Why I'm Talking to My Kid About Online Safety Earlier Than I Expected

kid playing on phoneI typically don't allow my kids to have free use of my smartphone. I like to keep screen time to a minimum, and I also know my 6-year-old daughter gets enough of it when she visits her grandma. But recently I let her play a game on my phone. When I realized she was playing against random strangers, I got nervous.

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The quiz game isn't exactly for kids, but there are kid-friendly categories like animals and favorite characters. The game sets you up against an opponent interested in playing in the same category, and you're presented a question with four possible answers. There are lively sound effects, and you race against a timer for each question. My daughter is quite good at it for a first grader and she sometimes beats her opponents, setting off more exciting bells and whistles and making her want to play more. I know how easily one could get hooked on this game -- it's on my phone because I love trivia games and had a few strong weeks of really loving it until the novelty cooled.

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This is a game my daughter plays when she's at her grandma's house. Things are a little more laid-back when it comes to use of her phone or tablet there, and while I do lovingly scold my mom for giving my kids soda, I let the technology use slide. My daughter doesn't get to see my mom very often and I do wish they were having more quality time together, but I also realize that the phone is a good distraction when my mom needs a little time to make food or take care of something for a few moments that doesn't involve my daughter. This last month, though, I saw just how addicted my daughter is to this game.

She was home sick for an entire week last month, and the first couple of days involved a lot of sleeping, listening to me read to her, and watching movies. When she began to feel a little better, she asked to "play that game on [my] phone." I allowed her to play.

I was sitting next to her on the couch working on my computer while she played along. I giggled when she got an answer correct and expressed frustration when she got it wrong. She loved winning, and when she lost she re-challenged the person she lost against. And then it hit me. She's playing against strangers. Strangers who could be dangerous.

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I know this is a whole different thing than a kid's having his or her own social media account -- this game is set up under my name, not hers. But the fact that my baby was playing online games with who-knows-who freaked me out. She was interacting with total strangers -- the game does allow you to chat with other players. You can also follow people and they can follow you.

Thinking about the Internet and my littles and all they're exposed to got my mind racing. I suddenly wanted to ban both my kids from ever knowing anything about it. But I know I can't. Still, it opened up my fear in a real way.

It's something I didn't have when I was their age or growing up, so it's a whole new world, an unknown with kids and the Internet. We are starting to see the repercussions of it -- and it's terrifying. I don't need to list the awful things that have happened to kids as a result of the Internet. It's a reality parents today face. And we have to be prepared.

Since my daughter is only 6, she wouldn't get the idea that there is another person, a stranger, out there playing these games with her -- she can't quite grasp the whole concept in the way that we as adults do. Her playing with an "opponent" has a predatory feel that I don't like at all. I need to play this game with her, not just give her the phone and allow her to play by herself. It has also made me realize that this is a talk I need to have with Grandma. I don't want my children to feel free to interact with anyone on the Internet without realizing that people's intentions may be suspect. However, I don't want my kids to be fearful of everyone they don't know, either. So I have to find an age-appropriate balance, and for now, with my kids being 6, careful monitoring and open conversation with them is a good way to start.

Internet safety is a conversation we have to have with everyone who interacts with our kids -- the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and babysitters. I think if we start the conversation with our kids when they are young (and with those who spend time with them), they will grow up being more aware and therefore (hopefully) safer.

 

Image via iStock.com/praetorianphoto

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