Family Rules Regarding Appropriate Electronic Behavior

The Importance of Setting a Good Example

Before you can start negotiating effective rules regarding online behavior with your older, more technologically competent children, it’s important to make sure that your own house is in order. Few things will more quickly undermine a serious conversation about safe and ethical online behavior than your child’s awareness that you’ve downloaded some or all of your music collection from The Pirate Bay.

Sadly, as parents discover to their frustration, few kids are persuaded by the blanket statements, “Do As I Say, Not As I Do,” or the more direct “Because I Said So!” Instead, it’s far more effective to use a collaborative process to develop a Family Acceptable Use Policy (FAUP) that contains some rules that apply to all members of the household (no intellectual property theft, no bullying, respect other people’s privacy, etc.), and some rules that are tailored to the age and maturity of each person.

The very act of discussing and debating the various rules is a valuable educational opportunity for everyone. Your 8-year-old may grumble about the fact that his 14-year-old sister can use her phone or laptop in her room, or that he is required to shut down at [8:30] while she can be online until 10, but there are good reasons for making those distinctions. For that matter, your 14-year-old will almost certainly protest that she has any curfew at all, particularly if you and your spouse do not, but her need for sleep is biologically greater than yours.

The point of an FAUP is not to create a household straitjacket but instead to encourage an ongoing dialogue about the role that electronics and media should play in your household. There is a need for flexibility, particularly with respect to curfews, when school projects or homework create a need for more online access. It will be vastly easier to provide that flexibility if everyone understands the basic family values and the goals of the FAUP.

An Important (but Frustrating) Lesson: TANSTAAFL

In his 1966 novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL, or “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.” It’s an important concept for kids to learn in general, but it has particular relevance with respect to the Internet.

To wide-eyed children (and all too many adults), the Internet looks like an endless buffet of FREE STUFF: games to be downloaded, free animal jam membership and videos and pictures to be shared, information to be copied for essays and reports, and TV to be watched. And in truth, if you’re willing to put up with some advertising, there is a lot material “freely” available online.

But to paraphrase a popular advertising slogan, what’s on the Internet should stay on the Internet, unless your child has discussed a particular download with you ahead of time. If your child downloads and installs a program or other Web application on a household computer from an untrustworthy site, it can include a variety of unpleasant hidden content, including malware (a virus, worm, Trojan horse, etc.), pornography, and/or child pornography. There are numerous stories in the media about the unintended consequences of careless downloads, and you children should be thoroughly educated about the risks.

You can minimize the likelihood of infection or damage to your household computer(s) by using the parental controls built into Windows and Mac OS to prevent unauthorized downloads. You should also make sure that you have a firewall and anti-virus software installed on your computer, and that they are configured to examine downloaded files for potential problems.

As soon as your child is old enough to understand the concept of downloading (but hopefully before they start doing so), take the time to explain the concepts of anti-virus, anti-malware, and firewalls. In particular, explain the types of harm that such software is designed to prevent, and why it’s important to make sure that the software is always up to date. If your child is interested in computer software and technology, he or she can help make sure that all of the computers in the house are adequately protected.

Some might see this as the equivalent of turning over the keys to the inmates, but I think that the sense of shared responsibility is helpful. If your child really understands what can happen if a rogue piece of software is downloaded (up to and including the destruction of all of his homework, videos, saved games, etc.), then he or she will be motivated to help make sure that it doesn’t happen.

Like an FAUP, security software is only a stop-gap measure against the potential harm that can occur. The more effective approach is to discuss the importance of “safe computing” with each child, and teach them to make smart decisions regardless of whose computer or device they’re using.

Pay As You Go

Closely related to the prohibition against downloading random software is the requirement that children pay for creative content. This is not a concept that comes naturally to people who spend time online; as with software, the Internet presents few if any obvious barriers to the sharing of music or movies. It’s certainly not difficult for almost anyone to figure out how to download pirated content from a BitTorrent site, the various peer-to-peer networks, or a host of other sites.

There are a number of reasons why your FAUP should prohibit the downloading of pirated conduct. The first and most obvious is that it’s wrong; it is a violation of state, federal, and international law to download protected content from the Internet without paying for it.

The young pre-lawyers in your household may argue vociferously that some content is freely distributed online by bands or software companies as a promotional measure. That’s true; and in fact, some bands or software companies even encourage “illegal” downloads of their content in an effort to create marketing buzz or to reward their fans with special tracks or features. But the vast majority of content producers are not freely distributing their content.

And that’s the second reason to prohibit the pirating of content in your FAUP: content producers and providers are getting increasingly aggressive about protecting their content and suing people who engage in illegal downloading. If your child is old enough, he or she may scoff at this, and ask (not unreasonably) just how likely it is that a record or movie company will take any notice of her pirated copy of the latest Justin Bieber hit.

A few years ago, that would have been a legitimate question. The number of illegal downloaders was enormous and the tools for identifying individual offenders were not very sophisticated. But you and your children need to realize that online investigation tools have gotten dramatically more powerful, and both record and music companies are using those tools to send copyright infringement demands to households in which illegal downloading has been identified. The minimum demand for a single song or movie is between $750 and $30,000; however, since few children (or adults) limit themselves to a single pirated song or movie, the demand letters are often for sums in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is usually possible to reach a settlement instead of going to trial, but either approach is expensive. You have a vested interest in making this point clear to your children, since in this type of situation, you are responsible both for the actions of your children and the misuse of your Internet access.

Lastly, the process of finding and downloading pirated content can lead to even more serious consequences. The popular programs for finding pirated content — peer-to-peer programs like FrostWire, Vuze, Morpheus, etc. — are dangerous software tools. It’s not uncommon for content on those networks to be deceptively labeled or contain hidden illicit content. Even the most innocuous searches invariably return results that almost certainly contain contraband. Many of the computer forensics cases on which I’ve worked have involved child pornography that was accidentally downloaded by individuals using peer-to-peer software. For more details on how all of this works, please get a copy of Cybertraps for the Young.

One can fairly chafe at some of the business practices of content sellers like Apple and Amazon, but at the same time, it is true that the cost of obtaining legal content has fallen steadily over the last several years, and is likely to fall further as the distribution alternatives grow more numerous and more sophisticated (this e-book is an example of precisely that phenomenon). Children often complain that the cost of a legal music or movie library is too high, but the increasingly modest expense of licensed content is dramatically outweighed by the potential financial and legal costs of pirated materials. Observance of copyrights should be one of the non-negotiable elements of your FAUP.

Don’t Engage in Other Types of Criminal Conduct

One of the more unfortunate by-products of the Internet/smart phone age is the ease with which kids can commit criminal acts. Kids could engage in criminal conduct before there was an Internet, of course, but the popularity of electronic devices and their growing sophistication has dramatically expanded the pool of potential perpetrators.

Part of that has to do with the legislative response to electronic developments. Over the last decade, for instance, legislatures have expanded the definitions of computer hacking and intrusion, and increased the penalties for violations. Concerns over online bullying are leading to the passage of new laws intended to criminalize cbyerbullying, cyberharassment, and cyberstalking. These crimes all existed in the real-world well before computers and smart phones, but electronic devices make it possible for younger and younger kids to run afoul of the law.

Perhaps the most high-profile instance of this phenomenon is sexting, the practice of sending nude or semi-nude photos from one device to another. (Typically, the photos are taken and distributed using a cell phone, but Web cams and digital cameras can also be used). If the individual depicted in the photo is under the age of 18, the image is almost certainly child pornography as defined in federal law and most state laws (in a handful of states, the threshold age is 16).

The laws prohibiting the production, possession, and distribution of child pornography were intended to protect children and criminalize adult behavior. No one could reasonably have foreseen that technology would make it possible, even easy, for children to produce and distribute images falling within the definition of child pornography.

By and large, sexting cases have not attracted the attention of federal prosecutors; any action is typically left to state officials. Some states (Vermont, Florida, and New Jersey are good examples) have revised their child pornography laws to create exceptions for youthful offenders. Other states, however, have taken a more hardline approach and have prosecuted kids under their child pornography statutes. You should be aware of how the state prosecutors in your jurisdiction are handling these types of cases.

You may well be uncomfortable discussing sexting and its potential consequences with your child. If he or she will be using a device capable of taking such photos, however, you owe it to him or her to make sexting a part of your FAUP conversations.

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