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Four Questions Parents Have to Ask

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In the final part of this week's Cyber Safety series, Internet Safety Specialist Lori Getz reveals the four questions every parent should ask to ensure that your kids are as safe as possible while online.

Internet Safety Specialist Lori Getz: My father always asked me his Famous Four Questions before he would let me out of his sight:

  • What are you wearing?
  • Where are you going?
  • Who are you going with?
  • What time will you be home?
young girl using laptop

Do these look familiar to you? Were you asked these questions as a child and as a teenager? I know I was. My dad didn't let me go anywhere until he knew what I was wearing, where I was going, who I was going with, and what time I would be home.

If we're going to ask these questions when our kids walk out the front door of our homes, we need to ask these same questions when they walk out the front door into the entire world on the Internet. This article will teach you how to translate age-old parenting questions from the physical world to the cyber world.

What are you wearing? = What are you putting out there about yourself?

This includes screen names, pictures, video, and any other content in a public space. A screen name is how we identify ourselves online. You want to know how your children are presenting themselves online. Are they using a screen name that may attract unwanted attention?

With young children, we worry about screen names that give away too much personal information. It is not safe for a child to use a screen name that gives away facts about them that an online predator may use to strike up a conversation. Take a look at Places Where Predators Lurk for more information. With tweens and teens you also need to be concerned about violent or sexually explicit screen names that will draw unwanted attention from a larger audience. Screen names are often a way for young people to try on a few identities to see what fits. Although this self-realization process is completely age-appropriate, it is risky behavior when your child begins cultivating online relationships with strangers.

Knowing your child's screen names is like knowing what they wear when they leave the house. These screen names as well as pictures, video, and other online content will stay with your child forever. Nothing ever leaves the Internet. It's different than when you and I were teenagers and decided to do something silly or even downright stupid. Those actions were not caught by a cell phone and uploaded to the web for all to see! We were not immortalized on YouTube or Facebook. Kids today are putting themselves out there for all to see, and you need to know what that presentation looks like. Remember these screen names, pictures, and video will stick with them forever. If one day they may look back and think, WOW, I wouldn't want an employer or possibly my children to see this, they shouldn't post it on the web.

Where are you going? = What sites are you on?

If you wouldn't let your child walk out the front door without asking where they are going, then why would you allow them to wander the vast world of the Internet without asking the same questions?

There seems to be a stigma attached to this question when it comes to online use. Children feel that everything they do online is private. But in fact, it is not! E-mails, IMs, and text messages are skimmed and stored by the Internet service provider. Facebook's terms of service expressly state that they control the content on their site, and Google even tracks their searches from its site. So how is any of what they are doing online private? It's NOT! What they mean is that it is private from you, their parents.

Go back to your parenting skills that you use in the physical world. If your son or daughter is about to leave the house and tells you it is none of your business as to where they are going, would you accept this answer? If not, then why would you accept it about where they are going online? Sit with your child and take a look at where they are going. You are there to show interest! Set the expectations and put limitations on what it is they are doing. We do this all the time in the physical world. We set rules about where they can go, and what they can be exposed to. When they are young, you keep a close eye on them, and as they get older they are afforded more privacy and therefore more freedom -- but we never stop asking questions.

Who are you going with? = Who is on your buddy list?

The best way to keep you, your families, and your identities safe is to only allow people you know in the physical world into your inner circle in the cyber world -- including on e-mail, IM, and social networking sites.

When kids are gaming, IMing, or e-mailing, they have a list of online friends. This comes in the form of an address book or buddy list. Now, your children are looking to become "famo" (that is the term for Internet Famous), and to do that they need to have as many friends as possible! This is NOT a good idea. Let me explain why. Just recently, an attempt at an identity theft hoax was uncovered when someone posing as a high school student began friend-requesting high school students, saying he was going to be coming to their school after winter break and was new to the area. He used a social networking site to get to know his new classmates. Once he got one student to accept him as a friend, all of the other kids fell in line accepting this imposter as one of them. The identity thief was quickly able to gain their trust by participating in their high school banter, enough to get them to reveal personal information such as home addresses. It wasn't until after winter break, when the young man did not show up to the school, did students become suspicious. It came out that this was in fact a hoax and imposter. The kids felt violated and the parents became concerned about their safety.

You need to know who their online friends are and how they know them. Experts agree that children and adults alike should not have any online friends that they don't know from their physical world. Online predators lurk in cyberspace looking to take advantage of people both young and old. Some predators are interested in meeting children online, while others are looking to steal your identity.

What time will you be home? = How often are you online and is it for school or for fun?

This one is really about multitasking. How much time is being spent at the computer and why? Multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous in the lives of the digital native. Your son or daughter is at the computer with 6 IM conversations going on at the same time while they are checking Facebook, responding to an urgent text message, changing their iTunes playlist, and doing their homework. This is what they consider multitasking -- tweens and teens believe that multitasking is the ability to do many things at once. And I understand why they THINK that.

Let me explain. Multitasking is the act of switching between tasks very quickly. It is the ability to move from one insignificant IM conversation to a text message to changing the music they are listening to. It may feel like they are doing all of this at the same time, but in fact they are just doing them in rapid succession. I do believe they are able to do this. Just ask any teenager to demonstrate and they will gladly show you their ability to multitask.

The problem comes when it is time to participate in what is called higher-order thinking skills, like reading a passage in a book, writing an essay, or completing math homework. In the simplest of explanations, the brain uses a different area to make rich connections and process more complicated material. When the kids are multitasking, that part of the brain is not engaged. Therefore, research has concluded that as of now, it is not efficient to multitask while doing homework. This is a really hard concept for a tween or teen to grasp because they are good at multitasking in so many other areas of their lives (including carrying on a conversation with you from the backseat of the car while texting a friend).

If we, the parents, can begin to accept their version of multitasking and try and help them find where it works and where it doesn't, we will stop fighting the "technology battles" where we yell at them to turn off their cell phone or instant messaging while doing their homework, and instead help them understand where multitasking is more efficient and appropriate. I often challenge teenagers to try doing their homework differently. I will ask them to do it their way one night (with multitasking) and my way another night (turn everything off for 30 minutes and just focus on the homework; after that time they can take a break from the homework and reconnect with friends). Let them see what works best for them. They may find that a little music is helpful but IM is not. This way, you are coming at it from a time-management perspective rather than a technology angle. You may not win every battle, but at least you'll win the war!

next: I Don't Want My Son to Become a Teen Dad
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
iKeepSafe June 16, 2009, 11:36 PM

Thanks you so much for this series of articles. So helpful in the discussion of cyber citizenship and parenting.

Ten Tees January 8, 2011, 4:31 PM

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