Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe: Are you cyber aware or cyber scared?

Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month. With our kids and teens so digital and portable -- using gadgets like cell phones, game devices, laptop computers and MP3 players -- this is a great opportunity to take stock of your home's technology and construct a family digital-use safety plan.

The best way to ensure cyber safety for most families is a formal plan with a firm set of rules that everyone discusses, agrees to and signs. It holds everyone -- adults and kids -- accountable to the same rules and fosters conversation, which is the most important goal.

If you have regular family discussions around these issues, you may be able to get away without a formal family digital-use safety plan, but then you leave yourself open to negotiating the many issues that do come up without rules.

Regardless of the path you opt for, most adults share a sense of awe over how computer savvy our kids are today and an urgency about being sure we are doing all we can to keep them safe. I have a few rules of thumb I follow when trying to sort out issues with my own kids who are now teenagers and quite digitally savvy:

  • Knowledge is bliss, for everyone at home.
  • A comfortable level of mutual participation with each other's digital lives will be more productive than a parental dictatorship any day.
  • You can't keep kids safe online or offline if you don't talk the talk and walk the walk.

So, this month seek out ways you can be more involved with your kids at whatever age and stage they are at with technology. Really get to see them in their element and find out what makes them tick. If you find yourself out of step somewhere -- with social networking or gaming, for example -- learn enough to participate smartly and understand their experience. At that point, you can decide if a conversation about appropriate use will suffice or if you need some written family rules.

A few words of caution about family digital-use plans: they need to apply to kids and parents. For example, a rule such as "no technology after dinner" or "no technology during dinner" is an all-ages rule.

There are many examples of family digital-use plan rules available that I've gathered in my new book, "CyberSafe." I'll post one on the website so you can get an idea how to craft one of your own. Feel free to print and use it.

Participation in your kids' lives with more conversation about their digital lives will keep them safer than any software program you can install. In other words, you are their best cyber-safe defense.

We're all slightly tangled in the Web. Becoming untangled is a matter of embracing our inner parent. You already do that so well offline -- let's start the journey to doing that online.

Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P., is a pediatrician and mother of two. A graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, Dr. O'Keeffe completed her residency training at New England Medical Center. Dr. O'Keeffe is founder and CEO of Pediatrics Now,, and can be reached at