An Internet Safety Contract is a huge resource which I believe is often overlooked by many families. For starters, it is a fantastically simple way to start a discussion with children about a number of online dangers, not the least of which is pornography.

The start of a new school year is an excellent time to establish and review these safety guidelines. In fact, your children have probably brought home a letter for you to sign with them, acknowledging that you both know what it means to use the technology at school appropriately.

We certainly did. It was sent home the first day of class along with a dozen other papers to sign. In our area the letter is titled: ACCEPTABLE AND SAFE USE PROCEDURE for computing and information technology facilities and resources. (If that isn’t a mouthful for the average first grader —never mind the parents!)

READ TO THE END TO DISCOVER THE FOUR STEPS TO AN EFFECTIVE CONTRACT!

The letter is really a legal waiver to state that you and your child understand that the school is not liable for any offensive or harmful content which sneaks past their Internet filtering software. Here’s a excerpt from the letter we received:

This software blocks access to specific unacceptable sites known to contain violence, sexually explicit acts, hate crimes information, pornography, racist and other extremist viewpoints, cults, etc. No software is capable of blocking all unacceptable Internet sites. Teachers will supervise students’ use of the Internet as they supervise student use of all other school resources.

My children have been eager to get back into the school routine this week. Reconnecting with friends, the anticipation of fun extra-curricular programs, and even the new academic challenges have created a palpable buzz of excitement in our house before and after school.pa_bycyclesschool_flickr_steven-vanceAs parents, the last thing you would imagine getting thrown into the mix of the return to school is cyber-bullying, sexting and the sharing of pornographic YouTube videos. Yet, as modern communication technologies spread through the classroom and onto the playground, this is tragically becoming a much more common experience for many elementary age children. If this were not the case, there would be no request for the yearly signing of the ACCEPTABLE AND SAFE USE PROCEDURE waiver.

So how can you protect your children from online dangers while they are at school? Start by building an Internet Safety Contract together at home. Let me explain with an anecdote from my own family:

Before one of my workshop presentations last year I decided to get some feedback from my kids on what they thought of our current Internet Safety Contract. Now I knew that we were working with some fairly general and implicitly stated guidelines so it came as no surprise when my children’s faces stared blankly back at me, “huh, what are you talking about mom?” Secretly, this was the exact strategy I was going for. Now, with no coercion on my part my kids just asked me to discuss the benefits of an Internet Safety Contract with them!

At the time, I thought it might be beneficial to connect the idea of our family contract to the ACCEPTABLE AND SAFE USE PROCEDURE waiver each of my children signed at the start of the school year. This only led to more confused looks. “Mom, no one ever pays attention to that form”, one son finally admitted —GREEEAAT!!

We definitely had some work to do. It was obvious to me that this was going to take more than one session. But don’t let that discourage you. Getting the conversation started is very easy. Just follow these four steps:

Step One —Getting Everyone on the Same Page

My first step was to build an alliance with my kids. To do this we identified together why we would even need a contract. “Okay” I said, “The Internet, phones and gaming devices are amazing, but what are some of the dangers associated with these things that we need to be aware of?” Without hesitation the youngest (7 at the time) yelled out “PORNOGRAPHY!” (We had just finished reading Good Pictures, Bad Pictures together).

“Absolutely,” I affirmed, “pornography is a huge online danger we need to protect ourselves from, good for you! What are some others?”  We discussed misrepresentation (that not everything you see or read online is true). We also discussed the importance of balance in our lives (that it’s very easy to lose track of time and become obsessed with gaming or online socializing).

Step Two —Allow Children to Structure the Parameters

I knew we needed to have agreement among family members of what we were trying to protect ourselves from. Otherwise the contract, no matter how well drawn up, would not have any lasting value. It would cause contention surrounding the use of technology at home instead of acting as a valuable tool and resource, protecting against dangerous and habit forming online content. The great thing is that when children of any age understand that porn is a predatory industry, specifically targeting young people, then they are more willing to work with their parents to safeguard themselves.

Step Three —Be Specific

One of the items our Internet Safety Contract addresses is where devices may be used in the home. We decided to uphold the pre-existing policy that all internet devices should be used in public spaces. “But what if I have a friend over?” the 12-year-old asked, “Would it be okay to play in our room then?” To resolve that concern I simply asked him, “Is there any reason you couldn’t play with your friends in the family room or living room areas when you are playing these types of games?” The solution is so simple. It doesn’t limit anyone’s fun, yet without advance forethought we may innocently enable our children to develop poor security measures.

Step Four —Be Consistent

Interestingly, the issue came up again the other day and I hardly recognized it as such until writing this article. A neighbourhood friend came over with his phone. Usually the phones get put away and more interactive play begins; however not this time. The young man seemed to be looking up some silly YouTube videos. But once the phone went upstairs I reminded our 12-year-old that his friend is always welcome to come over but if he would rather be on his phone then maybe it’s time for him to go home. The phone went away and the happy play resumed.

Children are never too young or too old to participate in this type of family discussion. Begin conversations about Internet safety as soon as your child can turn on the nearest smartphone. Make it exciting, make it fun, make it about them!

My experience is that children will self-regulate their Internet use when they participate in setting the ground rules for the entire family. Return to this discussion often and modify the protocols to suit the age of your children.

Please let us know if this article was of benefit to you or how you have used this simple but effective resource in your own family!

Marilyn

Marilyn

Marilyn Evans lives east of Toronto with her husband and five sons. Concerned with the ease of access to online pornography, she began searching for ways to address this subject with her own children. The lack of support and information available to parents at that time compelled her to begin speaking out publicly on the subject. It's her hope that parentsaware.info will provide families with a resource they can turn to for answers on how to speak openly and honestly with their children. You can follow @parentsaware on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Marilyn

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