While the advances in technology have led to a generation of Internet-savvy kids, they have also created the need for parents to take a crash course in how to balance safe and fun play online.
1. Start a chat room. Rusel DeMaria, video game designer and author of more than 60 game-related books including Reset: Changing the Way We Look at Video Games, says, "Parents should communicate with kids about situations such as never giving out personal information online or arranging in-person meetings." Grab your kids and check out www.wiredkids.org, a kid-friendly site that outlines some of the most important guidelines to play games online. And parents, the FBI has a page of safety tips just for you at www.fbi.gov/publications/pguide/pguidee.html
2. Set screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours total screen time per child, per day. Although you may have your own limit, experts say it is important to be consistent with the amount of time you allow your child to spend in front of the screen. And that goes for all screens: computer, television and video game.
3. Read into ratings. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) established ratings for games purchased in person; however, games downloaded from the Internet are not rated. And because video game ratings are objective, they might not reflect your specific values. Check out the ESRB ratings at www.xbox.com/isyourfamilyset to establish your own rating guidelines.
4. Play along. A great way to see if games exceed your boundaries for your children is to play the game or watch them play the game. Wendy Hart Beckman, a Syracuse mother of three sons, ages 10, 14 and 17, finds playing games with them keeps everyone connected and part of each other's lives. "We have some interesting talks while playing together. It's a wonderful experience," says Beckman. And playing along also gives you insight into options that allow parents to "turn off the blood" or disengage weapons.
5. Click carefully. A child who follows seemingly harmless links or searches for innocent, child-friendly sites may be rerouted to inappropriate or pornographic content. "Quite often Web sites can be 'porn-napped,' meaning pornographers can take over children's Web sites and use icons such as Barbie and My Little Pony to attract children to their sites," says DeMaria. Most Internet service providers offer options to establish a kid's account. "These accounts have built-in controls that prevent most inappropriate content," says DeMaria.
6. Protect passwords. At age 5, Alyson Neumann's son went on a cybershopping spree. "We had our eBay password stored, and when he logged in, he was able to go shopping while I was in the shower," says Neumann, a DeWitt mom of two. In addition to avoiding an expensive erroneous click, protecting your password prevents your kids from logging onto your Internet account and accidentally accessing adult content.
7. Control content. Parental controls, experts say, can give parents a false sense of security. They can be effective at blocking inappropriate content, but they are not substitutes for parental presence. "Supervising online activity is far more effective," says DeMaria.
8. Prevent pop-ups. Children are impulsive. Following a link that pops up on the screen could lead to him accessing material unsuitable for children. And it's easy for spyware, adware or a predator to send your child a message while he is online. Make sure your child understands to alert you anytime an unwanted message pops up, instead of clicking on the chance to win a free trip to Disney.
9. Watch for changes. Licensed family therapist Susan Shankle says parents need to observe the behavior and moods of kids who play games online. Repetitive, aggressive digital images can be burned into a child's imagination and memory, and, Shankle says, even educational games can adversely affect brain development. "A child may learn that pressing the blue button makes the dog bark, but the child is not learning what actually could make a 'real' dog bark."
10. Assess the environment. Kids often sit in an adult's chair while on the computer. Julia Greenwald, chief ergonomist for the Ergonomics Center of North Carolina, says, "If his posture resembles a 'C,' his feet don't reach the floor or the monitor is too high, he may be at risk for repetitive stress injuries." Because repetitive, unilateral movement is known to cause physical problems, you may need to adjust the height of the chair or monitor when your kids are using the computer.