NOTE: This article was first published on Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna’s consumer website.
Miriam, a mother of four, wrote to All Consuming with a sensitive question:
“We have a safety filter on our home computer that the family uses. It works very well. Recently, we discovered inappropriate terms that were Googled. Content was blocked, fortunately. How do we now discuss the content Googled? We do not know which child tried to access the questionable material.”
For advice, we turned to Linda Criddle. Criddle is the author of the book Look Both Ways: Help protect your family on the Internet and president of LOOKBOTHWAYS, focused on technical, educational and policy-based solutions for consumers. Criddle answers questions about Internet safety on her Web site. She helped create our Internet Safety section and teamed up with CyberPatrol to create a series of videos to educate parents and teachers about how to talk to kids about Internet safety. Here’s her response to Miriam’s question:
“1) Get the family together, and make it a positive environment – have banana splits or something – because you don’t want to associate negative feelings with conversations about safety, or kids will be less likely to come to you when there is a real problem.
“2) Keeping a positive tone, say, ‘There are a couple of things we need to talk about to help keep the Internet a really great tool in our home. It seems someone has tried to search on some phrases that were blocked and we’d like to talk to you all about that, and maybe hear from whichever one of you tried the searches to learn why you were using those phrases.’ (Understand that the person may want to talk with you in private about their reasons.)
Criddle explained that your child may have a good reason for their search – or might just be curious and wanting to test the limits.
“Curiosity isn’t bad. Understand what their need is: Are they ready to learn more about sexuality? Some other topic? Be as supportive as possible …
“What’s good is that they searched at home. Any freak-out and punishment will teach them to go elsewhere to search, and they will not have the benefit of loving parents guiding them through the questions they have.
“I don’t know the ages of your kids, but the advice holds: When kids seek inappropriate content, it is because they have questions or curiosity about it. No matter the topic, it is OK to have questions and curiosity. What matters is how those questions are addressed – you want it to be by loving parents through the perspective of your values. What isn’t OK is for kids to feel they have to get answers from others who aren’t likely to provide the framework for understanding in an appropriate way.”
Criddle noted that if the topic searched was sexual in nature, a parent might feel a child is too young for such a conversation. But, she notes, “The reality is, they are showing curiosity, so the time to help them learn more is now. It is a ‘teachable moment.’ They will get an answer from somewhere, and you want it to be your answer – not ‘the streets’ answer.
“Listen with your inner ear and without judgment, and you’ll know how to make the incident a positive experience that brings you closer together for the next hurdle down the road of growing up. The alternative – making a negative incident out of it – is not pretty, as it inserts a wedge between you that will drive the child to seeking the information secretly from others in the future.”