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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.


Q: When should I let my child have her own computer?

A: That depends on what the child will use the computer for and whether you feel they - and the rest of the family - would benefit from the additional resource. For most families, the need for individual computers is dictated by how many kids there are in the household and how much the computers are used for school work. If there is only one computer in the house, then consider getting an additional machine for the parents to free up more time for the rest of the family. In the absence of unusual circumstances, it would probably be appropriate for a child to get their "own" computer when they are well into their high school years. (See Teens: A Behavioral Approach)

Q: At what age is it appropriate for a child to own a cell phone?

A: This can vary dramatically. We have known children as young as 6 to have their own phone, while other parents have waited until their children are in high school. However, it's fair to say that children under the age of 12, while appreciating the novelty of a cell phone for a week or two, will probably then leave it in a drawer for the next year or two and forget about it! (After all, there are very few other kids that they can call!) Plus, providing your tween with a cell phone may attract the ire of other parents, who will then get requests from their own children!

Once your child is out and about on their own more often it makes perfect sense for you to be able to keep in touch. Cell phone providers have a multitude of family plans to start you off with. However, make sure you are aware of the minuses of cell phone ownership as well as the pluses...and we are not just talking about the cost! (See Owning Cell Phones, iPods & Other Tech Toys)

Q: Our new family computer comes with Windows 7, which claims to have excellent parental controls built in. Are these sufficient for regulating Internet content and access for our children?

A: Microsoft has made tremendous strides in the area of parental controls with the release of Windows 7, its relatively new operating system. Windows 7 allows you to set individual controls for multiple users and can restrict access to web sites, set time limits, control access to games, and block the use of other programs. However, if you need to go deeper and track web sites visited or even have the ability to read or record e-mail or IM, then you will need to install one of the many custom programs that are available by download or through a tech retailer. (See Security Tools for more information and an age-appropriate approach to security software.)

Q: At what age is it appropriate for a child to have a Facebook page?

A: Facebook themselves will tell you that their social networking site is not appropriate for children under 13 years of age. In fact, it's written into their Terms of Use. (This document is well worth a read - it will both reassure and alarm!) We fully support this age limit as an appropriate cut-off point. There are plenty of other social networking sites for younger children to get involved in without risking exposure to some of the racier material that's all over Facebook. In fact, we recommend that your child's first venture into Facebook territory be a supervised project, with you helping them set the page up and recommending pictures and other profile information. They may not want you as a friend but that shouldn't stop you checking their page out every so often. If they object to that before the age of 18, then you may have something to worry about! (See Teens: Keeping It In The Family for more information)

Q: We have recently discovered that our teenage daughter has posted some highly inappropriate material on her Facebook page. How can we broach this subject with her and ask her to take it down?

A: Take a look at some of the recommendations that we make in our Keeping It In The Family page. The important thing for your daughter to understand is that posting this material is just like posting it on the school bulletin board. Not only can her friends (and non-friends) see it but so can her teachers, her friends' parents, and any future employers! If it's not going to threaten any of her existing friendships - or even if it is - consider telling her exactly how you heard about it and how much harm that does to the family reputation. Keep it friendly and don't try and drive it underground but be insistent. Poor judgment now can impact her for a lifetime!

Q: How can I track which sites my son visits when he is on the Internet?

A: There are numerous parental control software suites that can track where your son goes when he's on the Internet. They can all be pre-programmed to prevent him visiting inappropriate sites, either by specifying them individually or by excluding certain categories of site or content. (See Getting Help: Security Tools for more information and some age-appropriate security recommendations.)

Q: How do I find out which video games are appropriate for my 12 year-old?

A: The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is responsible for rating games and they approach the task much the same way as movie industry rates films. While not perfect, the ESRB does a pretty good job and, if anything, they tend to err on the side of caution, clearly mindful of the poor publicity that video gaming used to attract. There are also numerous sites that review games for parents and kids - WhatTheyPlay is a great example.

Q: I am worried my teenage daughter is corresponding with inappropriate "friends" on the Internet? She spends a lot of time in chat rooms but is very defensive about who she is chatting with and what is being said. How do I make sure she is not at risk without spying on her?

A: That's a difficult one. We assume your child is old enough to have her own computer or can access a family computer without you looking over her shoulder. If that's the case, then it will be hard to go back to a family-style computer in a common area without provoking a certain amount of rebellion! The best way to know if there is a problem is to watch for any danger signs. Nobody knows your child better than you do. Has she become withdrawn or argumentative? Has she recently changed the people she hangs out with; lost her long-time friends and picked up inappropriate new ones? These and other behavioral changes can be signs of bigger problems that should be addressed immediately. If you can't get your child to talk to you about her online activities, then you may need to dig a little deeper.

If you don't think your child is behaving differently or exhibiting any of these problems, then maybe you can afford to leave well alone and afford her the privacy that she thinks she deserves!

Q: My 11 year-old daughter wants to spend all her spare time on the Internet, chatting with friends and searching teen-targeting web sites. How much Internet time is appropriate for pre-teens?

A: At that age it's just not healthy for children to spend all their time on the Internet, any more than it's healthy to be watching TV all day long. You need to agree some limits - an hour after school and maybe a little more time at the weekend seems perfectly reasonable to us. If she is using the family computer (which we hope she is!), install some parental controls that allow you to pre-set time limits, so there can be no arguments when her time is up. And make sure you know what sites she is visiting and who she is talking to. If necessary, talk to the parents of her online friends and try to agree on a set of standards that will apply to all of them. Hopefully the Internet-addiction phase will pass quickly. Then you can have a couple of years to prepare yourself for the huge cell phone bills that are sure to follow!

Q: We are fairly comfortable with the parental controls we have in place on the family computer but these obviously don't apply when our children go on play dates at friends' houses. How can we insist that our rules are followed when they are using other peoples' computers?

A: One of the biggest problems that parents now face is the fact that the rules and parental controls that they have carefully constructed for their children can all go by the wayside when their kids go on play dates and visit their friends' houses. It may be that the parents don't bother with computer and Internet supervision or it may be that the rules are different and more lax. Either way, it is hard to be consistent and fair if your child is exposed to different standards wherever they go. The best approach? Talk to the parents. Explain what you are trying to do with your child and the rules that you have put in place. More often that not, you will find a receptive ear and might even give them some ideas to adopt for their children's computer time. Another thing to recommend to them....Visit The Online Mom!

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