Internet Safety / Cyber Bullying

For millions of Americans, going online is a part of their daily routine – for emailing, instant messaging, chat rooms and to surf the web. Children are no exception to this with over 27 million children ages 2 to 17 going online.

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In addition to going online at home, children can access the web at a friend’s house, at school, at the library, and at Internet cafes. They can also access the Internet through cell phones, and other handheld devices. Through these various means of Internet access, children are able to go online without being in the presence of responsible adults.

Though there are great benefits to going online, there are no censors on the Internet and children can be targets of crime, exploitation, and harassment. An Internet service provider links you to sites, but it cannot control what is on them, and anyone in the world can publish material online.

Trusting, curious, and anxious to explore the Internet, children need parental supervision and common sense advice on how to be sure that their experiences online are safe, healthy, and productive.

Joining me today to talk about how to keep your children safe this summer is Steffi Benjamin of the National Center for Children and Families. We’ll go over some potential risks associated with the Internet and strategies to reduce and handle them.

Internet Risks

  • Exposure to inappropriate material. A child may be exposed to inappropriate material that is sexual, violent, or hateful in nature. Children could seek out such material but also could come across it via chat rooms, email, or instant messaging even if they are not looking for it.
  • Physical molestation. A child might provide information or arrange an encounter that could risk his or her safety or the safety of other family members. In some cases, child molesters have used chat rooms, instant messaging, and emails to gain the confidence and trust of a child and then arrange a face-to-face meeting.
  • Harassment and bullying. Children might encounter messages via chat rooms, instant messages, or emails that are belligerent, demeaning, or harassing. Bullies, typically other younger people, sometimes use the Internet to bother their victims.
  • Viruses and hackers. Children could download a file containing a virus that could damage the computer or increase the risk of a hacker gaining remote access to the computer; jeopardizing the family’s privacy and maybe even the family’s safety.
  • New Internet Risk: Blogs. A more recent danger for children going online is Internet blogs. Blogs like MySpace and similar social networking sites are very popular among young Internet users. While blogs can provide a positive experience, kids sometimes volunteer far too much information. Besides revealing too much information, children’s blogs may contain inappropriate pictures or content, such as revealing photos. And because they need a user name and password to join services like MySpace, many teenage users assume the site is protected when it is not. MySpace.com, which has 13 million users, says it has a strict policy of not allowing members who are under 16, but many bloggers get around the rule by lying about their age.

Ways to make the Internet Safer for Children

While children need a certain amount of privacy, they also need parental guidance and supervision in their daily lives – in the real world as well as online. Here are some tips to make the Internet safer for children:

  • Especially for blogs like MySpace, use a password-protection feature that genuinely does limit access to sites, such as sites limited to “friends only.” It may also be wise to occasionally search for your child’s biographic information online in case they have created a blog that reveals too much information or contains inappropriate content.
  • Check with your Internet service provider to see if they offer age-appropriate parental controls. If not, consider using a software program that blocks chat rooms and web sites that are known to be inappropriate for children. This way, parents can filter out sites that contain nudity, sexual content, hateful or violent material, or that advocate the use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.
  • Keep the computer in the living room, family room, or some other common room of the house – NOT in the child’s bedroom. Have the monitor in plain view of anyone walking through the room.
  • Set up rules with your child for going online. Decide upon the time of day that they can be online, the length of time they can be online, and appropriate areas for them to visit.
  • Teach your children to not give out personal information about themselves, their family situation, their school, their telephone number, or their address.
  • Have kids agree to never get together with someone they “meet” online without first checking with their parents. If you, the parent, agrees to the meeting, make sure it is in a public place and that you accompany your child to the meeting.
  • Let kids know to never send a person they have met online a picture of themselves without first checking with mom or dad to make sure it’s safe.
  • When in chat rooms or using instant messaging, remember that not everyone may be who they say they are. Remember that people online make up stories. For example, a person who says “she” is a 14-year-old girl from New York may really be a 42-year-old man from California. Help children understand that a “friend” they meet online may not be the best person to talk to if they are having problems at home, with friends, or at school – If kids can’t find an adult in their school, church, club, or neighborhood to talk to, Covenant House is a good place to call at 1-800-999-9999. The people there provide counseling to kids, refer them to local shelters, help them with law enforcement, and can serve as mediators by calling their parents.
  • Get to know your children’s “online friends” just the way you get to know their friends from school and in the neighborhood.
  • If kids are thinking about running away, a friend from online (remember the 14-year-old girl) may not be the best person to talk to. If there is no adult in their community they can find to talk to, call the National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-621-4000. Although some of their online friends may seem to really listen, the Switchboard will be able to give kids honest, useful answers to some of their questions about what to do when you are depressed, abused, or thinking about running away.

How to Handle Internet Problems

  • If someone harasses a child online, says anything inappropriate, or does anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, let kids know that it is okay to tell their parents or an adult they trust.
  • If a child tells you about an upsetting image, web site, message, or person on the Internet, don’t blame the child but help him or her avoid these problems in the future. How you respond will determine whether they confide in you the next time.

For more information, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s web site at www.missingkids.com or visit www.getnetwise.org to learn more about keeping children and families safe on the Internet.

Conclusion

The best way to assure that your child is having a safe, positive experience online is to stay in touch with what they are doing. One way to do this is to spend time with your child while they are online. Have them show you what they do, and ask them to explain to you how to use the computer and the Internet. You might be surprised by how much you can learn from your children.

By creating strategies to teach children about the benefits of going on the Internet as well as the dangers of being online, the Internet can be a great resource for the whole family.