By Raising Children Network
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Boy with father looking at computer screen

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Most child development experts recommend limiting children’s daily screen time. Screen time includes TV, DVD and computer time.
  • Current Australian guidelines are no more than an hour a day for children aged 2-5 years, and no more than two hours a day for children over five.
The internet can be a powerful tool for learning. It’s also a place where your child could encounter dangerous material or people. Your challenge is to help your child enjoy the benefits of the internet while avoiding the risks.

Benefits of the internet

Children can benefit from the internet because it offers them more text-based information than other media. This can help improve a child’s reading and problem-solving skills. Some studies show that the internet can make learning more fun for young people.

Children can also benefit socially because they use email, chat roomsforums and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to communicate with friends (although face-to-face communication is also important for social development).

Connected to the internet, your computer brings the whole world into your home – the best and the worst of what’s out there. Take a moment to think about how you would supervise your child if she was speaking face to face with the strangers who produce internet content.

Dealing with internet safety concerns

You can help your children use the internet safely by monitoring, protecting and teaching them, and by learning about the internet yourself. Learning to use the internet safely is like learning to cross the street. It takes time and careful guidance from trusted people such as teachers and parents.

You can monitor and supervise your child’s use of the internet in several ways:

  • Talk with all family members about internet access. Monitoring works best if you are able to have calm and frank discussions with your child about his internet activities.
  • Keep the computer in a shared family area. If possible, avoid putting it in a study or bedroom. This allows you to keep tabs on how long your child is online as well as what websites she is visiting.
  • Together with your child, set up some simple and fair rules about internet use. For example, set a reasonable limit on the amount of screen time that your child is allowed. Discuss how these rules apply outside your home – for example, at a friend’s house or the local library. When your child follows the rules, remember to give him lots of positive feedback.
  • If you have older children, it’s a good idea to have a written internet use agreement with them. A written agreement signed by both of you helps make rules clear.
  • Your browser program contains a History button, which will allow you to see websites that your child visits.
  • Find out if your child’s school has an internet policy and how internet safety is maintained there.

You can help protect your child while she is using the internet:

  • Explain to your child that not all information on the internet is good, true or helpful. Explain also that some areas are for adults only and not intended for children to see.
  • You can help your child identify unsuitable material by naming some things to look out for. For example, a site containing scary or rude pictures, swearing or angry words is probably not suitable.
  • You can use a family-friendly internet service provider (ISP) such as Optus or Telstra BigPond. You can also suggest safe search engines like to your child and bookmark them for later use.
  • Ask your child to let you know if a person he doesn’t know contacts him. Also, your child should tell you if he’s planning a face-to-face meeting with someone he has met online. In this case, he should ask an adult he trusts (such as mum, dad, older brother or sister, or another adult) to go with him.  The meeting should always be in a public place, preferably during the day.
Ensure that your child understands that people she meets and chats to online need to be treated with serious caution. These people could be pretending to be someone they’re not to gain your child’s trust. Some even pretend to be another child so they can exploit and befriend children.

You can help your child learn how to use the internet safely, responsibly and enjoyably:

  • Focus on the positive aspects of the internet when you’re guiding your child. Spend time showing him sites that are fun, interesting or educational (and then boomark them for later use). For example, you could help your child find some information he needs for homework.
  • Encourage your child to question things she finds on the internet. When she finds a new site, she could ask herself questions such as, ‘Who is in charge of this site?’, ‘Have I found information or is this just opinion?’ and ‘Is this site trying to influence me or sell me something?’
  • Use an educational program specifically designed for your child’s age group.
  • Empower your child to use the internet safely by showing her safe sites and teaching her why they are safe. It is also important to educate your child on why it is dangerous to give out any personal details online.
Extended and frequent use of the computer can affect a child’s health and fitness. Encourage your child to engage in a range of activities that get him up and moving or that stimulate his thinking and creativity. For some ideas, read our articles on activities for younger kids and activities for school kids.

If you’re not familiar with the internet, start by learning about it yourself:

  • All you need is a basic understanding to help you supervise and guide your child. You can check out community resources such as your local library, neighbourhood house, TAFE or Council of Adult Education programs. Many of these will provide classes or further information.
  • Be reassured that you’re not alone if you find that your child knows more about the internet than you do. So why not ask your child for a lesson? This can be fun for both you and helps you understand just how much your child does know.

Internet safety tips

Parent concern Tips for parents What to tell your child
Finding unsuitable material

Use a screening program or filter to block entry to certain websites. Filters are not 100% effective but are worth looking into. Many ISPs offer internet filters as part of their service.

Buy and install a program that will block emails or web pages containing unsuitable key words.

If your child finds unsuitable material, discuss the material calmly. Let your child know how pleased you are that she is talking to you about it.

If you come across material that scares you or makes you feel uncomfortable, tell mum, dad or a teacher.
Giving personal information to strangers Anything you put into a computer or text message could become public property. It’s very important to check with mum, dad or a teacher before you give out any personal details to anyone, especially if you don’t know the person.
Rules and behaviour If you have agreed on internet rules and your child breaks them, you can block your child’s access to the internet. To do this, remove the modem and attach it only when you can supervise. Remember how we agreed on the rules and why we have them.

Common concerns about children’s internet use

Access to inappropriate content
Children might be only one or two clicks away from violent, pornographic or offensive material (even accidentally), especially if there are no filters or monitoring software installed on your computer. Some websites might contain advertisements for alcohol or cigarettes directed at children. These can be difficult to block, because they are usually images without text.

Also, some chat rooms can encourage inappropriate or harmful behaviour such as extreme dieting, underage sex or drug use.

Filter programs
Filtering programs are not completely effective. A resourceful child can sometimes find ways to get around these programs. Filters don’t screen what goes on in chat rooms. They can’t replace parental awareness and supervision.

Also, recent research tells us that ‘server-based’ filter programs (the kind your internet provider might run) are generally difficult to maintain. Their performance depends a lot on how they’re set up and fine-tuned. It’s worth checking the features of such programs carefully. You might need to add on extra features or programs.

Chat rooms and forums are lots of fun and great places to exchange ideas, but they can be risky. They allow people to interact anonymously, and age limits can’t be enforced. Also, children might be invited to meet up in the real world with people they meet online, which could lead to sexual or physical abuse.

The risk of stalking or child abuse over the internet can be avoided if you advise your children never to give personal information to or communicate one to one with people they do not know. Paedophiles have fewer opportunities to target children if personal information is not revealed.

Leaking of personal information
This is more of an issue for older children. It can occur by accident when children provide personal details on websites or to strangers they have met online. Risks include cyberbullying or identity fraud.

File-sharing programs
Online software that enables files to be swapped over the internet is a very attractive way for kids to share MP3 songs, videos and images for free. But sharing music and other files over the internet is against the law. Legal action has been brought against people for doing it.

These kinds of file-sharing programs, often called ‘peer-to-peer programs, also allow access to your computer by strangers who could introduce computer viruses or other harmful material.

Too much internet/computer use
Parents sometimes worry about their children using the internet too much. If a child is already shy or uncomfortable in social situations, that child might spend a lot of time online, withdrawing from family and friends. If most or all of a childs interaction with friends is via computer – instant messaging, emails, chat rooms – this can affect the development of the childs social skills.

Internet facts and stats

  • More than 50% of Australians have the internet at home. Also, a household with children is more likely to have a computer with internet access.
  • Boys and girls use the internet an equal amount, but there are some differences in how they use it. Research has shown that boys play more online games than girls, and girls use chat rooms and education sites more than boys do.
  • Last updated or reviewed 26-01-2011
  • Acknowledgements The Multimedia series Your child and the media was produced by the Parenting Research Centre with support from the Victorian Government Department of Human Services. © Copyright Victorian Government Department of Human Services 2005