Chuck Joiner ran a panel discussion at Macworld on Parenting in the Age of the Internet -- I heard about it through Tonya, one of the panelists. They had a bunch of suggestions, several new to me.

  • Keep hard rules as few and flexible as possible. You cannot expect a child to abide by a multi-page contract which doesn't make sense to them.
  • Recognize the same behaviors in yourself.
    • Model how to use computers and the Internet safely.
    • Be aware of how much time you spend using technology instead of focused on family. This is more of an issue with older kids, but young kids are already learning about engagement and disengagement. Several panelists commented on this, and it resonated for me.
  • Pay attention to game ratings, but try the games yourself first. I am pretty good about this, although as Julia gets more engaged in more complicated games which I am uninterested in, it will be harder.
  • Limit computer/game time (we also limit TV time).
  • Use parental controls.
    • The ones built into Mac OS X are pretty good, although not very deep.
    • The ones built into Windows Live are apparently more flexible.
    • Unfortunately, when Julia was using an Ubuntu netbook, I discovered that the Linux controls are lacking and poor. Partially this is due to a philosophical issue -- Linux hackers don't want to restrict anyone's freedom. They make the valid argument that parents should supervise their kids, but failed to consider that we have other things to do, and would like parental controls to help enforce policies, so kids can use computers without parents constantly watching over their shoulders.
    • You can get much more sophisticated controls over web surfing with a (Linux) router/filter. We don't need this yet, although we might someday. Network filters also work for devices (such as iPads & smartphones) without built-in restrictions.
    • OpenDNS provides a very easy-to-use filter that blocks a lot of crud. I hadn't thought about OpenDNS for this purpose, but it's an excellent idea.
    • Blocking should not be a hard stop. Instead make it an opportunity to discuss the rules and the site that was blocked -- perhaps there is a good reason to visit it. This makes a lot of sense.
  • Email is a very useful microcosm for the Internet. It's easy to keep track of and to limit to a small trusted subset of correspondents, and provides natural & strong motivation for typing and other computer skills.
    • Gmail offers delegation. We use another service with full parental/administrative access.
  • There was considerable discussion of how kids SMS incessantly -- often to the exclusion of making voice calls. Julia does not text yet but does like talking on the phone, so this isn't a problem for us yet.
  • One panelist required their children to accept their Facebook friend requests and provide their passwords. I am uncomfortable with password sharing but it does make sense here. Requiring young kids to accept parental friend requests is an obvious prerequisite for using Facebook. Of course, a clever kid can use custom controls to limit what their parents see even if they're friends.
  • The panelists didn't talk much about privacy.
    • We're clear that Julia doesn't have any privacy from us on the Internet. Now this is easy, but it will bother her as she grows up, and we don't know where independence begins -- we'll have to figure it out as we go.
    • The panelists didn't mention this, but explaining this lack of privacy is essential -- spying on kids who expect privacy destroys trust and makes it a battle between kids and parents. And there's no way to win this battle over the long term anyway.
  • A couple people talked about the importance of computer placement & access. This is why Julia doesn't have an old iPhone (no way to keep track of usage), and why the laptops & iPad she uses stay in common areas of our apartment -- she uses the iPad where we ca monitor her.
  • Don't forget parental/family/sibling privacy -- kids need to consider who else is affected by their posts & sharing.
  • Tonya pointed out that some kids who grow up without TV find that a problem for socialization. We had not encountered or considered this.
  • You cannot expect children not to make mistakes, or to make the same decisions they (or you) would as adults. Instead try to make them aware of the dangers, and if they don't care about the real-life consequences (such as Facebook profile review & Googling as part of job hiring processes), you may have to impose more immediate consequences (family rules & punishments) which are sufficiently real to have an impact on behavior.