Children of all ages are spending more and more time online. Once there, they watch videos, play games, read stories, look at pictures, listen to music, and find information of all kinds.
Children develop in response to whatever is in their environment - including the things they find on the internet. That's why it's important to take care in choosing the content they see. There are many positive learning opportunities to choose from, but remember that a mistyped search term or wrong keystroke can lead to content that you don't want to influence your child's development. And as they get older, they may even seek out such content.
So how can you make sure that the messages children see are the messages you'd like them to learn from? First, understand where they are in their development. Then offer them health-positive ways to act their age in an online world.
Preview sites you'll visit with your child. That way, you'll know what to expect when you visit and can make sure there's nothing there - like sidebar ads for high-sugar foods, which may affect food choices and even contribute to obesity - that you'd prefer your child didn't see.
Choose content with a purpose. Think about why you're going online with your preschooler - is it so she can learn about how things are made? Is it so you can connect with grandma? Is it to play games that help her learn to read? Choose sites based on what you want her to get out of them.
Pay attention to what else is on the site. If there are ads on the site, what are they for? Other games? Junk food? Movies with violent content? If it's on the screen, your preschooler will see it, so consider that, too, when you're choosing sites to visit with her.
Use the internet with purpose. When you go online with school-age kids, don't browse just to browse - go looking for something in particular, and help them find it. This will help them learn to use the internet consciously and will help avoid them coming upon unwanted content.
When they see things that alarm you, stay calm. By responding with curiosity rather than shame, you show them that they can talk to you and encourage communication. When you see or hear about a site that alarms you ("The older boys are daring you to look up ‘naked women?'"), try these steps:
Avoid accidental exposure using parental controls. Now that they are exploring more on their own - doing searches for topics, for example - parental controls can help prevent them from accidentally ending up on unintended sites. Note, though, that these controls won't keep curious tweens from getting around them, so don't rely on them to prevent purposeful exposure.
Notice what they're curious about, and give them the information you want them to have. Maybe your tween has mentioned that so-and-so has a girlfriend, or maybe you've noticed that someone has been doing searches about spin the bottle. To help him get some good information, find resources you trust and direct him to those. You can even add a bookmark for a site you like or a scribbled note next to the keyboard so he can investigate on his own.
Provide positive, healthful resources in a way that works for them. Teens are in the process of separating from their parents, so even though they are curious about all kinds of things, they are more likely to seek out information from their friends or online than to come to you. Depending on your teen, there are different ways to make sure they get health-positive information. You can try opening a candid conversation about their questions and about where to get good information. You can leave some books in the bathroom, or leave a website open that she can explore when she's ready.
Ask them to share their favorite websites with you, or ask for help finding something you're looking for. This can help you learn more about your teen and connect with their world. It also demonstrates that you respect their expertise in this realm, which can help open the doors to communication about it.
This guide was created by Ask the Mediatrician®, a service of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Boston Children's Hospital. A non-profit research center, CMCH is dedicated to understanding and responding to the effects of media - tv, movies, music, video games, cell phones and the internet - on the physical, mental and social health through research, translation and education. If you have a question about the research behind these guides, go to www.cmch.tv or if you have a question about media and child's health, go ahead and ask at it www.askthemediatrician.org. The work of CMCH is made possible by Comcast and other generous donors.