For those of us who grew up with dial-up modems, it can be hard to understand what the digital age is like for today's kids. Access to information is literally at their fingertips. But easy access reduces the time it takes to think through your actions -- and makes it easier to do not-so-great things. Like copying other people's work and calling it your own. Or downloading copyrighted music or movies illegally. And the list goes on. Part of the problem is that kids may not even realize that what they're doing is illegal. Here are the top three online offenses -- and how to make sure your kid's online activities stay on the safe side.
Plagiarism and High-Tech Cheating
What it is: Copying someone else's work and calling it your own. In Common Sense Media's 2009 study of high-tech cheating among kids 13-17, 38 percent said they'd copied text from the web to pass off as their work. And more than 35 percent said they'd used their cell phones to cheat.
What's the big deal? Cheating is cheating, no matter whether it happens by text or a scrap of paper passed under a desk. Kids caught plagiarizing or cheating can face serious consequences at school and at home. And, most importantly, they're losing out on learning opportunities.
How to talk about it with your kid: Kids are so used to cutting and pasting; sharing links, photos, and text; and mixing it all up to create their own material that many don't think it's a problem to use stuff they find online in their own work. Make sure they understand that when they use something from the Internet, they have to credit the source -- it's never OK to copy something without saying where you got it. Talk to teachers or the school principal about getting kids up to speed on proper source citation and an understanding of "fair use."
Also, if kids do know they're cheating, try to determine whether there's an underlying cause you can correct. Are they spending too much time on Facebook and don't have enough time to complete homework properly? Or are teachers giving busywork that kids don't think is worth their time?
Illegal Downloads and Uploads
What it is: Downloading or uploading copyrighted material like movies, TV episodes, or music through murky sources like Pirate Bay and BitTorrent. Though kids got a big scare several years ago when music labels started busting individual downloaders -- including some teens -- many don't think it's a serious problem. According to a 2008 Microsoft survey of teen attitudes toward illegal downloading, 48 percent of kids thought punishment wasn't appropriate for illegally downloading copyrighted material.
What's the big deal? Not only is downloading and uploading copyrighted material unethical, it's also illegal. Under U.S. law, offenders can be punished with up to five years in jail and $250,000 in fines. And it's not as if no one is watching: Large data transfers can send up a red flag to your Internet Service Provider. The company will contact you or turn off your Internet service if the amount of data going to your home computer appears suspicious.
How to talk about it with your kid: Yes, lots of teens and adults download movies and music illegally, and a lot don't get caught. It's super easy to do, and sometimes it's easier to get what you want illegally than it is to actually pay for it. But you can remind kids that somebody worked hard to create that song or that movie, and if they want to support their favorite artists or actors, they should respect their work. It's getting easier and cheaper to find music and other media legally, so do a little research together to find the best sources for enjoying favorite titles guilt-free.
As for uploading -- there's a reason why Facebook is a multibillion-dollar company: Kids love sharing their favorite stuff. But it's important to teach kids the difference between copyright infringement and "fair use." It's OK to use a portion of copyrighted material as part of a legitimate critique or a unique artistic endeavor that "transforms" the original work; it's not OK to upload someone else's copyrighted video or song in its entirety. Also, ask kids to weigh their desire to share something with their belief in fairness and honesty.
Underage Social Media
What it is: Lying about your age to get an account with Facebook or another social media site whose Terms of Service require users to be a certain age (usually 13) to join. Last year, Consumer Reports said there were 7.5 million Facebook users under 13. And a report released in 2011 by Microsoft said that 7 in 10 parents of underage Facebook users help their kids set up the accounts.
What's the big deal? While it's not illegal, lying about your age does violate the Terms of Service agreement users must agree to when they sign up. And when parents help kids lie online, they're setting a poor example about good digital behavior. What's more, kids' privacy is at stake. Information that kids share on Facebook is used to target them with advertising that they might be too young to recognize for what it is.
How to talk about it with your kid: First, make sure you understand the reasons behind the age restrictions on sites like Facebook. Many parents believe the "no kids" rule is because the content on social networks can be too mature for kids. But the real reason for these age-based rules is because companies that allow underage kids to sign up are legally restricted from collecting certain information from them. Rather than create a more private environment for kids, Facebook and others choose to restrict access to those under 13.
When many of your kid's friends are on Facebook, talking about "privacy" can be a hard sell. Pointing kids toward more age-appropriate sites -- like WhatWhats.me and Imbee -- can work, as can talking to other parents about their own rules around social networking. While kids might be upset when you tell them they can't join Facebook for a few more years, just think of the favor you're doing them by deferring social networking drama until they're more prepared to handle it.