If you're a parent who feels like your kids' Internet browsing habits take place in another world, you're not alone. Children's familiarity with the Internet can leave some parents feeling helpless to police what their tech-savvy children are seeing on the computer.
But studies show that American kids are now spending up to an average of 40 hours per week using electronic media, with up to half that time on computers.
Researchers are just beginning to figure out the implications of all that screen time. Pornography and sexual predators are some of the most obvious and disturbing potential threats.
But relentless marketing, an increasing prevalence of online junk food advertising, and the sedentary nature of computer use itself may pose an even bigger risk to the average kid's overall health.
That's especially true for younger children. "Kids [between 5 and 11] are very concrete in their thinking. They're going to see things on the Web and think they're written in stone," says Richard Lerner, a Tufts University researcher who studies media effects on children.
The National Task Force on Children's Safety held a forum this week on Capitol Hill that included several Hollywood actors, including Tim Daly and Joe Pantoliano of HBO's "The Sopranos." The task force, which was started by several members of Congress along with Safety4Kids and the Creative Coalition and includes leaders in entertainment, education, the media, and in Congress, offered some simple advice on how to guide your child's online life.Be there when your kids are online:. Most kids today begin using the Internet by the time they're 6 or 7 years old. "Whatever they show interest in is fine, as long as you're there," says Lisa Bain, executive editor of Parenting magazine.Take computers out of the bedrooms: Putting computers in public parts of the house is key to being present in your kid's online experience. "Why not have it in the kitchen where you're cooking dinner so you can supervise which sites they're going to," says Carl Baum, an associate professor of pediatrics at Yale University.Don't just watch your kids surf: Talking to your kids about what they're seeing online will help everyone, including you, understand better what you're seeing. Your child may be more tech-savvy than you, but don't let that intimidate you, says Frank Gallagher, education and media literacy director at Cable in the Classroom, an industry-sponsored nonprofit group. "You're not there to help them figure out which buttons to push, you're there to ask them questions," he says. That will also help arm your child with the judgment to surf more safely when you're not around.
Consider using a Web filter: There are lots of Internet filters designed to keep kids away from harmful online content. Most are geared toward avoiding sexual content and may or may not weed out aggressive marketing. Safety4Kids has a free Web browser for young children based on the "SeeMore's Playhouse" television program available at www.safety4kids.com.Get media literate yourself: Pornography and sexual predators are relatively easy for parents to spot. But protecting kids from other negative influences, including unhealthy food, unhealthy attitudes, and aggressive marketing means being able to identify those things yourself. "It really starts with the family. You can't have media literacy unless you have parents' literacy," Lerner says.
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By Todd Zwillich
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
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