One of the most notable components of the third-grade curriculum is Internet proficiency. This year, the Web starts to become an integral part of your child's academic process, facilitating research, group-project communications and self-guided discovery.
The positives of developing efficiency and confidence in Web applications are big. It's tough to get very far these days without knowing how to use the Internet to your advantage, and in 10 years, these skills will only be more essential. In short, the more comfortable your child is with technology, the better.
But there's a catch. Since your child will be doing more online, the risks involved in roaming the digital world will be more prominent, especially because third grade often marks a jump to Web-based socializing. More and more peer interactions will be electronic, and your child will be dealing with all the pros and cons that come along with that -- which means you'll be dealing with them, too, because Internet activity isn't only happening in school.
While 8-year-olds are grown-up enough to navigate the digital sphere, they're not grown-up enough to navigate it safely without your help. Safety on the Internet requires knowledge, practice and at least a little cynicism.
You, then, will be the educator here, and your first job is an unpleasant one: Before you can teach your child how to manage the potential dangers, you need to face some scary truths yourself.
Here goes ...
Porn, Predators and Put-downs
It must be an over-reaction: "Your children are in danger!" is good for ratings. Rumors and bad statistics have never been easier to find. My child tells me when other kids are mean. We've talked about stranger danger. My 8-year-old would never look at porn ...
For all the truth in these statements, the dangers are real. Almost certainly your 8-year-old isn't Googling "free porn," but the sheer volume of Web-based pornography makes intent almost an afterthought. Research shows that 70 percent of underage Internet users have viewed pornographic material online by accident -- and that most of these instances happen on the home computer [source: InternetSafety101]. Simply misspelling a URL or clicking on a pop-up can result in exposure, and not just to nudity but also to sexual violence, fetish material and child exploitation.
Less common but more terrifying, the Internet, with its anonymity and ease of access, offers sexual predators a safe, effective place to conduct operations. In third grade, as online socializing becomes increasingly central to peer-group communications, your child becomes an easier target. Anyone can gather personal information from public profiles, chat rooms and blogs and set up a fake identity to establish seemingly innocuous contact with a child. E-mail, instant message and chat rooms are all modes of potentially dangerous contact.
That same reach and anonymity emboldens other predators, too: School bullies can harass their classmates with almost no fear of consequences, and the 24/7 nature of the Web leaves their victims without an after-school reprieve. (See Is cyberbullying getting out of control?)
Scary? Yes. But it's not necessary (or wise) to keep your 8-year-old out of cyberspace. Ultimately, keeping your child safe on the Internet calls for the same tools you've been using all along to teach smart, responsible behavior everywhere else: Awareness, involvement, open communication and a willingness to be the bad guy.
Reducing the Risks
You've talked to your child about strangers with candy, and about dealing with mean classmates. The sex topic, too, has probably come up by now. Talking about Internet safety will simply be an extension of these conversations, and talking is a necessity.
Talk About It.
Start with questions. Ask what your child has seen online, whom he or she has talked to and which sites he or she visits most often. Ask if any online experience has been weird or troubling or just caused a bad feeling in his or her stomach, and explain why you want to know: The Web can be a dangerous place, and here's why.
And try not to sugar-coat it.
Listen closely, ask follow-up questions, and whatever you do, remain calm. You probably won't get far if the look on your face says punishment is coming, and getting upset or overly emphatic will discourage future discussion on the topic.
Lay the Ground Rules
Talking isn't enough, though. It's important to explain how to avoid these dangers, and set clear rules to that effect, such as:
- Internet will only be accessed in shared parts of the house.
- Never fill out a profile or a personal-information form (name, age, address, etc.) without permission.
- Never enter a public chat room.
- Never post photos where strangers can see them.
- Never use a webcam without supervision.
- Always use the privacy settings on social-networking sites.
- Your parents will be among your "friends."
Insisting (if necessary) on being "friended" is just one way you can know what your child is doing on the Web. Internet privacy is for adults, not third-graders, and there are some simple steps you can take to make your child's Internet activity apparent. These include regularly checking the browser history, which shows you which Web sites have been visited, and the browser downloads to see exactly which files have been pulled from the Web. It's also good idea to maintain a list of your child's online passwords, should you need them.
In the end, while talking, setting rules and nosing around will get you a lot of the way to keeping your child safe online, the tech folks have given you a method that's more foolproof. Just as technology can provide access, it can also limit it.
Internet browsers have security and safety settings, so why not use them? You can easily block certain types of downloads, Web sites or categories of content. Advertising can, to some extent, be controlled this way, as well. And those tools are already on your computer right now. You can also download software, some of it for free, that gives you even more control and knowledge of your child's activities online. These types of programs can do things like track, block and notify, and they were invented exactly for the purpose of making children safer online (see How Internet Censorship Works for more information).
There is, of course, an even simpler way to be sure your tech-savvy child is practicing good Internet habits and that everyone is playing nice: Surf together. Sitting next to your child while he or she navigates can create a safe, open space for exploration and let you know what's happening in invaluable real-time.
And, by the end of third grade, your child might know more than you about what the Web really can do, so you might even end up learning a thing or two.
For more information on Internet safety for kids, signs of trouble, and how you can help, check out the links on the next page.
Third grade is an academically challenging year, and my research revealed a trend toward even greater challenges of late. Perhaps in response to high-pressure government standards, some elementary schools have been assigning a lot more homework (and some are assigning none at all -- but that's less common). There have been reports of young students coming home with hours of work to do, and while I only touched on this briefly in one of the back-to-school articles, it's worth looking into further if your child's homework level seems extreme, as many education experts recommend against the trend.
- Internet Safety 101. Enough is Enough. (July 5, 2012) http://www.internetsafety101.org/
- Internet Safety Tips for Elementary School Kids. Common Sense Media. (July 5, 2012) http://www.commonsensemedia.org/advice-for-parents/internet-safety-tips-elementary-school-kids
- Internet Safety Tips for Parents: Elementary School. Education.com. (July 5, 2012) http://www.education.com/reference/article/elementary-school-internet-safety-tips/