Every day the Internet is becoming a more ingrained part of preteens' lives, especially preteens who haven't yet hit Facebook's 13-years-old age requirement. How can parents get an idea of what their kids are doing online while still engendering an environment of love and trust? Much of this relies on parents being open with kids about types of acceptable online behaviors, but it's also important for parents to teach kids the general rules for online safety.
It isn't fair for parents to monitor every move that their child makes - how will this child become their own person, know when to ask for help, and understand how to handle tricky social situations if a parent is keeping track of them 24/7? In an Internet world, constant surveillance is easy. Yet it's within the gray areas that both children and parents can learn the most - about themselves, and navigating their digital lives.
The Internet is a world of its own, one that can be used for good, positive learning experiences, or one that becomes a space for wasting energy, time and money. It is what you make of it. When it comes to actual monitoring tools, why not start the conversation from a place of trust?
"Parents really need to build a relationship with their kids around their online activities, just like you would if your child were playing soccer or going to a school dance," says Julia French, an American parent who also works with online monitoring service Secure.me. "As parents, involvement is key."
SafeKids.com offers a handy list of 10 kids rules for online safety, specifically aimed at preteens. They focus on building trust between parents and kids. Some of the key concepts for kids include telling a parent if they come across information that makes them feel uncomfortable, not giving out personal information, not agreeing to meet with someone they've met online, not sending images, setting up rules with parents about going online, and being a good online citizen. Nearly all of the rules laid out on the SafeKids list depend on children talking with their parents, and vice versa.
Outside of the communication element, services such as Secure.me and SafetyWeb.com can help parents keep an eye on potentially harmful content that a child might come across, especially on social networks.
"Secure.me monitors not just for potentially dangerous or sexual content, but also tracks posts for possible aggressive or cyber-bullying content and content posted by apps," says Secure.me Founder Christian Sigl. "The solution focuses on both physical and computer security, helping parents protect their children against Facebook-borne spam, identity theft and viruses. "
Facebook Training Wheels: Everloop
For preteens, practicing social networking on Everloop.com is one way to go about helping your child become familiar with the online social networking space. Everloop started in February 2011 as a way to empower girls, but quickly realized that it needed to expand beyond the one gender.
"Kids under 13 have multiple interests," says Everloop CMO Sandy Barger, who came from Disney. "It's a very fragmented world for them, and the biggest concern is kids' safety. They don't want to be bullied. We have been able to create a safe environment, to see what kids are interested in."
In preparation for the never-ending information flow of Facebook, Everloop has created a similar environment yet with safety guards in place for parents to potentially intervene and open up discussions with their kids based on IRL conversations.
In October of last year, Everloop launched EverText, a way for kids to directly text status updates to the network. Parents had the opportunity to moderate how many texts per month their kid is able to send. A moderation filter alerts parents to words, phrases and other content that could be deemed dangerous.
"If you think about kids today, they're all digital natives. They don't know any better, and the majority of parents that are raising under-13 kids are digital natives themselves," Everloop's COO Tobin Trevarthen told ReadWriteWeb. "As we evolve into social space, we saw an easy opportunity to educate a younger generation of digital natives."
Everloop also recently launched Facebook-like apps specifically for users of the site. Miniclip, integrated into Everloop's Game Channel, makes it possible for kids to play games like "Run Run Hamster" and "Monkey Kick Off." Everloop has also partnered with Mattel and National Geographic, launching two games closely associated with brands: Monster High and Animal Jam. The mixing of brands and games prepares kids for a world that's quite similar in that respect.
If you would rather closely analyze your child's online activity, try out the service SafetyWeb.com. We don't necessarily recommend it, as we are more interested in building good relationships between parent and child, but it could be useful if you're concerned that there is something negative going on with your child's online reputation and privacy.
"It's key to make your child understand that you're supervising them and use solutions to monitor his or her activities for no other reason than protecting your child," says Secure.me's Sigl. "Never monitor your child's activities secretly as this could harm the family's bond of trust. Social networking should be a topic discussed frequently and openly within the family. As a parent, encourage your child to talk to you and listen to your kid to learn about the risk he or she faces."
Teaching Kids to Be Responsible on Social Networks: BeSeen
Carnegie Mellon University's app BeSeen uses the template of a fictional social network to help kids learn how to interact positively and safely, and how to stand up for their peers. It offers kids various challenging situations, too, game-ifying the experience, and making it OK to report any questionable situations. It also suggests that even though kids can access information on social networks anytime from their phones, they shouldn't. And it also helps kids learn what types of photos they should and shouldn't upload. To win, players must "protect their online reputation, treat others with respect, watch for signs of trouble and defend their peers."
In short, this game app teaches players that their online profile should reflect them at their best. But should it? That's another conversation that we hope will happen offline.
And even though Facebook has rules that do not let preteens under 13 have accounts, there are plenty who join anyway. It's imperative for parents to teach their preteens about Facebook.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.