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A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety (part one)

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by Grant Stenzel, LCPC

If you are reading this article I am going to assume you realize that Internet safety is vitally important for your children. I could post statistics, stories and facts to scare you about cyberbullying, predators, scams and different types of sex and pornography. However, I am going to assume you already realize there is a need and simply go ahead and help you down that road.

As I sit down to write about Internet safety, I am overwhelmed with all the different aspects that I need to cover. I have written page after page of just topics that I want to write about. There is no way to cover everything I need to so I will be breaking this blog into a series.  Here are just some of the things I will try to cover (if there are other things you would like me to write about, let me know):

  • Guidelines of what you can do as a parent
  • How to talk to your kids about Internet safety
  • Social Media sites (I have already published an article on Facebook)
  • Video chatting, IMing, Sexting, P2P sites and Games
  • Cyberbullying
  • Filters/Reporting programs
  • Signs that your teen is doing inappropriate things online and what to do about it

First of all, I want to write generally what you can do as a parent to guide your kids through all of the temptations and dangers of this new electronic era.

Find the right balance between protecting and teaching your child to make good decisions.
Protecting too much can lead to rebellion as well as children doing things behind your back. Giving your children too much freedom can become overwhelming and they may not be ready to overcome all of the temptations out there. Teenagers are curious about sex, power and many other things. Unfortunately, today, they have much quicker and anonymous access to these things.

Create a safe environment for your children to come to you to express fears and even confess wrongs.
If your children are afraid of your reaction, they will do everything they can to hide information. When your child comes to you admitting they did something wrong – do you immediately explode? Lecture? Express disappointment? Well, guess what? Your child will not come to you with what they are struggling with. You have punished positive behavior. Instead, when you son or daughter comes to you, immediately express appreciation for coming to you. Let them know that you realize that it must have been difficult for them to come to you and tell you. They know they did something wrong, they don’t need your lecture or guilt trip. This is not the time for correction; this is the time for listening and encouraging. This will create an environment where your child will continue to come to you with things that are going wrong.

Let me explain what I mean by punishing positive behavior. It is very simple concept that is found in simple behavioral psychology. If you punish a behavior, the behavior will eventually go away. If you positively reinforce a behavior it will become more frequent. It is like training a dog; we give them a treat when they sit and shake but hit their nose when they go where they shouldn’t. The problem is that we as parents sometimes punish good behaviors and reinforce bad behaviors. For example, if you son comes to you and confesses that he is struggling with pornography. Obviously pornography is wrong, but that is not the behavior you should be focused on in the moment. He just did a good behavior; he confessed what he did wrong.

So what do you do? If you are like most parents, you will give him a lecture on the evils of pornography or tell him how ashamed you are that he would do that. What have you just done? You have inadvertently punished his good confession with a negative consequence of a lecture or guilt trip. Your motive was to inspire him to do better, but guess what? He is going to go back to pornography and just not tell you about it. Do you want to win the battle or the war? The war is for the trust and heart of your child. You won’t get that from scaring them off. Also, don’t be thrown off by the fact that the example was a son. More and more girls are viewing and becoming addicted to pornography every day.

So what should you do? Positively reinforce the immediate good behavior. He knows he was wrong; otherwise he wouldn’t have come to you looking for help. I am in no way saying you condone the behavior, but what I am saying is applaud the openness and honesty. If your child is open and honest, you will find out most things and be able to deal with them. Praise your child for their honesty, share with them struggles of your own, and tell them that you will work together to help him.

In my house, as my children grew up, our biggest punishment was for lying. My goal was to create an open and honest environment so I would know what my children were dealing with and would be able to guide them through. I told my kids that if they lied I would double the punishment, but if they told me the truth I would cut the punishment in half. Now this was easier when my children were little, because it was easier to tell if they were lying or not. This system rewarded honesty and trust and punished lying and covering up. If you don’t know what is going on, you can’t do anything about it.

Last thing on this point: I am not condemning lectures or punishments. I practice both in my household. I just choose the more appropriate times for doing so. I talk to my kids about sex, porn, and internet safety BEFORE they go on-line. They need to know the facts, what to watch out for. They also need me to communicate clearly what my parameters are. I also punish bad behaviors. I do so constantly and calmly. Which is the key for proper parenting, but I will save that for another article.

Next what you need to do as a parent is educate yourself. You probably don’t know what is out there and what can be done to stop it. Is you kid on Facebook? Read up on Facebook. Did you know that Facebook has a “Family Safety Center” that provides great advice on keeping your teen safe? Ask your kids to teach you about a technology they are using. They may roll their eyes at first but if you ask humbly for them to teach you, I am sure they will.

Learn about the different filtering and monitoring software programs that are out there. (This will be in a future article) When you don’t know, Google it! Google is great tool for researching everything. You can find out what abbreviations your kids are using while texting. You can find out how to filter different programs. Read, learn, and protect BEFORE you find a problem. Prevention is much easier than clean up.

Lastly, talk to your kids. I know you may be saying “but my kids won’t talk to me.” Keep trying. Asking questions is a great way to get your son or daughter talking. It is what we do as therapists. Eventually if you show genuine interest in what they are interested in, they will talk.

I have only scratched the surface of some ideas in guiding your children through this treacherous road that is now paved here in the 21st century. I hope to write more articles to get more specific in many of these issues. Lastly, if you or your child needs help, seek it. Most parents wait too long before they bring their child in for therapy.