The last great frontier…
…shares borders with your living room, and it’s wilder than the wild West and more untamable than the Serengeti. Welcome to Cyberspace, the virtual expanse of networked computers around the world, including yours. It’s a highway for information, a forum for thinkers, a soapbox for protesters, a marketplace for businesses of all types, a breeding ground for innovation and evil…and a virtual playground for our children.
In the real world, parents set clear and tangible boundaries: “Swim between the flags.” “Don’t ride your bike past the neighbour’s drive.” “Come home before it gets dark.” “Don’t talk to strangers.” Cyberspace lacks the signposts and time markers that shape the real world. So how can parents establish meaningful boundaries in a virtual world?
When your children are young, make sure they understand that computers have inherent risks. Just as we demonstrate to our kids that the hot stove burns and the traffic on the street is dangerous, we have to show them what to watch out for on the internet. Our aim is to teach kids to be aware and to take care.
No good parent would ever explain road safety to their children and then just send them off to run around in the street. For years parents walk along the street, holding their child’s hand, coaching them about traffic and looking both ways before crossing. Only when the child appears to have internalised the safety behaviour does mum let go of her son’s hand. It should be the same with the computer. Early computer use should always be a shared experience between the parent and the child. Unsupervised internet play comes only after many joint experiences and only after the child has demonstrated he understands the risks and knows how to exercise precautions.
Safety is only one aspect; healthy use is also important. Time limits need to be set, maintained and modelled by parents. Long stints on the computer are not healthy for children. Movement and physical activity have far more health, developmental, and educational benefits than computing ever could for a young child. As tempting as it is to use the computer as a babysitter—don’t. Invest in a skipping rope or a trampoline or ping-pong table for better outcomes.
As your child matures and demonstrates responsible on-line behaviour, rules can be adapted to suit their age and needs. As a student moves through school, his computing requirements usually increase. One thing for parents to keep in mind is that while senior school students may require the computer more often for homework, their on-line habits can conflict with good study practices. For example, tabbing between research for homework and live chat on Facebook is a common habit in adolescents. Research has proven that learning and academic outcomes are compromised by this practice. Parents may need to set special social media rules for senior years. If Facebook is problematic (i.e., grades and family relationships are adversely affected by its use), it may be advisable to ban it during the school week.
Establishing early that computer use at home has conditions, restrictions, penalties and rules will pay off in the long run. Students whose parents have set and maintained consistent rules over the years will have better success at restricting computer use should the need arise. On the other hand, students who’ve enjoyed complete freedom may find sudden curtailment of their use completely over-the-top and objectionable.