Children and the cyber world

Parents must keep an eye on their children’s online activities

Roopinder Singh

Exploring a new world is certainly going to fill us with excitement, trepidation, thrill and a whole bouquet of emotions. For many children, the latest frontier is the cyber world. They explore it, discuss it, use it, share their feelings online … it is the world which they are totally a part of.

Often, I am called when people want to buy a computer, or discuss something about their children’s behaviour on computers. This summer vacation was also a similar situation, another time when I made myself somewhat unpopular with the children.

Where should a computer be in the house? “In a public area,” is my answer, one that often displeases children. I am among the parents who advocate placing the computer in a family room. Thus, the child is aware that he should not do anything, which he does not want his parents or siblings to know about.

When this is not possible for some reason, if the computer has to be kept in a child’s bedroom, make sure that the door of the room is kept open while the computer is on. This helps keep chatting and browsing activities in check. This simple advice is something that I believe in, and have advocated in my writing for many years now.

When children complain about privacy issues, my answer is simple: “Are you doing something that is wrong? If not, there’s nothing to worry about. No one’s going to be reading your letters or whatever, just keeping an eye on you overall activity.”

The Norton Online Family report, which has been released recently, says 70 per cent of Indian adults are in favour of giving children control over their own online activities. I disagree. The control should be in the parents’ hands and online usage must be governed with rules.

Naturally, being a computer-friendly parent helps, since you can share your experiences and understand what a child wants. To get back to the report, around 68 per cent of Indian parents say they have house rules in place surrounding their child’s use of the Internet, but only 34 per cent have actually set parental controls on their family computer. As many as 500 adults and 200 children, between eight to 17 years, were surveyed in India.

While 76 per cent of Indian children say they are more careful about their online activities than their parents, the report says: “Most Indian kids do not follow common sense rules while online.” That’s where you come in. Please sit down with your children and tell them that they should not give their e-mail IDs, addresses and telephone numbers to strangers on the Net.

Today, social networking sites and chat are a major part of online behaviour. You must encourage your children to let you know if they feel uncomfortable about the behaviour of anyone they are in contact with through their Facebook, Orkut or other accounts. Of course, they should not make an appointment, or talk to someone they have met on the Net without the parents’ approval.

The Norton report says that 77 per cent of Indian children have experienced some negative situation online but only 50 per cent of the Indian parents thought their children had such experiences. What are these negative experiences? Violent images, pornography, threat from strangers on social networking and other form of harassment on the Internet is seen as negative content for kids between eight years and 17 years.

While 92 per cent of Indian children say they follow their family’s rules for the Internet, remember, this is what they say, not what they do. Also, 24 per cent have done something online that they have later regretted. A shocking 83 per cent of the children said they “downloaded a virus”.

Specific software that warns parents if sexually explicit words etc are used can also help, but it is not a substitute for keeping a watchful eye. In any case it is a difficult balancing act. You want to keep an eye on your child, and at the same time you really don’t want to snoop.

You may feel that the Internet grants anonymity to its users. You often tend to go overboard if you feel that you cannot be identified. This is an illusion as most of the Internet users can be accurately pinpointed.

Sometimes, children feel that they can communicate better with anonymous persons rather than those who see and judge them everyday-their parents, peers and teachers. The elders have to make the effort to communicate with the children so that they do not feel the need to find empathy in cyberspace.

Chatting on the computer has become common, and it needs attention from both parents and children. The written word often has more importance than the spoken one, but somehow people think that if they write online, their words don’t matter much. Thus, you have mangled expressions, which can be tolerated, and also mangled thoughts, which are far less tolerable, and can come back to haunt those who expressed them years later.

What goes into cyberspace has a surprisingly long life, which can be embarrassing. Thus, you need to be careful. A website that educates both the parents and the children about chat room perils is

The Internet opens the world-parents and children must work together to ensure that a can of worms is not served along with the rich diet of information, communication and entertainment that is a staple of the Net.

This column was published in the Lifestyle section of The Tribune on July 6, 2010.

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