Since the mid 1980’s, I have worked with parents, children and teens to educate them as consumers on the safe and appropriate use of media and communication devices that were available to young people. Many revisions were made over the years to reflect the ever-changing electronic communication landscape. Today, due to some recent requests from parents and colleagues near and far, I am pleased to offer Keeping Children Safe Online as an updated resource for parents and other adults who care for and work with children and teens.
How to use this resource
The material offered here, due to the topic, is expansive in nature. You may want to scroll around and jump to sections that may be the most important to you, or save the link for future reference. Keeping Children Safe Online is also available free as a PDF, which you can save on your own computer, or send to relatives or other adults who may find this resource useful. Taking a moment to scan the headers in bold text below will give you an idea of the topics covered in this article.
Part One: “Sanity Not Censorship”*
My Take, My Cred
Rufus Jones, an old downeast Quaker and noted religious leader famously said, “I am not an expert. An expert is someone who is outstanding in a field, and I am not out standing in a field!” The point that the old Mainer was making was that of course he knew his subject in a scholarly way, but he also lived and experienced it at a deeper level within. In all my years of caring for the well-being of young people in various situations, I’ve made it a practice, through observation, teaching and leading groups on the topic of Keeping Children Safe Online to factor in the whole child and the real world within which young people live today.
For 31 years I worked directly with children, teens and their parents on issues related to the broader term of “media safety.” Within my work professionally (as a Youth Advocate for the Town of Dartmouth, MA) and within ministry settings among Quakers and other faith traditions, media safety began way back with pagers (remember those?), phone safety (think keeping kids away from phone sex-lines), Internet Safety, chat room safety, digital image safety, online harassment and more recently, issues related to messaging, texting and sexting.
Fear vs. facts
It seems like everyone is an expert on Internet safety these days. In my view there are far too many paid public speakers, including some school officials, running around scaring the daylights out of parents regarding their children and the Internet. Though they mean well, in reality, some of these people, in my view, are marketing in fear at the expense of the facts. They do a little reading and even less research, oftentimes repeating what other so-called “Internet safety” experts have said, and some of these resources are repeating still others. They scrape eye-catching headlines from the news that details Internet horror stories involving kids being victimized and send parents racing home in utter fear.
For certain the online practices of some young people, especially in today’s texting, messaging and selfie-picture taking world creates problems on a regular basis for school administrators and school resource officers. And I think that they do a great job overall in dealing with the guilty culprits. But painting the issue with a broad brush isn’t fair to the rest of the school population, nor does it teach anything lasting or positive to the overall student population.
I have worked directly with children and teens for decades. And though I am retired now from the full-time gig, my pastoral work and concern for families continues. That, coupled with my ongoing online work at Rise This Day and as a contributor on other sites, keeps me current on the topic of keeping children safe online. Since 1990 I have observed how young people use the Internet and what they do and don’t do on it. My creation of Keeping Children Safe Online as a resource for parents and others reflects what I believe to be a more holistic, balanced and less fear-based approach to keeping our children safe on the Web.
Are there dangers online? Yes, of course. There are also dangers in using the telephone and crossing the street. Kids actually do a better job of being careful online then they’re given credit for. Conversely, if a teen really wants to go to a site or communicate with someone who they shouldn’t, no firewall or site-blocking program is going to prevent them from doing so 100% of the time. Active parenting, family discussion and diligence on your part as a parent is still a necessary element of any online safety plan.
Stranger Danger That Isn’t
Our culture seems ever willing to blame the “stranger” out there for doing bad things to our children. But the truth is, and statistics bear this out, is that our children are at greater risk from being victimized from something happening to them by someone that they already know and trust, frequently by someone known to the family*. Nobody really wants to talk about this fact. It’s just much easier to talk about the proverbial lurking stranger.
Block or not block?
Do site blocking software programs like Net Nanny and CyberPatrol work? Yes, they do. And they are both good programs. But they can also limit an opportunity for young people to learn by dialoguing with you, the parent. I’ve known families that had so many sites blocked online that their children couldn’t open online search results to do their homework. I have also worked with parents who were clueless on how to activate their parental controls on their home devices, even when they suspected that their teenager was spending suspicious amounts of time online late at night. Please see my section below entitled “Locking it Down.”
Images Don’t Lie: A Story That Hurts
One day a mom brought her 8th grade son to my office because he got caught viewing online porn. Understandably, mom was very upset about this. After gathering the facts I had time to meet with the boy individually in session. I asked him what his take on this was. He said, “I turned the computer on after school and it just popped up on the screen before I ever touched anything!” Now how could that happen? The long story short here is that it later was determined that his step-dad had used the laptop the night before. Ouch!
These days parents tend to focus on monitoring their child’s use of PC’s, laptops and tablets, with little thought to other devices. But consider this: I worked with a 9th grade girl who had been banned from using the previously mentioned devices because she had been caught several times viewing inappropriate content online. I was working and helping this girl on other matters when it became apparent that she was accessing pornography on her iPod almost daily after school. Neither mom or dad had a clue that this was happening, mostly because they thought kids used their iPods for music only. The child’s daily use was nearing addiction levels and even she knew that it was taking over her life. Once we got the parents involved and found a clinician that specialized in adolescent addiction issues the girl eventually got things back under control to a healthier place.
The Digital Road To Here
In the 80’s, we worried about kids using land-line phones to dial up sex-lines, which resulted in phone bills to parents in the hundreds of dollars! In the late nineties, everyone was petrified about chat rooms. A few years later MySpace got the bad rap and was labeled as the “in-fashion” Internet bad-boy. Today, many teens, unless they’re into Indi music big time, don’t even know what MySpace is! From MySpace, teens jumped to Facebook in 2006 when it opened up to non-college users who were 13 years-old with a valid email address.
These days, many teens say that they hate Facebook because their parents, aunts and uncles, even their grandparents are all on Facebook…and it bugs them that their relatives, whom they love, all want to “friend” them on Facebook. The operative word here among many teens is “yuck!” (Note, but even though many teens say that they barely use Facebook today, the vast majority of them keep their accounts, sometimes more than one, actually, for when they want to stay connected to older peers and kids just out of high school.) Please read my section “Do’s and Don’ts of friending your kids on social media”
True, there have been real problems with each of these mediums, but nowhere near the proportions that mainstream media would have us believe. In fact, the real number, in terms of percentages, has been infinitesimal by comparison. The point is that Facebook and other popular social media programs are not going away. They have, for better or worse, become the new down-town coffee shop and street corner, where people of all ages meet friends, make new friends, and explore the world around them. We may not relish that scenario, but it is what it is.
The next section has two parts. Part One contains some practical points that you should be aware of as parents (or youth workers) with children and teens using the Internet. Part Two contains listings of useful Internet safety sites so that you can access to learn more about protecting your child when he/she is online. Also, parents might find it useful to view and print out my Ten Online Safety Tips for Teens (pdf).
Part Two: Digital Details
Mom, Can I have Email?
For safety reasons, it is advised that younger children under ten should not have their own email address. Instead, maintain a “family email address” that can be used to encourage and teach your child how to use this resource properly. For example, teach your child how to email a distant relative, or a family friend across town. Same goes for video chat on iPhones, iPads, iPods (Yes, iPods), Droids and so forth. Teach your child how to use these apps to reach their grandparents, or a parent who may be at work still. Don’t ban their use, otherwise in time they will learn on their own and you’ll have no idea if what they are learning is healthy and safe or not.
In time, and sooner than you think, your child may ask for, or, have a need, to have their own email address. With parents who have been teaching their child all along how to use email, helping a child to create his or her own email address, and then using it responsively, works very well. Again, create a short list of people who meet your approval that are okay for your child to contact using his or her own email address. Review their activity now and then, check their “sends” and inbox to make sure that everything’s on the up-and-up. Discuss how its going with your child and be ready to answer any questions that they may have.
The Smarts in Smartphones
Here’s an exception to the above suggestions: A growing number of parents today supply their elementary-aged child with a cell phone with Internet functions turned off. The idea is that their child keeps it in their school backpacks. That way they can use the phone to call home, a parent or other trusted adult in case something important comes up, if they find themselves stranded or if there’s an emergency. This also works well with parents that are split or divorced, especially if there is a concern about the quality of childcare with the other parent. I have seen this approach used very effectively, with very few reports of it being abused by children who are “packing a phone.”
Another emerging trend that parents are doing is equipping their child with older versions of iPhones or Android powered smartphones that provides features for allowing FaceTime or, with droids, something like Tango, respectively. The beauty of these applications is that parents can pre-select who can be contacted for video chatting. In addition, settings can also be configured so that a child can send iMessages and/or regular text messages to people on their pre-approved lists.
Video Games, Offline and On
Today many children hone their computer skills by playing video games. In time (hopefully) after receiving permission from a parent they may want to begin playing age-appropriate video games with other kids, remotely, who are roughly their age online. It seems that far more boys are into this at this age than girls, however. Only you, as the parent, can know when your child is ready for this next phase of being online with the World Wide Web. I suggest, as a starting point, to explore video games for children that are recommended by Common Sense Media. Here’s a link to the online games that Common Sense Media recommends.
Pay attention to YouTube. Many parents completely overlook this platform when considering Internet safety procedures for their children. Young people are particularly attracted to video and music, and as we know, YouTube has it all. Depending on your settings within YouTube and your ISP, everything, from nudity, porn, foul language, hate speech and self-destructive behaviors can be found on YouTube, Tumblr and other video streaming sites. YouTube vigorously deletes such content as soon as it is discovered, but due to the sheer volume of new videos daily it doesn’t happen fast enough. As a parent, you can set and filter the YouTube settings to control what comes into your computer. See YouTube Policies
For Parents of Middle and High Schoolers
If you have a middle or high schooler in the house, do you know their email address? Most students at this point have one, or several, including one issued by their school. You should know each of the email addresses that your child may have.
With high schoolers, don’t assume that your teen has just one email address or just one Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr or Twitter account. Some teens have several. One they sometimes keep and show mom and dad….to keep you happy, and the others only their friends know about. It’s okay to ask your teen if they have more than one account on a particular social media platform They may be shocked that you asked…and, that you’re on to them.
Many teens feel guilty (yeah them!) about lying, especially to you, and will tell you that they do have more than one email address or social media account within the same program. I do not recommend that parents demand the passwords to their teenager’s accounts. That just doesn’t help in the long run. More on this in the “Do’s and Don’ts of ‘friending’ your kids on social media.”
So, aware that teenagers sometimes open more than one account on a platform, and not always because they want to throw the “rents” (that’s mom and dad) off the trail, but because they find it too difficult to dump hostile peers and exes and instead find it is easier to just open a new account. They’re not supposed to do this on some sites, especially Facebook, but they still do. Another reason that teens sometimes open new accounts is because they have long ago forgotten or lost their passwords to one or more of their online accounts. Rather than request a new temporary password, some teens just decide to start a new account. (It’s weird, I know, a kind of badge of honor among their pals, actually, that they are so busy, so popular, so stressed by this and that hassle, that they need a new account!) Then again, I worked with a boy who had several Twitter accounts, one for his gaming buddies and another for linking to Facebook and Instagram. So the reason why teens may have more than one account on a platform varies.
How Much is Too Much Time Online?
Good question! Pay attention to how much time your teen spends online. They can see their friends at school, talk on the phone later, and then chat for hours online with the same batch of friends. I know, it’s maddening! Most of it is just that, chatter. But if online time seems excessive, highly secretive (well, more than “normal secretive,” that is!) take note and have a discussion. Many teens remain online for hours after mom and dad are in bed, which can really hurt their grades. I’ve heard countless stories of teenage girls complaining that their boyfriends fell asleep on them at two in the morning. (How dare they?) The boys have told me that they set the phone on their chest while in bed, with headphones attached, and eventually just fall asleep! Go figure.
Computers In Common Spaces? Forget That!
We often hear “experts” (still) advising parents to keep computers that are online in common areas of the house where they can be monitored. But in reality, especially as teens owning smartphones with full Internet capability is the norm today, or use iPads and laptops, all with wireless connections, that advice just isn’t practical anymore. Besides, do you really want to listen to your teen’s video game music right in your living room? Better to establish a policy where your child knows you reserve the right to stroll past the monitor while they’re online in whatever room they’re in. If the screen goes suddenly black, be suspicious, it may be time to talk. Reassure them that you’re not trying to scoop their online conversations. You just want them to remain safe. If your teen says that they’re only chatting with six friends at once, you’re good, if not confused.
What ISP Is My Teen Using?
Know what Internet Service Provider (ISP) that your teen is using, on their phones and other devices. Talk with your teen about their online habits and impress upon them that you’re paying attention. Most parents are also paying for their kid’s smartphones, tablets, laptops and so forth, so why wouldn’t you? In addition, your child is accessing the Internet through your network provider. You, as the parent, are paying the bills here, and it’s perfectly okay for you to remind your teen of this as often as needed. You also, as a parent with an underage child, have the right to contact your network provider and find out what you can about the data usage and sites visited by your child. But know first that it is more productive to have a conversation with your child about this one-to-one, first. But if your teen is not willing to share honestly with you, you do have this option.
No-Fault, No-Blame Agreements
Reassure your teen that if he or she ever, at anytime, receives an online solicitation for sex, verbal threats, or if someone they don’t know is seeking ways to contact them in person, that they should come and tell you right away, and that they can do so without being afraid of getting into trouble for telling you. This is very important. Assure your child that they will not in any way be punished or grounded for alerting you to something going on with one of their social media accounts.
Another approach that encourages teens to reach out for help if something nasty is taking place online is to identify another trusted adult, such as an aunt, close family friend or school counselor, that would be okay for your teen to reach out to if something or some one was creeping them out online. Yes, we’d like our kids to come to us first, but some do not and sometimes for understandable reasons. Remember, if your child thinks that he or she will get busted for telling you about something like this, they will never tell you! So don’t punish them for telling you. You may need to address the matter further with your teen in order to prevent something from happening again, but wait a few days until things settle down.
Help From Police
If you determine that someone has been contacting your child inappropriately online, or that solicitation of some sort has happened, then call the police and report it. Do not, under any circumstances, try to intervene yourself. Even calling the parents of another teen who may be acting inappropriately with your child online seldom produces favorable results. Let the police deal with it. They are trained to deal with this, and you are not. The police, if need be, are also able to access the applicable social media accounts of both parties very quickly and print out the offending exchanges as needed.
She Said, She Said: A story of Online Harassment
I recall working with a family whose daughter had reported being harassed and threatened online by one of her female classmates. Her parents, in the spirit of being pro-active and taking direct action, were considering driving across town to the other girl’s home and speak directly with her parents. However, that night brought even more harassing and threatening texts and messages flying back and forth between the two girls. I convinced the family that I was working with to finally call the police, which they did the next morning.
Late that afternoon we were sitting in the detective’s office and we noticed that he had printed out several pages of Facebook messages that were sent back and forth by both girls. After a few moments mom and dad were shocked to discover that it was their own daughter who had started harassing and threatening the other girl first some two weeks earlier, and not the other way around as mom and dad had been led to believe.
Scorn of Porn
We hear many concerns about young people viewing porn online. What is seldom mentioned is that some teens, including younger children, actually stumble into porn sites unintentionally because the cookies for it are already on a computer when their child turns it on. How so? The truth is some adults/parents in the home view porn sites, which is their right as adults. But parents sometimes mistakenly think that their kids would never discover this. They forget that teens, and even some children, know how to check history and scan cookies and otherwise see where other people have been online the night before.
Sexting: The digital dark side of technology
These days”sexting,” is a major concern where some teens (most often) use their phone to send inappropriate content, including images of various stages of undress, to their peers and their boyfriends and/or girlfriends. In fact the “invitation” code word that some teens send one another, though sent initially by more boys than girls is, “Send me something I want to see.” And the disturbing thing is that some girls ( or other boys if they’re gay) will do just that thinking that’s it’s no big deal, especially if their face is not in the image that they send.
Media and digital education is helping to make teens more aware of the consequences and harm of being involved in sending or forwarding “sexting” messages and pics, but it is still happening. In addition to the harm it causes to those involved, many states still do not have specific statutes to employ when prosecuting offenders. Judges frequently have no other choice but to charge convicted juveniles (depending on their age) under existing porn distribution laws. Such convictions can label the teen as a sex offender, which then runs the risk of them being placed into the National Sex Offender Registry, again, depending on their age. That, as we know, could follow them for the rest of their lives.
Sexting also takes place among more adults than most people realize. I have had several clients inform me previously that they saw, while borrowing their parent’s cell phone to make a call, nude images of either a parent or their parent’s significant other. Parents need to remember that our children are learning lessons both good and bad from mom and dad.
How To Set Up Parental Controls
Know how to set up and control your “parental options” on your ISP at the point of entry into your home. Make sure that they’re activated when your computer is on. And password protect these settings too, so that only parents can modify the settings.
Common Sense Media
Save yourself a heap of time and visit Common Sense Media.org . (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/ I could spend days covering the basics on setting Internet permissions on your ISP, but these folks do it more accurately than anyone out there. I especially like their mantra, *“We believe in sanity, not censorship.” This, of course, jives with my pet peeve of educating, before blocking stuff on the Internet. Also, please consider reading Common Sense Media’s “Ten Beliefs.”
A list of the most popular Internet Service Providers in the US and how to configure parental controls are below:
If your ISP is not listed here, just Google “how to set up parental controls in ________ (your ISP name.) It will be listed. There’s just too many ISP’s out there to cover them all here.
Locking It Down!
Some parents feel more secure if they run filtering software such as NetNanny, Spy Tech-Spy Agent, Qustidio, etc, to name three of the consistently top rated programs. If you do run such programs, talk with your child/teen about why you feel this is necessary. An open dialog encourages communication and trust.
Rise This Day’s Ten Online Safety Tips for Teens
Tell your teen that you would like then to read Rise This Day’s Ten Online Safety for Teens. True. They’ll hate you for it. But, if you don’t think that they might, print it out and leave it in the bathroom! Like I said previously, everything gets read in the bathroom!
Dangerous Sites Teens Should Not Be On
Remember that in addition to the following unsavory Web sites that kids should never be on, many of these sites also have apps that kids download onto their phones. (Tip: This is a quick way actually for parents to find out if their child is on any of these sites.) If they are, and if you have a family cell phone plan, apps that are connected to these dangerous sites can be blocked by your cell carrier and also blocked on your account with your Internet Service Provider (ISP). But if your child is at a friend’s house or on a local hot spot they may still be able to gain access to these particular sites. If you block these sites with your cell carrier, at least your teen won’t be able to use his or her own cell phone to connect to them no matter where they are.
- Omegle: This site is nothing but trouble. Far too many middle school aged kids, oftentimes girls, visit this site during sleepovers with friends, etc. (The things my clients have told me!) Users age 13-18 must have their parent’s permission to be on the site…but no kid in their right mind would ask their parents for permission! The site features videos and chat, in which the child visiting is called “you” and the screen that pops up is called “stranger.” Now what could be bad about that? Good lord.
- askFM: A question and answer site supposedly for teens age 17+, but many younger teens reportedly are on this site too. In addition, askFM has been linked to several suicides in recent years.
- ChatRoulette: Often called a hangout for predators, kids are supposed to be 16 to use the site, but many kids are much younger. Random screens appear on the child’s screen and users can chat or share video with total strangers.
- 4chan: Is an anonymous message board where vulgar, racist, and messages advocating violence are posted.
- Meet Me: It’s just what it says, much like Omegle.
- Bang With Friends: The name says it all.
- Tinder: It’s a dating and hook-up site…for adults. Teens should not be on it. They group users into brackets of ages, beginning at age 13… I know, an obvious discrepancy Now why would 70 year-olds be chatting with 13 year olders? Sick.
When I finished researching these sites I disinfected by keyboard and got up to wash my hands.
Part Three: Help for Parents
Best Learning Resources for Parents
Visit any of the following sites to learn more about Internet safety.
Net Family News.org: ( http://www.netfamilynews.org/ ) Run by Anne Collier, this is by far the best place for parents (and youth workers of all stripes) to educate themselves about all things digital safety and digital literacy that impacts children, teens and their families today. I have followed this site since it began (1999) and much of what I know today and have used professionally has come from this site. Anne Collier puts out weekly newsletters aimed at parents and those who teach digital media and literacy to children, so her content is always fresh and cutting edge on what’s going on out there.
Connectsafely.org: (http://www.connectsafely.org/ ) Co-founded by Larry Magid and Anne Collier, this site acts as home base and solid foundation for Net Family News. A parent could read these two sites and nothing more and be enormously more informed within a short period of time.
WiredSafety.com: ( http://www.wiredsafety.com/ ) Founded by Attorney Parry Aftab back in 1995, this site tends to focus on cyber-crimes, cyber bullying and cyber education. Parry Aftab is also a cyber-lawyer with lots of cred. This resource is highly regarded by the legal and law enforcement professions.
Common Sense Media. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/ As I mentioned earlier, this is a terrific non-profit site for parents to learn about all things Internet Safety.
The above sites, in my view, are all any parent or adult who works wih young people would ever need in order to stay on top if the ever-changing cyber landscape.
Do’s and Don’ts of ‘friending’ your kids
Opinions on the do’s and don’ts of being friends, being “pals,” and otherwise expecting to be a regular reader or contributor to your son or daughter’s online hangouts is hotly debated. Some parents and their children report having no issues whatsoever with friending each other on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so forth. If that’s your family’s experience, that’s wonderful!
However, many pre-teens and teens outwardly revolt when their parents want to connect with them on social media sites, and much of that is actually healthy and expected behavior on the child’s part. If you sense this is the case with your son or daughter, then I suggest not requesting or demanding to be “friends,” or to be in your teen’s “Circles” in their online communities. Instead, consider having a discussion about it with them and try to learn why they feel the way that they do. The goal here is for parent and child to truly hear what’s behind each other’s request. I have had several teens and/or their parents report back to me that once they had a chance to talk and listen to one another that they each felt willing to give being pals on a social media account a try.
Some parents absolutely insist on being connected to their child’s online communities, and while that may seem like a right of parenting, it seldom produces anything good for either side. As I mentioned earlier, it’s at this juncture that some teens will, under duress, add their parent as a friend to one or more programs, and then they’ll begin a new account and have all their friends contact them there and leave their old site dormant.
Generally, I encourage parents with high school-aged children to have, or find, their own friends on social media and not insist on being added to their son’s or daughter’s friend list. Parents with kids in middle school (grades 6-8), however, are dealing in a gray area here. Six and seventh graders may not have the emotional maturity yet to be on social media without ongoing supervision. They may not be old enough, either. Only you as the parent can know if your child is ready for largely unsupervised access to social media programs. Again, an open and unguarded conversation is advised, not ten minutes before your child begs to have their own Facebook account without mom in tow, but ideally months in advance which allows you as the parent to evaluate your child’s readiness for joining the digital world.
Social Media Age Requirements
Do pay attention to the age eligibility requirements for having an account on various social media platforms. They vary. Facebook is 13 years of age. On Twitter, the minimum age requirement is no longer stated clearly as it used to be when the site was new. One wonders why? It’s been noted also that many parents have given their child permission to lie about their age so that they could join an online community or program. That’s never a good idea. In addition to it being wrong and a violation of a site’s policies, these parents may be placing their under-aged child at risk.
This article covers a lot of ground. And if you read most of it, thank you! Please be in touch if I can help you further with any of the topics that are covered above. Comments below are always appreciated and are the best way to ask questions or share your ideas. If you have not subscribed to Rise This Day yet, I invite you to do so using the sign-up box on the upper right side of the page.
Notes and References
* SafeKids.com: Myths about stranger danger.
Common Sense Media: Great source for parents to learn more about media safety.
© Text and Images by Kevin Lee.
“Do Not Remove Unless You’re Mom, Dad or God image Courtesy of Jen Moura.
Graphic artwork created exclusively for Rise This Day
by Ma. Shayne Krizel Zalameda