Text adapted from CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming and Social Media (American Academy of Pediatrics, October 2010)
Myth: Social networking is dangerous.
Dr. Gwenn’s Myth Bust: Social networking can be safe and often is, if done thoughtfully, age appropriately, and with a conscious following of stated age limits and privacy rules. Social networking becomes unsafe when parents allow tweens on sites not meant for tweens, such as Facebook or MySpace, and when parents are so uninvolved that young teens do not know how to manage their privacy settings or digital footprint.
Myth: Predators track down kids in real life from their addresses online.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: Studies have shown that predators are not only not where our kids tend to be online but don’t have the technologic capabilities to find our kids from their online addresses. In fact, our views about how predators use the Internet in general have been found to be myths.
Myth: All online “friending” is dangerous.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: What we have to emphasize to our kids and teens is that rules of friendship off-line extend to the online world, including the act of friending. The best guideline is to only friend people you know and have a connection with off-line. Friending only becomes iffy when we add people to our lists who we don’t know well or at all, and when we fail to set our privacy to “friends only” so that only our friends can see our posts, pictures, videos, and comments. In addition to these simple measures, it’s important for digital youth to understand that what goes online, stays online. Kids need to understand not to shoot from the hip with texts and e-mails, and not to write things in e-mails and texts they would not say face-to-face off-line.
Myth: All online discussions with strangers are dangerous.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: Think about all the strangers we meet each and every day. We chat with and accept help from bank tellers, grocery clerks, police officers, firefighters, department store clerks, and doctors to name a few! By observing our behavior with these people, our children learn that it’s OK to interact with these types of strangers, and when they become more independent they’ll understand how to negotiate these social norms, whether in person, by phone, or online. So let’s not panic when our kids have the occasional innocent conversation with a peer they don’t know too well. Likely the purpose is innocent, such as homework help, and the contact is someone they actually know, at least by icon, which is no different than our own buddy list! The key is helping our kids understand how to build a safe buddy list, to keep their information private, to not meet their online friends offline, and to help them have appropriate limits with their online time.
Myth: Online games are safe if they use cute cartoon characters.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: Cute doesn’t mean safe by any stretch of the imagination. The world of gaming is very complex because of the effect of graphics and issues with multiplayer involvement. It’s important to check out all the games your kids are playing. Ratings and descriptions are useful for this purpose, as well has having your child show you the game he or she is interested in so you can thoroughly check to be sure it’s appropriate for your child’s age and development
Myth: The other kid is the bad guy.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: Most adults recognize it takes 2 to tango regardless of who instigates the situation. However, when it comes to their kids, defenses go up immediately and most parents quickly take aim at the other child and family. Usually I find few parents are interested in the facts and just want to protect their child’s honor. But we have to be willing to recognize that our child isn’t innocent all the time. Where cyber-situations are concerned, your child or teen is as likely as others to be part of the issue, from cyberbullying, to sending inappropriate texts and e-mails, to not handing the receiving of a sext correctly.
The best way for us to help our kids learn from any issue, especially online misunderstandings, is to help our kids be realistic about their own behaviors and to own their role in a situation that doesn’t turn out well. The one exception to this rule is in the case of dangerous, destructive, and illegal situations; these must always be handled quickly and decisively for the safety of those involved.
Myth: Handheld gaming devices don’t connect to the Internet.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: The vast majority of today’s handheld gaming systems connect to the Internet, most by Wi-Fi. This means that our kids can connect to the ’net and communicate with others by chats set up through the games. Once on the Internet via any channel, our kids have access to the entire World Wide Web!
Myth: Cell phones are fine for young kids.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: When considering a first cell phone for any child, purpose is essential. Are you considering the phone because every other child has the phone, or is there a greater need such as a medical condition? The cell phone landscape is complicated today by cyberbullying and sexting. If you do not feel your child is old enough to discuss these issues and understand them, your child is not old enough for a cell phone.
Try and match the phone with the needs of your child. You can still get phones that just call, which is very appropriate for younger kids. And there are phones tailored for young kids that you can program with just a few numbers. Keep in mind that most cell phone carriers now have parent control features so you can restrict your child from accessing content and features that the phone may come with, such as the Internet or video and music downloads.
Myth: Everything kids are storing is stored off-line.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: What happens online, stays online! In fact, material is actually stored online and is called our digital footprint. The management of our digital footprint is the key to all of our online reputations, and mismanagement can ruin lives. There have been many cases of missed opportunities from parents and kids not understanding how to handle one’s digital footprint, including lost jobs and college placement.
Myth: Kids will not use their webcam for any stupid things.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: The same conditions that lead teens to pose nude cause them to do dumb things with webcams. If you saw the movie American Pie, that’s not a Hollywood fictional situation but truly art imitating life!
Myth: The reason kids use headsets and microphones when playing games is to listen to game sound effects without disturbing the family.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: The best way to learn what your kids are listening to is to listen with them! You’ll be surprised by the lyrics of songs and phrases in games. Many times when kids look like they are “listening” to a game, they have a very different soundtrack running, so pop an earbud in once in a while.
Myth: Xbox is a game device.
Dr Gwenn’s Myth Bust: Xbox is a game device, but that’s just the tip of the high-tech iceberg! If you tease out all the features, Xbox, PlayStation 3, and Wii are multimedia entertainment units that can run everything from games to DVDs to music. And with the convergence of content into devices, future devices will likely have many more applications than today’s “game” and digital devices.
Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD, FAAP is available for interviews and speaking engagements. To book an interview, speaking engagement or for further information on CyberSafe, click here.