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This morning P woke me by snuggling into my bed and asking how babies are made. "I don't understand how the father helps," he said. "Does he just sit there and watch?"
I thought it wouldn't be too out of character if I chose this moment to bury myself under my pillow, but as usual that solution was short-lived and soon I was wiping the bleary gunk from my eyes and trying to answer his question as per my usual protocol — be calm, be scientific, use Google.
About five seconds after I typed the word "vagina" into an image search it occurred to me that this wasn't the ideal situation for my usual protocol. Pretty lucky, then, that just last Friday I decided P had reached that stage of digital independence where I really needed to put a few checks in place to protect him even if I wasn't hanging directly over his shoulder. Or, as it turns out, if he's actually hanging directly over mine but I'm not yet awake enough to Google responsibly.
This could happen to you.
No, actually, it might just be me. But in any case, I'm going to pass on our current techniques for maintaining Internet safety as our children reach the next stage of digital awareness, covering general device settings, our arrangements for gmail, Skype, Twitter and WordPress, and resources for teaching about online safety and etiquette.
And I'd be keen to hear if you think there's something we've missed, or that you do differently, because clearly I need to do that tomorrow, before the followup round of questions begins.
Here's our general checklist for what we do and don't want our 6-year-old to be doing online:
We don't want him using the device to reveal his location. Location services are off.
We don't want him purchasing apps or making in-app purchases.
We don't want him posting content on the internet or using email or skyping people without our knowledge or consent.
We do want him to access useful, G-rated content via a web browser, with some (nearby) supervision.
We do want him to post content, email and skype with our consent and supervision.
How we set up our devices now our eldest can read and type:
Before P learned how to read, type and ask detailed questions about how babies are made, life was very simple. We put a password lock on our devices and nobody could even start to use any of them without direct supervision; also, most of the questions were about fish or volcanoes.
Now P's grown out of that, we've transferred all his activities (except CIV IV) onto the iPad Mini he won in an art competition (I know — I was thinking a set of paintbrushes or something) and set the ratings to G. It's not 100 percent reliable, but I can tell you the first page of image search results for "vagina" is safer than it otherwise would be.
How we configured the iPad Mini for our children's use:
Because this device is just for the kids which would never have happened in the real world where we have to buy and therefore share things, I didn't switch off the ability to delete apps (let 'em learn the hard way). On my phone, delete apps is most certainly switched off, so I always know my apps are there somewhere even if a few have gone missing in some weird places never to be seen again.
How we set up P's Gmail account
The kids have Gmail accounts, to which we hold the password. We had to lie to Google about their ages, but we are Ok with that, under the circumstances. P has only just started using his and in fact seems to like the idea of it more than the actual use of it. He can't log in without direct supervision and his address book consists entirely of members of his extended family. If anyone changes the password, Google will notify us by SMS.
How we set up P's Skype account
P decided he wanted a Skype account of his own, so I set one up on his behalf. Again, we hold the password and the power to approve, ignore, and remove any contacts (let that be a warning to you, Pa). We have not uploaded an identifying photo. P mainly uses his Skype account to give me wake up calls from the safe distance of the living room, on the days he doesn't have questions about sex.
How we set up P's Twitter account
P doesn't really have his own twitter account, which is a current point of contention. Instead, I logged into my account and added the tweeps (do we still say "tweeps"?) he wants to follow to a list called "P's Twitter Sub-Account" which you can look at, especially if you're into all things space. Then to make it easy for him to find his feeds, I downloaded the Hootsuite App onto his iPad Mini.
How to give your child one-tap access to a Twitter list set up under your account:
Download the Hootsuite app (or similar).
For Hootsuite: tap on Home.
Tap on Edit.
Tap on Add Stream.
Tap on List.
Select your account and tap on the list you want to add, then save the results.
Remove all other streams.
Tap on Done.
P uses this as his "news feed." He understands (because we've drilled this) that it is still my account and any activity on that account will fall under my name and I will know and I might be upset if he does something in my name that I don't particularly want to do. Occasionally we let him tweet drawings of space stuff to NASA or words of encouragement to the Mars Curiosity Rover. He needs to obtain direct permission for each separate tweet.
How we set up P's blog
Because of course he needed a blog next. When he requested a blog of his own, I registered him for a wordpress.com username.
Log out of your account and sign up as a new user
Look for the button in the bottom right that says Sign Up For A Username Without Creating A Blog
You'll need an email unique to the username. P is now known on wordpress as marstransformer, a nickname we negotiated with him after explaining the first thing about internet privacy. Now you're ready to set up the blog. Here's what I did:
I logged out of P's account.
I logged back in to my own account.
I created a new blog under my own account. I set the blog to not show up in the reader or via search engines but I might change that to private.
I invited P - aka marstransformer - to be a contributor to this new blog. (Wordpress provides a tutorial on adding new users.) As a contributor, P can create posts and submit them for my approval. He needs to ask me verbally to review the content and only I can hit publish. Likewise, any pictures must be uploaded by me.
I downloaded the wordpress.com app onto the iPad Mini and logged him in.
So far he hasn't written a full post — not even the classic hi-there-I-am-new-to-blogging-and-don't-know-what-to-write first post, followed inevitably by the I-can't-believe-it's-been-three-months-since-I-first-posted next post.
All that lies beyond
P has not yet requested to join any other online social networks, thank goodness — although with some of his school friends on Facebook, that can't be light years away. Any parental advice you have handy, chuck it here. I'm also looking into monitors which track and control his use more generally while he gets his digital wings, so now is an excellent time to make recommendations of monitoring software based on your experience. In the meantime, we are reading Online Etiquette And Safety by Phyllis Cornwall, and when I get a chance we'll be quizzing him via the PBS Kids Webonauts Internet Academy. I've also borrowed Reproduction And Genetics by Richard Spilsbury from the library. It doesn't mention sex at all but instead focuses on the far more fascinating molecular nature of conception, which should keep me in safely-googlable questions for some time to come.
Roundup of requests from this post:
Do you know of any good online child-proofing tutorials for other devices, in case anyone needs them? What are your feelings on kids and online social networks? Do you have experience with computer monitoring programs? How old do you think P's going to be before he actually posts to his new blog? Anything we didn't think of? — *Yes, of course I googled "vagina" on my own, unrestricted computer later to check the difference in results.