This week’s guest columnists are Drs. Ravi Alagugurusamy and Aaron Foster, Family Practice residents at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.

The wild west was plenty dangerous: prostitution, stage coach robbery, gunfights.  No place to send your child, even with a six-shooter strapped on the hip. Yet every day kids as young as 2 years are allowed to wander into similarly threatening territory- the internet.

For small children, the internet can be a welcome distraction while you wait in line.  Then a fun song on the phone leads to a Youtube video, which leads to a game, and ends with a $1000 data bill.  Stage coach robbery indeed!  Fortunately, this scenario has an easy solution: don’t link financial access to your phone, or password or pin-code it.

Some kids are allowed to spend all day on a screen.  While there’s no obvious immediate harm, it’s an activity that’s been engineered to be addictive.  The longer developers can keep your child engaged, the more money they earn from advertisers.  If you think it’s not addictive, try taking the phone away.  Children can act just like addicts who can’t get a fix- whining, aggressive, foul-mouthed; not the nice kids they used to be!

Sites like Youtube are also designed for children as young as 2 years to operate, surfing whatever videos they like.  More disconcerting, some producers have posted questionable content aimed at younger children, often optimized so you won’t find it until you’ve gone through 9 or 10 videos first.  One parent warned us this past week of corrupted Peppa Pig videos, the characters talking about marijuana.

Policing content is a problem without a simple answer.  The multitude of platforms for internet access means a multitude of solutions.  Fortunately, most phones and browsers have methods for filtering what can be seen.  Search how to “blacklist” (block sites), or “whitelist” (allow sites) on your device or browser.

Fortunately for parents, you can do what large corporate IT departments can’t- discuss internet content and safe-surfing directly with your kids.  Watch over their shoulders.  Failing that, you can pull the plug on power, or internet service.

Back to our wild west analogy from above- the dare.  Quick-draw gunfights often involved one assailant goading the other into combat.  Afraid of being seen as cowardly, the reluctant fighter was drawn in, and one or both would end up wounded or dead.  The modern internet version of this: the Tide-Pod Challenge.

If you haven’t seen the news recently, this involved videos daring teens to eat Tide-Pod dishwashing detergent packets.  Then Emergency Departments around the country began to see these potentially lethal cases, and most videos became blocked.  Other harmful video-generated pranks: children creating and inhaling chlorine gas, drinking antifreeze, and running cars in enclosed spaces.  Parents must teach children that following instructions from strangers on the internet is just as dangerous as with strangers on the street.

Despite blacklists, history searches, and firewalls to limit your internet content, teens can be a special worry.  Most teenagers can find work-arounds, on the net or from friends, that you might not know.  After all, unlike most parents, they’ve grown up with the net; they’ve used it their whole lives.  In the end, there’s no better solution to knowing what your teen is watching, than talking about it with them.

Another internet problem for teens is social media bullying.  The net offers the ability to bully away from school or other social activities, where the bully might be caught.  Also, social media can magnify bullying.  Instead of the bully egging on a jeering handful of lackeys, the lackeys on-line can number in the hundreds.  Imagine your kid being laughed at by a crowded auditorium- a nightmare often depicted on film and TV.  Social media easily creates a real-life equivalent.  An even worse nightmare: in 2014, a 17 year-old girl boasted affiliation with a Chicago gang, and revealed her address, on social media.  Affiliation true or not, rival gang members killed her 3 blocks from her home.

Today’s children are the first generation with these internet worries; parents aren’t equipped to deal with them from their own childhood experience.  Social media, while being a great new way to communicate, also begats new problems.  Parents need to learn the new solutions.  And the old solution too- talking these things through with their kids.  

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