Developing safe and smart Internet citizens

Attorney and child advocate offers strategies for parents with children in five age groups.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
6 min read
Editor's note: This guide originally ran as part of a special report on CNET.com.

As is the case when supervising kids in the offline world, dealing with their behavior online and when they are using the cell phone requires controls appropriate to their age group.

Attorney and child advocate Parry Aftab offers strategies for parents with children in any or all of the five age groups identified on this list.

Age 7 and younger

Most kids under 8 aren't using interactive technologies such as instant messaging (IM) and e-mail without parental supervision, but they are often online. Here are some general guidelines for this age group:

  • • Join teachers and librarians in investigating Web sites that may be safe for children, and use specialty directories designed for kids, such as those at Wiredsafety.org.
  • • Use only kid-appropriate search engines, such as Yahoo Kids or Ask for Kids (formerly Ask Jeeves for Kids).
  • • Rather than trying to filter out "bad" sites, use parental control software to block everything except sites you have found to be safe. Also, bookmark favorite sites so the child is less likely to stumble onto inappropriate sites.
  • • Control kids' passwords.
  • • If you decide your child needs IM and e-mail, block all communications from anyone not on the child's preapproved contact list. As a general rule, the number of names on the preapproved buddy list shouldn't be greater than the child's age.
  • • Sit down with kids often to find out where they go online and what they like; answer any questions they may have.
  • • Don't allow kids to post to personal profiles, blogs or e-mail responses to public sites without your supervision.
  • • Avoid letting them use interactive games like Xbox Live or wirelessly networked consoles through which they can potentially chat with strangers or go online unsupervised.
  • • For kids in this age group, limit their time online to no more than a half hour a day, except for special school projects.

Ages 8 to 10

Many kids at this age are beginning to use interactive technologies including IM and cell phones. More precocious kids may even be lying about their age to gain access to social networks such as MySpace. With such access, however, the opportunities for cyberbullying increase significantly, especially for this age group. Also, spyware can become a problem as kids start to download music and games in peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. Some guidelines:

  • •Strengthen and adjust filtering or other parental control technologies if you want to allow your kids access to school-recommended sites. Make sure you use a product that will send you an e-mail at work to let you unblock a particular site. (The MSN search engine has this feature.)
  • •If you let your children use instant messaging or e-mail, make sure you preapprove the people on their contact list.
  • •Use antispyware, virus blockers, and pop-up blockers to prevent unwanted software from roosting on your child's PC.
  • •Keep kids on child-safe search engines.
  • •Ensure that kids understand what information can and can't be shared online with anyone.
  • •Practice chatting online with them, and acquaint them with techniques for handling any strangers they might encounter on the Net.
  • •Teach them to respect others online and to refrain from saying or doing anything online that they wouldn't do offline. Be sure they're familiar with the signs and hazards of cyberbullying.
  • •Watch for hacking, password theft, and identity theft--intrusions to which kids this age are particularly vulnerable. This also the age at which kids start stealing each others' passwords and locking friends out of their own Web site accounts.
  • •Limit leisure time online to less than an hour a day, including IM and text-messaging.

Ages 10 to 12

Most kids in this age group are using interactive technologies such as cell phones, e-mail and IM. Child advocates caution that this can be the age when trouble begins, because kids attempt to become active in social networks, begin posting personal profiles, and may have frequent encounters with cyberbullies.

  • •Upgrade parental controls and filtering software to allow kids access to sites needed for school. Some upgrades also can allow you to unblock sites remotely, often via e-mail.
  • •Begin using major search engines, which, via their "advanced settings" features, often offer filters or parental controls.
  • •Watch for indications that your child is being cyberbullied. Among the warning signs: anxiety when he or she goes online or answers a cell phone.
  • •Watch for "away messages" your child may program into an IM or e-mail tool. These messages are programmed to be sent automatically to those who attempt IM or e-mail contact when the child is offline. Be sure the away messages do not include phone numbers or mailing addresses.
  • •Carefully review any Web sites, profiles, and screen names kids post online. Ensure they can't share pictures online or set up blogs and Webcams without your permission.
  • •Control the family account password and note the kids' personal passwords, too. Expect resistance to this measure.
  • •Block all contacts except those who are preapproved. Expect resistance here too.
  • •Limit interactive games to kid-friendly sites such as Disney's Toontown.
  • •Many kids post nasty things about their peers online at this age, so Google kids' names, screen names, addresses, and telephone numbers at least once a week to search for such postings. Or use Google Alerts to automatically notify you if online activity pegged to your child's screen name turns up in a Google search.
  • •Search the PC regularly for off-limits images, or pirated music, movie or media files.

Ages 13 to 15

At this age, parents should assume their kids are interacting online--using IM, e-mail, text messaging--on a PC at home, at school, or at a friend's house. This is the age when online and, possibly, offline encounters with strangers are the biggest problem; kids in this age group admit to meeting strangers offline and typically don't consider such behavior a risk. Cyberbullying also changes to sexual harassment at this age, according to Aftab.

She advises that parents work on developing their child's "filter between the ears." Some general guidelines:

  • •Limit kids' leisure time online to under an hour and a half a day, including time spent text-messaging via cell phone.
  • •Talk to kids about the dangers of offline meetings with strangers who have contacted them via the Internet.
  • •Use software to filter inappropriate sites for young teens.
  • •Keep kids off social networks and dating sites.
  • •Give kids more leeway on the friends they can accept as IM or e-mail buddies, but ensure that you know their offline identities. No friends of friends.
  • •Filter or block image searches, which can be a way around many filters.
  • •Block peer-to-peer technologies and teach kids not to download pirated software, movies, or music. Sign your child up for iTunes or another legal music service.
  • •Password theft is a problem at this age, so teach kids to guard passwords.
  • •Try to keep the computer in a central location, and watch kids' behavior with new interactive devices such as cell phones and interactive gaming gadgets like Xbox Live. If these devices include parental controls, as Xbox Live does, use the controls. But be aware that even with the controls in place, these games can be risky for young teens because they enable users to chat with strangers.

Age 16 and up

By age 16, child advocates say, it's time to take off the training wheels and trust your child to do the right thing. General guidelines:

  • •Teach your children their online responsibilities. Stress the importance of respecting others online and the need to read Web material with a critical eye.
  • •Talk to them about the risks of sharing personal information online and meeting strangers offline.
  • •Have them google themselves regularly--and even establish a Google Alerts pegged to their screen name--to monitor what surfaces.
  • •Teach teens to use antivirus programs and security firewalls and to check regularly for adware and spyware on their PCs.
  • •Tell them to come to you if anything goes awry for them when they're online.
  • •Enlist the help of older teens to help younger brothers and sisters navigate the Web safely.
  • •Pick your battles.
  • •Advise teens against using a Webcam; remind them that they'll have little or no control over videos or still images once they're posted online.