Children start using the Internet very early these days, even when they are pre-school. They can spend hours instant messaging, playing online games, sending email, watching videos on YouTube and working on their MySpace pages. Parents wonder whether they should intervene, and how carefully they should monitor their children. What in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online? is written by a counselor and a clinical social worker who specialize in helping children whose Internet use has become a problem in some way. Their book provides sensible advice and plenty of practical hints for parents about what sorts of conversations they should have with their children, what kinds of limits they can impose on their children's Internet use, and what kind of software they can install on their computers to monitor their children's activity.
The book has three parts: the first and longest part is on "Cyberworld from your child's perspective," and discusses cell phones, text messaging, email, web sites, chat rooms, and blogs. This is the part that most readers will immediately turn to and read with most interest. The authors explain how children use the Internet and their phones for communication, and how children get addicted, are vulnerable to predators, and can be bullied by their peers. This part should be accessible even to parents who know very little about computers themselves and feel out of their depth in trying to talk to their children about the details of the cyberworld. Technical words are explained and the authors use straightforward language.
The second part takes a more psychological perspective, focusing on the relation between the cyberworld and children's development. It sets out some views of how children develop and then discusses the benefits and dangers of the cyberworld, This is a relatively sophisticated examination of the issues, and while not scholarly, it is still one of the more complex and thoughtful discussions of the topic around. At the same time, it retains a strongly practical stance, addressing questions such as the age-appropriateness of various computer activities and whether parents should allow their children to cyber-date. The next chapter focuses children who have emotional and learning disorders, and the roles that computers can play in their lives. They go through reading disorders, processing and receptive difficulties, attention disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, PTSD, and autism and Asperger's syndrome. While each disorder does not get a great deal of attention, this will still be a good place to start for parents who have found no comparable information elsewhere. The final chapter in this section addresses children for whom the Internet is a necessity. This includes children with disabilities, children from other cultures, and children with unusual interests or talents; all of them become far more able to communicate when they go online.
The third part of the book addresses parenting challenges. The authors start off with an important chapter on making sure that cyber-immersed children stay physically healthy. They emphasize how essential it is for children to eat well and to get regular exercise, and to avoid isolation. They move on in the next chapter to talk about the use of computers in schoolwork. Children need to learn how to work out whether the information they find on the Internet is reliable and from a trustworthy source. They also need to learn not just that plagiarism is wrong and could get them into trouble, but also how to distinguish plagiarism from legitimate use of sources. The guide here is by no means exhaustive, but it will be good enough for those in middle school and the early years of high school. The final two chapters discuss friendships and family relationships, and teen sexuality and dating. Their main message is that it is important to keep communication open, to keep families close, and to protect children from developing distorted ideas about sex and romance. The authors do not impose absolute rules about what children should or should not do, but instead take a thoughtful stance that acknowledges that different families will have different standards but can still benefit from taking the same factors into consideration. Computers can play a healthy role within families and in children's lives, but it takes work to avoid the many problems that so often arise.
The book ends with a glossary, a list of acronyms and abbreviations used in chat rooms, and a long list of resources for those who want to follow up on issues raised in the main text.
What in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online? could be helpful to parents: it provides information that many parents may not be familiar with, and it takes a reasonable and flexible approach to controlling children's behavior. The authors are realistic in that they know that if a child is determined to get to a website or send an email, he or she will probably find a way to do it. So it is essential in protecting children and getting them to behave well online to establish an alliance with them and maintain good communication. Of course, this is easier said than done, and no book is by itself going to provide excellent parenting skills. But for those parents who don't have a very clear idea of what their children are doing online, it is worth starting to think about becoming more involved, and this book provides some suggestions about how to do that.
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.