Careless Internet wandering, by adult or child, is dangerous. The news is full of stories about people who meet online and then have real life encounters with scary or deadly results. This is an extreme situation, most kids are cautious enough to know they should not meet with strangers. Nevertheless, there are other dangers such as your kids being exposed to explicit pornography, violent images or gore, extremist web pages, sexual solicitation, identify theft, malicious content or just simply distraction from what they should be doing, like homework.
Certainly, the Internet is a great resource that puts volumes of valuable knowledge at our fingertips. The Internet helps keep friends and family in touch and provides entertainment and education. Everyday more information and services are going online, so web safety is a subject parents must address.
In order to better formulate Internet guidelines for your children, you need to know the dangers. Here are a few hazards to think about before you talk with your kids.
Pornography is easily available online, not only through paid sources but also through pop–ups, unsolicited email, file sharing and search engines. Many sites are landed on accidentally, through misspelled search words or expired domain names. If parents visit these sites, cookies, temporary Internet files or other data is saved onto the computer, which makes it even easier for kids to reach these sites. Teens and preteens may even seek out these sites out of curiosity and end up viewing explicit and sometimes degrading or violent sexual images or video.
Through chat, newsgroups, MySpace, forums, games or email, minors are often approached for sexual contact, nude pictures, web cam video or sexually explicit conversations. Just visit nearly any open chat conversation and you will soon be solicited or asked sexual questions. This even occurs in supposedly kid–friendly rooms.
Sexual predators may seek out possible sexual contact or exploitation through the Internet. Often they create a user profile that hides who they really are and instigate casual chat conversations to gain the kid’s trust. They gradually begin the process of isolating the child, manipulating their self–esteem, enticing them to challenge their boundaries and slowly increase their conversations to sexual topics. They often share pornographic material and may even send things to the child’s home.
Anything can be found online, including violent images, images of corpses, physical abuse, war scenes, executions, animal cruelty, criminal or gang activity and rape. It is unfortunate that people want to share these types of images with the world, but they are out there, and it is a dangerous avenue for your children to explore.
Sometimes kids are harassed or intimidated online from people they know or through online games. These types of game bullies are often called griefers.
As mentioned, everything is online, including extremist and hate based groups. This includes groups that target gender, minorities, sexual preference, religious or cultural groups and so on. These sites often encourage hate, violence or harassment and may contain derogatory references, cartoon depictions, violent images or harsh language often not filtered out by filtering software.
Computer Viruses, Adware, Spyware
These are harmful to your computer and can be delivered unknowingly through emails, pop–up ads, screen savers or other downloads. If kids are not taught to be Internet savvy, they may download a fun, harmless looking game that sneaks in malicious content to your hard drive. These tiny programs may relate your personal information, monitor how you use the Internet or actually cause damage to your system.
Kid’s identity can be stolen and used. Additionally, if your hard drive is accessed, your information can be stolen, shared and used.
Beyond all the real dangers of the Internet, there is simply distraction. Often kids use the computer with the pretense of doing homework, when in reality they are doing their homework, having multiple chat conversations, surfing the net, playing a game, and listening to and downloading music all at the same time. You can easily see why it is hard to get kids to finish their homework and actually learn something when they are dividing their time and attention by so many different things.
Open communication is extremely important. The real dangers of the Internet need to be discussed and your child’s possible frustration and resistance to these conversations may need to be addressed as well. Open dialogue is necessary and despite your fear or aggravation, your desire to express your anger should not extend to the point that your child is afraid to talk to you if something does happen.
You and your children, after discussing the dangers and benefits of the Internet, should set some clear boundaries. Keep in mind that boundaries may differ depending on the age of the child, their level of maturity and their willingness to communicate uncomfortable subjects with you. If your child is unenthusiastic about having open conversations with you, they are certainly less likely to talk you if something happens to them online.
Beyond family or individual rules, there are some general guidelines for all Internet users:
- Never give out personal information, including name, address, school or employment, telephone or cell number, personal email address or pictures to someone you do not know personally.
- Never respond to solicitations or comments that make you uncomfortable.
- Never make arrangements to meet someone you have met online. Adults who want to meet people they have met online, should arrange to meet in a public place and with current friends.
- Never believe everything you read in a profile, on a message board or in a chat. Often, people pretend or role–play, either for entertainment, to hide or for other ulterior motives.
- Never submit your personal information or credit card data to an unsecured site.
Outside of the general guidelines, there are other things to consider for your children, such as:
- How long, when and under what circumstances can your children use the Internet?
- What sites are they allowed to visit?
- What content is off limits?
- What kind of communication is allowed, e–mail, chat, IM, etc?
- What are your kid’s privacy rights?
- What should your child do if they experience something that makes them uncomfortable?
- What happens if the rules are violated?
After you have established some well–understood guidelines, you should still monitor your kid’s Internet activity. Although it is normal for kids to get into a little mischief, such as chatting with their friends when they are supposed to be doing homework, they could also be getting into real trouble. Here are a few warning signs that your kid could be getting into a real dilemma:
- Excessive Internet use
- You find pornography or explicit material on their computer
- Your child receives mysterious phone calls, emails or text messages
- Your child receives mail or gifts from someone you don’t know
- They are withdrawn, anti–social or avoid talking with you
- Your kid quickly changes the screen when you come in the room
- You child uses an Internet account that is not their own
- They cannot or will not tell you about their online acquaintances
- They cut school to get online or sneak on in the middle of the night
Keep in mind, that even if your kid is a willing participant in an exploitive situation, they are still a minor and the victim in the situation. Teens have been known to post provocative images of themselves or initiate explicit conversations, so it is important to keep conversations open and watch for self–esteem, anger or behavioral issues that could be expressed in dangerous ways.
What if exploitation or a child pornography situation occurs?
Unfortunately, odds are your child and even you will be approached online. However, if your kids know how to deal with these situations, it should not escalate into anything. In terms of the law, the following things should be reported:
- your child has been sexually solicited by someone who knows that the child is under the age of 18
- your child has received sexually explicit images from someone who knows the child is under the age of 18
- your child or anyone in the household has received child pornography
If any of the above occur, do not erase anything on your computer and contact your local law enforcement or CyberTipline at http://www.missingkids.com (1–800–843–5678). If your child has been engaging in a cyber relationship, it is a good idea to seek outside help. Family and teen counselors cannot only help you address the occurrence but also esteem issues that may have attributed to the child’s need to seek such a relationship.
Fortunately, there is some excellent and helpful software available to help make monitoring kids online activities a little easier. Nothing can replace caring parenting and open communication, but a little extra help is always nice. Here are some software options for parents:
Parental Time Control Software
This software can help parents regulate how much time a kid can spend on the computer and what programs they can access. Most programs allow parents to set specific time limits for time spent online, playing their games or accessing their email or chat. You can also regulate times that you are not home or late at night. Many programs also enable parents to block inappropriate websites and certain keyword searches and lock down the control panel so kids can’t make system changes.
Filtering programs actually block content, websites, pop–ups, explicit images, chats, newsgroups, file sharing and more. Keep in mind that it cannot catch everything, so guidelines still need to be established. Many programs will let you set an approved list of applications, so a child can have access to homework applications like Word, Excel, Microsoft Student and approved websites, without allowing free use of the Internet.
Monitoring is a bit different from filtering. Generally monitoring software logs activity as opposed to blocking content. Many offer remote access, so you can receive, through email, a log of your kids’ online activities and approve or disprove the sites they are trying to visit or files they want to download. Monitoring programs can save screen shots as well as keystrokes and passwords. Most sources agree that you should tell your kids that you are monitoring their activity, so it is not a secret that could cause conflict later.
The best software, although a great assistant, cannot replace good parenting. Get to know your kids’ Internet preferences, the sites they visit and games they play. Know and manage their email accounts, visit their MySpace pages often and keep track of their user names. Be leery of online friends. Talk to them, become familiar with their favorite websites and discuss your concerns over content and safety. Free, unmonitored Internet use and downloading is never a good idea. Set firm, understood rules and install some good programs to back up your regulations. Always keep your kid’s computer out in the open and with a big monitor to make it hard to hide content and keep kids from trying to sneak around in sites they shouldn’t or spending all their time chatting instead of doing homework. Block computer use during late night hours and when you are not home. Peak over their shoulder often and talk to them about controversial material, what is in the news, jokes they see, words or phrases they do not understand.
There are many subjects to think about and discuss with your children, the Internet is an unlimited, invaluable source of knowledge, communication and entertainment but should be constrained by acknowledged guidelines, caution and helpful control programs.
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