Today’s busy families often rely on modern conveniences such as cell phones, texting, Internet, and other new technology to keep in touch throughout the day. With children and teens increasingly using online sites and mobile phones for education and entertainment, how do you keep your kids safe in cyberspace? Now is a perfect time to review some tips and discuss cyber and cell safety as a family.

 According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, young people spend just under 6 ½ hours a day “media multi-tasking.” That’s about 44 ½ hours a week, more time than they spend in school. As of 2009, there were 13 social networking sites and 4.2 million pornographic web sites online, and more added every day.  Yet, 71% of parents report that they stop monitoring children’s Internet use after age 14.

Help your children and teens be respectful and responsible online citizens. Discuss appropriate language, downloads, viewing, and interactions. Remind them that nothing said, shared, or viewed online is private. Friends should be treated online in the same way they’re treated in person. Show kids the privacy settings on their favorite sites and help them think about which to use.

Help kids think critically about what they find online. Young people need to know not everything they see is true. Discuss what sites and searches are appropriate and allowed. Consider installing a filter or blocking program to restrict access to inappropriate sites and images. An Internet filter is a software or hardware product that prevents kids (or anyone) from seeing inappropriate Web content. It works by using keywords, and filters sites defined by those words.

Talk to your children and teens about safety when using cell phones and other portable devices, particularly when listening to music with earphones. Earphones should NEVER be used while riding a bicycle or walking near a road. They can block the sound of cars and other vehicles, putting children in harm’s way. When in public places, it’s best to use just one earphone, or none at all, to maintain awareness .

Consider adopting a “no cell zone” – a place where all family phones are deposited and turned off during family time, whether dinner, discussions, homework, or sleeping time. Be sure you follow the rules and turn your iPhone or Blackberry off also! Family rules must apply to all. Keep children’s Internet access, TV, and video games in a busy part of your home, rather than in their rooms. This allows you to more closely monitor what they’re doing, and also helps keep family time at a premium. Most cable and satellite TV providers offer you the ability to restrict access to inappropriate shows. Use it!

Many schools report an increase in cheating via use of phones in class. Find out your school’s rules about cell phone use and make sure your children and teens understand them. Online cheating is still cheating. Remember that your child’s “smartphone” or 3G phone or iPod Touch offers unlimited Internet access. Some mobile carriers are beginning to offer filtering for the content available on their services, but they have no control over what’s on the Web. Parents of younger kids might want to consider turning off Web access and turning on filtering if they’re concerned about access to adult content.

Finally, check in with your children and teens often. Periodically ask your kids to show you what they’ve found that they like. Showing that you’re interested in the good stuff they’ve been finding may mean they’re more comfortable coming to you if something on a site bothers them. Make sure kids know to check in if they see something that’s hateful, pornographic, or violent, or if someone is using the Internet or cell phone to harass or bully them or another person.

Most of all, remember that communication is key. Talk to your children frequently about their online and mobile activities. Be a good role model with your own media usage. The Internet, and the many devices and apps we use to access it, have opened doors to information, social activities, and interaction never before imagined. Help your children and teens navigate the Web in a safe and respectful manner through ongoing communication and discussion.

By Gabriel Welcher & Jean Mirando.

Gabriel Welcher and Jean Mirando are Parent Project Facilitators at John Muir Health Behavioral Health Center, which provides a full range of inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services for patients of all ages. For more information, call 925-674-4100.  To learn more about classes and events at John Muir Health, call 925-941-7900  or go online at www.johnmuirhealth.com.