At its best, the Internet is your child's gateway to limitless knowledge. Take it from educational technology professor Sugata Mitra—she says that kids who access the Internet safely "learn to read sooner and better,” “gain in self-confidence," and "retain what they have researched for much longer" than children who learn offline.
But the Internet's expansiveness inherently comes with some serious considerations, including time issues, malware protection, and exposure to inappropriate content. The key to keeping your child's online experience an enlightening one is being both decisive and open with your children about your Wi-Fi rules.
Rather than implementing an arbitrary time limit, create a system that caters to your child—recognize how long it takes before casual use transitions into dependency or addiction. For example, if your child can't get through a conversation, meal, or movie without checking their smartphone, it’s time to apply some time restrictions.
Start by establishing Wi-Fi-free zones in the home, whether it's a physical area like your sunroom or den, or a time of day such as your evening meal. During times when Wi-Fi is allowed, encourage healthy Wi-Fi use by joining your kids as they stream YouTube videos or play Xbox Live, or make time limit exceptions for educational Internet content.
Privacy is another big factor—a completely hands-off policy might lead kids to stumble upon unsavory content, while constant observation or stringent restrictions could foster distrust. Mitra recommends bolstering the openness of your home Wi-Fi network by accessing the Internet in a shared fashion, such as on your smart TV in the living room, or on tablets with big, shareable screens.
Make it clear what your child should and should not be sharing online (sensitive identifying info such as your home address or phone number fall firmly in the “do not share” category). To further cement safety, make sure that you have a copy of all your children's passwords for social media accounts, as well as smartphone lock screens. If you suspect your children are roaming parts of the Web they shouldn’t be, check their browsing history lists, or consult your Wi-Fi router’s network activity logs. Be sure to discuss with them the reasons they shouldn’t be visiting those sites.
Your family's tech toys have built-in features that facilitate a safe Wi-Fi environment. Whether it's an iPhone or a Nintendo 3DS, always check out the parental controls—accessible under the device's settings menu—before handing a new piece of tech over to your kids. Depending on the device, these settings handle everything from limiting usage time to blocking adult-rated websites. For smartphones, service providers also offer security controls, typically found by logging into your account on your provider's website. Likewise, turning off location services can disable GPS tracking, and tweaking individual app settings lets you disallow data sharing to help protect your child's privacy.
Utilize content-blocking software and websites such as OpenDNS to prevent your children from accessing certain websites from your home network. They filter out adult-oriented content as well as malware, viruses, scams, and phishing. Alongside content-blocking software and services, usage-tracking apps let you monitor your kids' ongoing Internet access and impose customized content restrictions, time limits, and censorship. Some software packages even go so far as to monitor your kids' texts and social media interactions, sending notifications about their activity to your own smart devices. Keylogging software keeps track of every keystroke made on your computer or mobile device.
Common Sense Media's parenting editor Caroline Knorr brings up a complex, but resonant point: kids "believe that their phones are sacred and private," and that too much parental intrusion breeds a "parent versus kid situation, even for kids who are not doing anything wrong."
Knorr recommends starting your kids off with strong parental settings on their Wi-Fi-enabled devices—such as specific time limits and a list of blocked sites or keywords—then loosening the settings as they demonstrate responsible online behavior. For example, as time passes without incident, try lengthening the time your kids are allowed to be online and see if they change their routine. If they can balance their time between Internet-browsing and non-Wi-Fi activities without your guidance, lift the time limit altogether.
As both you and your child navigate an increasingly connected world, focus your efforts on keeping up to date—read, read, read, whether it's online security blogs or articles about trending dangers such as online bullying. Once you feel confident in the information you’ve gathered, establish an ongoing dialogue. If you discuss and share your Wi-Fi rules, you take the focus away from what your children can’t do on the Internet and highlight the things that make it great.