Helping Kids Stay Safe Online

A guy (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch) came to meet Rossella at the pre-vloggercon dinner. He teaches kids about computers, and had searched online for young videobloggers, finding Dylan Verdi, Ross, and some nine-year-old playing the piano.

The man wanted to ask Ross and me what we thought about the safety issues of kids in online video. This has also come up in the vlogging group lately, so I thought I’d share my own experience and perspectives on keeping kids safe online.

I’ve been working online since 1992, so Ross has grown up with the idea that computers are primarily tools for communication. Somewhere around age 11, she expressed an interest in trying it herself, specifically online chatting. I was happy to encourage this, in part to get her writing more in English. So I sniffed around and found Kidlink.org, which seemed to a safe place to start. Discussions are moderated by adults, and the atmosphere is/was friendly and relaxed (disclaimer: though it seems to still operate in much the same way, I have not followed Kidlink closely in years, since Ross outgrew it, so I cannot absolutely vouch for it). I also had her go through a Yahoo tutorial on Internet safety for kids, with a quiz at the end, covering the basics such as “don’t give out your phone number or address, don’t tell what school you go to.”

In the early days, I was always aware of what Ross was up to on the computer: she had to use my home office computer, or the other one sitting right next to it, so she was literally right under my nose most of the time. She enjoyed chatting with kids all over the world on Kidlink. Later on, when she tried things like MTV chat sites, there were a couple of incidents that I didn’t like, e.g. she and her friends ganging up electronically on someone else and exchanging obscene comments. That wasn’t and isn’t her usual style.

I never attempted to filter what Ross could see. Although it’s easier to find disturbing material on the Internet than in real life, it ain’t exactly difficult in real life – just watch the news on any given evening. Kids are curious, especially about anything that seems forbidden; that’s part of growing up. The less a big mystery you make of it, the less fascinating it will seem to them, and the less they’ll go looking for it. Ross told me she has looked at some gross-out sites that her friends were talking about but, again, I don’t think it’s a habit. After the fact, all I could do was shrug and say, “Well, I hope it doesn’t give you nightmares.” (It didn’t – she has a far stronger stomach than I.)

As for protecting Ross from others’ evil intentions, the best defense for any kid is to know how to react wisely to whatever comes up. Early on in Kidlink days there was a possibility of her meeting a Romanian boy who was coming to Milan for a vacation with his parents. I agreed that we could all meet up in some public place (though it never quite came together).

Far worse was the real-life incident when some dirty old man muttered obscenities to her on the street on her way home from school. Then only 12 years old, Ross was shocked and frightened, but she kept her head: as soon as the light changed, she crossed the street to where a traffic cop was standing, and the nasty guy of course disappeared.

These days Ross mostly chats online with people she already knows from real life, but she’s aware that it’s possible to make entirely new friends online. I have done so many times in my long online career, a recent example being the videoblogging group that we both met face-to-face in New York.

Kids should be protected, but at some point they have to learn to judge for themselves: they need the opportunity to develop their own gut feelings about situations and people to avoid. Parents can talk things over with kids and help them evaluate, gently guiding them towards the day when they’ll have to do it for themselves anyway. So, for the Internet as for practically every other issue in child-raising, the best we can do is to accompany them into new adventures, and try to keep lines of communication open.

July, 2006

Note: Ross now has her own website, but she needs my help to manage it, so she’s more active on Fotolog.

2014: Ross has had her own website for quite some time, though I still do technical stuff for her from time to time.

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