.”
- Set rules for when computers, video games and cell phones can be used. Open the lines of communication well before middle school, Hancock said.
- Check on their children’s computer use, and tell them that nothing on the Internet is private.
“We can’t give children a false sense of privacy,” Hancock said. “There is no way to have a private conversation on the Web. If it is done with a digital device, it can be public. Kids make better choices when they know it is public.”
Hancock said many college recruiters will follow a student’s Facebook page when determining if a student gets accepted into the university. Employers also look at potential employees’ online profiles when considering them for a job.
“A few pictures can wipe out career options,” Hancock said.
If parents follow their child’s online persona, they can quickly learn of dangerous behaviors, including suicidal behavior, gang recruitment and eating disorders, and intervene sooner.