The Internet is a vast source of information — some good and some bad. If your children learn to use it wisely, they can be safe while using the Internet for all the resources it has to offer. Like an infinite library, the Web can take you to the ends of the earth with the information it contains.
But parents need to be vigilant about the many dangers this access poses for their children. Because kids today are often much more savvy about these new communication techniques than their parents, their knowledge and habits can be intimidating to parents.
Although it is not always easy to know when and how to step in, our children still need us to protect them, set limits and impose rules and consequences in order to keep them safe. Remember that although they often may know more about the technology, they do not always have the judgment to make wise decisions when it comes to use of the internet and all the new communication devices now at their disposal.
Simple surfing and instant messaging with friends are common activities for kids — and generally safe, if you’ve discussed some rules of use with them. Chatting with strangers, however, may be a different story. Although there’s no way to know the actual risk, the FBI cautions that kids whose Internet activity isn’t monitored are most at risk for being exploited.
Internet Safety Tips
Here are a few suggestions that can guide you to help your child get the most out of these new technologies while still keeping them safe and helping them to improve their judgment.
- Become computer literate. Have your children show you what they are doing on line, spend some time learning the ins/outs of the programs. If you are still not comfortable, ask or hire an older child to teach you.
- Keep the computer in a common area where you can watch and monitor your kids. Avoid putting a computer in a child’s bedroom.
- Share an email account with younger children. That way, you can monitor who is sending them messages.
- Bookmark your child’s favorite sites. Your child will have easy access and be less likely to make a typo that could lead to inappropriate content.
- Spend time online together. Teach your kids appropriate online behavior, including information about cyber bullying, ‘netiquette’ and being respectful and kind while online. Visit their favorite internet sites with them.
- Monitor kids’ use of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, etc. Be aware of what information is being revealed and what information can unknowingly identify your child.
- Find out about online protection elsewhere. Find out what, if any, online protection is offered at school, after-school centers, friends’ homes, or anyplace where kids could use a computer without your supervision.
- Install parental control filtering software and/or tracking programs, which also can help you protect your children from online predators and inappropriate adult content. But don’t rely only on these tools. Kids benefit most from direct conversations with their parents.
- Talk regularly with your children about internet use, the online activities they are involved with and the sites they visit:
- Be direct, straightforward and assertive but not aggressive or confrontational.
- Let your children know what your concerns are. You can use “I” messages to communicate your concerns, such as “I am worried about you posting pictures on that site because it isn’t secure and strangers can see it.”
- Talk to them about the dangers of interacting with strangers online and remind them that people online often don’t tell the truth.
- Encourage your children to tell you if anyone they meet online tries to get personal information from them or says things that make them feel uncomfortable.
- Tell your children that in order to keep them safe, you will periodically check their internet activity. This isn’t snooping or spying, and isn’t about your trust or lack of trust in them; it is about having rules to help assure their safety.
- Set up and communicate clearly what the family rules are (which you should also follow) regarding internet use, such as:
- Limit the amount of ‘screen time’ that you child is allowed.
- Do not share any personal information online, including name, address, name of school, phone number, credit card numbers, social security number, passwords, or names of family members. Use only a screen name.
- The first rule of smart surfing is to remain as anonymous as possible. That means keeping all private information private. Most credible people and companies will never ask for this type of information online. So if someone does, it’s a red flag that they may be up to no good.
- Never trade personal photographs through the mail or over the Internet.
- Never agree to meet anyone in person that he/she has met online.
- Never respond to a threatening email or message.
- Always tell a parent about any online communication or conversation that was scary or made the child feel uncomfortable.
- If your child has a new “friend,” insist on being “introduced” online to that friend.
If your child gets involved in a social networking situation that makes him or you feel uncomfortable or in danger for any reason, or if your child has received pornography via the Internet or has been the target of an online sex offender, you can report the incident to your local police. Also, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website www.missingkids.com has a form for reporting this type of incident called CyberTipline. They will then see that the information is forwarded to law enforcement officials for investigation.
Warning signs of a child being targeted by an online predator include spending long hours online, especially at night, phone calls from people you don’t know, or unsolicited gifts arriving in the mail. If your child suddenly turns off the computer when you walk into the room, ask why and monitor computer time more closely. Other signs to watch for are withdrawal from family life and reluctance to discuss online activities.
Remember that although it is important to respect the privacy of children and youth, safety may sometimes trump these privacy concerns. Be sure to let your children know that if you are concerned about their internet use, you will review their on-line communications. You can use this as an opening for a discussion about internet safety and internet use in general.
Taking an active role in your kids’ Internet activities will help ensure that they benefit from the wealth of valuable information it offers without being exposed to any potential dangers.
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