According to the US Census Bureau, more than 68% of Americans had computers with Internet access somewhere in their homes during the year 2009. In 60-70% of these homes, there were children aged 3-17 residing. With new homeschooling research putting the number of homeschoolers at 2.04 million [or more] in the United States, it is safe to assume that many of the homes with computers are homes in which children are being homeschooled, too.
How can homeschooling parents protect their children from the dangers of computing and, more specifically, of having Internet access?
Two kinds of dangers lurk in the computer rooms of today. The first involves the physical stresses placed on the body and the kinds of behaviors that may result from overuse. The second is more about the privacy and safety of children who use shared web sites and social networking tools.
As for the first type of danger, there are many precautions that parents can take to prevent harm from overuse of computers. These are well-documented, and include many of the same the kinds of prevention measures that parents might take when allowing children to watch TV, such as providing comfortable seating, limiting the amount of time spent there, making time for plenty of outside activity and exercise, and requiring that children take frequent breaks when working for long periods of time. Noting changes in behavior with extended computer use and making appropriate corrections along the way is generally all it takes to combat these kinds of problems.
Harms involving Internet use, on the other hand, are harder to predict, and even harder to control. With the advent of online discussion groups, interactive computer games, and the vast array of networking tools now available to young people, there are many more opportunities for kids to inadvertently run into problems than ever before.
To avoid potential problems with Internet use, I suggest that parents train early and intervene often.
What does this mean?
For starters, as with anything else, proper training that starts early and is constantly reinforced, produces the best results. With computers, this means teaching children to ask permission before signing up for web site accounts or shopping online, not disclosing personal information when using a computer, and telling parents if they ever see anything inappropriate as they work. Modeling good behavior when using computers themselves, parents can also point out the things that they do so that children will pick up on good computer habits as well.
Older children should be taught to recognize inappropriate content in emails or on social networking sites, including photos, and should be aware that their parents may join their blogs and networking sites, check their computer use and view what they post online. If the option exists, parents may also create their own user accounts which are linked to their child’s account, to oversee activity and monitor use.
When selecting account names and passwords, children should be taught to encrypt information or use random letters and numbers that have no significance whatsoever. Too often, children use first names, last names or combinations of names and birth dates as usernames, revealing their identities without meaning to do so. Helping your child select an appropriate username and making sure that passwords are secure and changed frequently, will reinforce these ideas as the child grows. (For very young children, parents should create accounts themselves, and allow children to use them, once the parent has already signed in.) And, kids should be taught never to share their passwords with friends, either.
Using web sites that are family-friendly and have been pre-screened for student use is another excellent idea. Parents can either screen web sites themselves before turning them over to children, or may use any one of dozens of portals designed to deliver only quality web sites that are safe for kids (KidsKonnect, KidZui, KidGrid, KidSites, or AllSafeSites, for example). There are even services that deliver one safe web site to families every day (ClickSchooling or Freebie of the Day, for instance) that are worth considering.
Joining social networking sites specifically designed for homeschooled kids is another idea. Apart from groups formed on services like Facebook and Yahoo, subscription-only sites exist solely for homeschooled kids to communicate with one another. These include FuseFly (hs-ers of all ages), HomeschoolsLikeUs (hs-ers 18 and up), Hschooler ($5/year, Christian only), among others.
For parents who prefer to let their kids surf on their own, but still have the ability to track what the children have done, Internet “nanny” programs may be useful. These programs monitor computer use and provide a history of which web sites have been viewed, for how long, and other detailed information about what has taken place on the machine. A quick Internet search for nanny netware will produce a list of available titles.
In addition to all of these measures, it is incumbent upon parents to keep computers properly maintained, which includes having up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spam software installed plus all appropriate privacy and security controls activated (including parental controls and passwords if they desire). Making sure that email settings are in place also goes a long way to filter out most spam and phishing type emails, even if they aren’t always perfect.
But perhaps the most important safety measure of all is one that most homeschooling families have no difficulty with – ongoing support and supervision. Even very mature or trustworthy children need supervision and guidance while using computers, and homeschooling moms and dads are usually only too happy to provide this for their kids. Staying in touch with children as they use computers is the best way for parents to show they care about what their children are doing as well as reinforce standards of what they deem appropriate and which boundaries should never be crossed.
There is no way to guarantee computer and online safety and these are merely ideas that can help. As always, parents should do what they feel is best in every given situation, no matter what advice they receive from others.
[Photo: Free digital]