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Guide to Negotiating Children’s Internet Habits Between Shared Households

Wondering how to keep the Internet safe and fun?

Learn how to:
find the good stuff (and avoid the not-so-good)
explain how to recognize ads
teach responsible online behavior
encourage digital citizenship
All about Internet safety
Add "first time on the Internet" to the list of milestones every parent tracks for their kids these days. But once your kid starts going online, the "firsts" come fast and furious. Some firsts are good — like the online game that taught your preschooler the ABCs. But some didn’t go so well, like the time she got dissed by a rogue Club Penguin player.

Internet safety goes way beyond protecting kids from strangers or blocking inappropriate content. It’s about helping your kids use the Internet productively and practice safe responsible online behavior even when you’re not there to watch them.

The more time your kids spend online, the more they will see, watch, play, read, and interact. And the more those experiences will contribute to their worldview — and maybe their own self-image. Getting involved in your kids’ online life is the key to helping them reap the benefits while minimizing the negatives.

Here are answers to parents’ most common concerns about keeping the Internet a safe, productive, positive experience.

What are the best "starter" websites?
Three things are important when evaluating websites for little ones: age-appropriate games and activities that won’t frustrate your child, audio instructions for pre-readers, and little or no advertising.

Sites that emphasize early learning, positive social skills, and imagination are all great for little ones. Aggressive characters, flashing graphics, and ads for junk food and pricey toys aren’t. Here are our favorite sites.

What’s the right age for my kids to go online?
Whether boredom, curiosity, or a desire to learn has prompted your kids’ online adventures, the age they begin is entirely up to you. These guidelines will give you a good start:

Always sit with little kids while they’re online so you can explain things.
Put a time limit on your sessions (habits get instilled early).
Find age-appropriate sites with high learning potential.
Time of day matters, too. Avoid just-before-bed computer time. It can be stimulating and interrupt sleep.

What are kids’ Web browsers — and do I need one?
Kids’ Web browsers typically offer a selection of kid-friendly content including videos, games, and activities. Some provide a closed environment with no access to the wider Internet, while others use a search filter that will return only age-appropriate results. Most cost money.

For some families, they may be a good short-term investment — like training wheels for the Internet. One downside is that kids can outgrow them quickly — and determined kids can defeat them. And you still need to teach responsible Internet use even if your kids use their own browser.

Should I let my kids play on company brand sites?
Engagement — getting kids to interact with brands online — is the name of the game in today’s marketing environment. Games, activities, contests, and Facebook pages are all ploys to increase engagement. And yes, kids are taking the bait. Here’s a strategy to manage these requests: Ask your kids to write down the website address on a piece of paper (or keep a list). Tell them you’ll visit the site and check it out for them. If you like it, bookmark it for them so they can go straight to the site with your permission.

What are the essential Internet safety basics for kids?
Ask your parents if you can use the Internet
Have basic social skills
Understand the site’s rules and know how to flag other users for misbehavior
Recognize "red flags," like if someone asks you personal questions like your name and address

Go online without a parent’s permission
Share passwords
Pretend to be someone else
Share personal details, like name and address
Be mean
How do I teach my kids to recognize online advertising?
It can be hard to tell, especially because many ads are disguised as games. Good websites will label any ad as such, and will notify users when they are leaving the site and going to an advertisement. Explain to your kids that ads can sometimes install bad things on your computer and that even though some may be fun to play, they are actually trying to get Mom and Dad to buy something. Here are some things that typically identify ads:

The word "ad" or "advertisement"
Strobe effects, flashing graphics, "shaky" windows
"Pop-ups" — a window that appears on the screen suddenly
A picture of a product they recognize (like a box of cereal)
Prices or the word "free"
Contests or the word "win"
Automatic downloads or the words "download now"
Adult-oriented material, such as sexually suggestive figures, alcohol, gambling, diet pills
What do I need to know about multiplayer games?

Multiplayer games (technically called "massively multiplayer online games" or MMOGs or MMO for short) let kids play against their friends and other people they meet on the game network. Most of these sites allow for instant messaging and conversation through headsets. Players are supposed to be 13 to register for an account.

Some MMO’s are free and some will need a credit card (yours, most likely) to play, so that’s a good time to check the age-appropriateness. Also, look at the privacy settings the site offers, and talk to your kids about responsible online communication. Read through the site’s "parent section" if it has one. Beyond that, the major issue with online gaming is the time they require — be sure to set time limits.

Should I let my kid get a Facebook page?
You’re supposed to be 13 to go on Facebook, but younger kids can — and do — register with a false birthdate. We advise kids to wait until they’re 13 for both safety and privacy reasons. If your kids want to go on Facebook, stay involved and help them follow these five rules:

Think before you post.
Be respectful.
Call out cyberbullying if you see it.
Know that anything you post online can be used in ways you never intended.
Use privacy settings.
What are the rules of responsible online behavior?
It really all boils down to respect. Respect for other people, respect for other people’s work, and respect for yourself. The Internet is a community. Here’s how to keep it a nice place to hang out:

Share, but don’t overshare. Information spreads quickly to unknown audiences online.
Treat others kindly. Stand up for people who are targeted.
Respect creative work. Give proper attribution to any work you use — whether for school reports, videos, or music remixes.
There’s a lot of talk about privacy. How do privacy issues affect my kids?

Privacy means two things: Personal privacy refers to your own online reputation; consumer privacy refers to the data that companies can collect about you. Kids need to manage both kinds by being careful about what they post and by being aware of what kinds of data companies collect (often buried in fine print).

Strict privacy settings actually can help protect both personal and consumer privacy. But kids who are active online must understand that it is up to them to manage their own online reputation.


Caroline Knorr

 As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline Knorr helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?" Caroline can help you make the decision that works best for your… MORE >

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