We teach them about personal boundaries. Just like we teach our children not to walk off with strangers or allow them access to their personal, bodily self, we must teach our children that people online are strangers too and must be treated with at least as much caution as we would somebody physically in front of us. If anything, with more caution because a person in front of us gives us some personal information by way of body language, speech etc that are easier to mask online.
We teach ourselves something of how internet websites and browsers work. We learn to set and operate parenting controls and we regularly check the browsing history. Even then, on the understanding that older children will go looking for information on sex and bodies, smart parents will either discuss or provide reliable information early on, either by books or websites. Consider the alternative: possible paedophiles teaching your children the 'facts' of life.
Children should ideally not post personal information online. However, this is both unrealistic and impractical so perhaps the family should have ground rules about the posting and tagging of photographs and sharing of personal cellphone numbers, school name, home address etc. Those friends who need such information can be given it offline or even via direct messages. A friend once pointed out that information posted online is akin to that being up on a permanent billboard by a highway. This thought makes a useful rule of the thumb when wondering whether to post something or not.
Computers, especially those used by young children, should be in common spaces with the monitor clearly visible to passers-by. Children should know that you expect to be able to check their internet usage. My son is 6 and gets very limited time online from his father and me. However, my father often leaves him to surf dinosaur videos on their iPod by himself. I have asked for the unsupervised surfing to stop after repeatedly finding adult videos in the list of suggestions. Youtube is dangerous! (Likewise, it makes sense to check other videos classed by the tags you used for your family video uploads. We removed many of the tags on Rahul's baby videos after finding them clubbed with adult content on tags like "bathtub" etc.)
NetNanny offers a tip I found interesting: children can be taught to switch the monitor off if a porn site opens up, and immediately go fetch an adult. Children should also know that unwary clicking can do more than just open up pornographic pictures: their computer could be crippled by virus and worm attacks.
It is vital that parents discuss browsing and websites with internet-using children. Children need to know the lines of communication are open in case they wish to discuss concerns with what they encounter online. To help adults pick up on the warning signs, the FBI has a useful list of things to look out for.
You could not have been online last month and missed hearing about the Steubenville gang rape. One of the links that came my way was a piece by the blogger who took screen grabs of abusive tweets about the incident. She was reviled by some for having 'complicated' the case; I myself posted the link on Facebook saying that this is how we should regard our own roles on the internet.
You see, I believe that as a generation that has grown up largely online, has seen the internet grow and evolve, as the people who have helped chart that evolution, it is vital that we never forget it is up to us to keep the space clean. Our responsibilities are in fact two-fold: teach our children to recognise what is dangerous and ensure that we all play our own individual roles in keeping the place as clean as we can.
With this post I am happy to kick off Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month 2013. For more information or indeed to contribute, please head over to the website. You can also contact the team directly via Twitter and Facebook.