WHILE MOM'S AWAY....

Anne Tergesen

Last Wednesday, while I was at work, two classmates of my eight-year-old son’s introduced him to an online social networking site for children ages 8 to 14 called Club Penguin. When I got home from work, my three boys were wild with enthusiasm over this web site, which is loaded with games. Never a big fan of screens, I was mildly annoyed. But when my boys proudly unveiled the new “friends” they’d met on this site, I was more than annoyed--I was worried.

I’m still debating Club Penguin. On the one hand, as my husband points out, my kids are going to be spending an awful lot of time online—and at a much younger age than previous generations. The sooner they learn the dos-and-don’ts of online behavior, the better. But I still worry. After all, even if my eight-year-old can grasp the nuances of online safety, how can my six-year-old or my four-year-old? It’s very hard to grant one child computer privileges while denying the others—especially when I’m not always around to monitor the situation.

Online safety is something every parent worries about. But perhaps working parents have an even bigger cause for concern than stay-at-home parents, who have the opportunity to at least loosely supervise what’s happening on the computer. It’s no accident that the Club Penguin discovery occurred while I was at work: I don’t normally allow my kids to go online—a fact I had somehow failed to convey to our nanny. I stupidly assumed my kids were too young to be interested in e-mail, social networking, or surfing the web.

What to do? I guess I can look into installing a parental block on the computer until I feel they’re old enough to safely navigate the web. Of course, that approach won’t help when they go to friends’ homes. Alternatively, I may allow Club Penguin on a trial basis. Whether my husband and I choose to let the online genie out of the bottle now or later, I plan to take seriously the advice of my colleague, Toddi Gutner, who just wrote an article about social networking sites for young kids in BusinessWeek. She recommends: 1) having a candid conversation with your child about Internet safety; 2) monitoring online activities until you’re comfortable that your child is exercising good judgment 3) instructing your child to say “no thanks” to all who ask to be online buddies, unless the request comes from someone your child knows in the real world; 4) reviewing the online safety guidelines at www.safekids.com; 5) asking your child to read and sign the very sensible contract at http://www.safekids.com/contract.htm that spells-out what he or she can and cannot do online; 6) limiting the amount of time the child is allowed to spend online each day; 7) placing the computer in a "public" spot so activities and screen time can be monitored. For working parents, I’d add one more item to the list: 8) Discussing your philosophy with the nanny before you have a Club Penguin problem.

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