Protecting Children Online: The Basics

Dear Visitors,
I’m offering this information here, which I cover extensively as part of my professional work with children and teens on my work Web site at DartmouthYouth.com, because I’ve already had visitors ask me about it on my blog. But since this my personal site, I’m going to roll thirty years of working with young people into telling you straight what’s really important and what is not. If you want the nice measured professional coverage, then please visit my work site. If you want to save time, hear what’s most important, then read on!

(Revised, December, 2010)

Dear Visitors,

I’m offering this information here, which I cover extensively as part of my professional work with children and teens on my work Web site at DartmouthYouth.com, because I frequently have visitors who ask me about it on my blog. But since this my personal site, I’m going to roll thirty-plus years of working with young people into telling you straight what’s really important and what is not. If you want the nice measured professional coverage, then please visit my work site. If you want to save time, hear what’s most important, then read on!

It seems like everyone is an expert about Internet safety these days. In my view there are far too many school officials running around scaring the daylights out of parents regarding their children and the Internet. Though they men well, in reality, many of these people don’t know what they’re talking about. 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. I work directly with children and teens, I watch how they use the Internet and we talk about what they do and don’t do, and my comments here reflect that.

Are there dangers on-line? Yes, of course. There is also danger in using the telephone and crossing the street. Kids actually do a better job of being careful on-line then they’re given credit for. Conversely, If a teen really wants to go to a site or communicate with someone that 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 on-line safety plan.

Our culture seems ever willing to blame the “stranger” out there for doing bad things to our children, but the real truth of the matter is, and statistics bear this out, that our children are at greater risk from bad things happening to them by someone they already know and trust, someone close and accepted by the family. Nobody really wants to talk about this fact. Wonder why?

Do site blocking software programs like Net Nanny and CyberPatrol work? Yes, they do. But they also severely limit an opportunity for young people to learn by dialoging with you, the parent! I’ve known families that had so many sites blocked on-line that their child couldn’t even open on-line search results to do their homework assignments!

And then, consider this repeated story: Mom brings Middle School aged child to my office because he got caught looking at on-line porn. When, during our session I ask him what’s with that, he says, “I turned the computer on after school and it just popped up on the screen before I even touched anything!” Hello? Now how did that happen? Teens and children are not stupid. They know how to check recent history and cookies. They can tell who used the computer before them and what sites they were on! Again, hello?

In the 80’s, we worried about kids using the phone to dial up sex lines. 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, teens are leaving MySpace by the millions and jumping, primarily, on Facebook. Yes, there have been real problems with each of these mediums, but nowhere near the proportions that that the mainstream media outlets would have you believe. In fact, the real number, in terms of percentages, has been infinitesimal by comparison. And yes, every now and then we do read some tragic story in the paper about a young person being victimized and Facebook, MySpace or AOL was a contributing factor. Today, Facebook is the largest social media player with over 500 million members. When a violent crime is reported in the paper, how often do they say that the telephone, local paper or US Mail was connected in some way to the crime or tragedy in question? Almost never.

The next section has two parts. Part One contains some practical things that you should be aware of as parents with children and teens using the Internet. Part Two contains listings of useful Internet safety sites so that you can learn more about protecting your child when he/she is on-line. Also, parents might find it useful to visit Kevin’s On-line Safety for Teens, More About MySpace and Chat room safety.

Part One:

  • For safety reasons, younger children really should not have their own email address. Instead, maintain a “family email address” in addition to having personal ones that parents and teens in your home may use.
  • Do you know your teens email address? You should. And be aware that some teens maintain other email addresses that you may not know about. Ask them if they have more than one.
  • Pay attention to how much time your teen spends on-line. They can see their friends at school, talk on the phone later, then chat on-line with the same friends seemingly for hours. Most of it is just that, chatter. But if they’re on-line time seems excessive, highly secretive (well, more than “normal secretive,” that is!) take note and have a discussion. Many teens remain on-line for hours after mom and dad are in bed, which can really hurt their grades in school.
  • We often hear “experts” advising parents to keep computers that are on-line in common areas of the house where they can be monitored. But in reality, especially as teens own  “smart-phones” with full Internet capability, 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 on-line in whatever room they’re in. If the screen goes suddenly black, be suspicious, it may be time to talk. Reassure them that even as you breeze by that you’re not trying to read their on-line 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!
  • Know what Internet services your teen is using such as AOL/AIM, Hotmail, MySpace, Yahoo, G-Mail and on-line diaries. Talk with your teen about their on-line habits and impress upon them that you’re paying attention! Remind them that if they ever, at anytime, receive an on-line 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. Remember, if your child thinks they’ll be busted for telling you about something like this, they never will tell you! So don’t punish them for telling you! If you determine that the solicitation is real call the police and report it.
  • We hear lots of concerns about young people finding porn on-line. But 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 your computer when they turn it on. How? The truth is some adults/parents view porn sites, which is your business as adults. But don’t underestimate your child’s ability to check history, scan cookies and otherwise see where other people were on-line the night before.
  • Know how to setup and control your “parental options” on your ISP, such as Comcast, Yahoo and MSN. Make sure that they’re activated when your computer is on. And Passcode protect these settings too, so that only parents can modify the settings.
  • Some parents feel more secure if they run filtering software such as NetNanny, CyberSitter (top rated), CyberPatrol, McAfee, etc. 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.
  • Tell your teen that you would like then to read News From An Acorn’s Online Safety for Teens. If you don’t think that they will, print it out and leave it in the bathroom! Everything gets read in the bathroom.
  • The MySpace uproar has subsided now that fewer and fewer teens are using it. But I notice that some teens still do, and an even smaller number “go there” because it’s now off the radar screen of adults, etc. So it’s good to be aware of it, but again, Facebook is where the action, and the bulk of the current-day problems with it are. Posting inappropriate photos, and using Facebook to bully others are two of the more recent problems that school and law enforcement officials have dealt with involving Facebook. Be aware that realistically it’s impossible to absolutely prevent your teen from having a Facebook, MySpace, or any other social networking account without you knowing it. If you forbid your teen from having one, they can set one up at a friend’s house or at the library, etc.
  • Should I insist that my son/daughter “friend” me on their Facebook account? Yes and no. This depends on the kind of relationship you have (or think that you have) with your child. Some teens are happy to have mom and dad in their list of friends, others do so grudgingly, and still others refuse to. If your child does not want to include you on their Facebook friend list, it may well have far more to do with their wanting and needing “some space” from the ‘rents,’ then anything that they don’t want you to be seeing on their profile page. (What really bugs teens who don’t list mom and dad among their Facebook buds is that many of their pals will! And not only that, they’ll converse back and forth with you too! Go figure!)
  • Professionally, since so many parents, and now older adults, are usuing Facebook, I actually had a number of teens complain to me about what they felt to be inappropriate posting by their own mom or dad!  Single parents who are dating, who then post revealing notes or photos about their signifigant others and/or themselves really upsets many teens.
  • I’ve worked with a number of teens who have gotten into trouble with peers, school officials and others with their Facebook account. (A few years ago it was with MySpace!) Again, rather than forbidding them to have one after an incident, it’s more productive to sit down with them and open a new site together, and discuss how they will maintain it more responsibly. Please read Kevin’s piece, “More on the do’s and don’t’s of Social Networking,” which is intended for teens to read. Oh yes, I use Facebook, MySpace, Linked-In, FourSquare, and a few other social networking sites along with email, as a tool to communicate with many teens I work with and care about every day. You can visit my Facebook and my MySpace if you want.

(Revised, December, 2010)

Part Two: Visit any of the following sites to learn more about Internet safety.

My first choice is WiredSafety as it contains current, well organized material for parents, children and teens. My second choice would be BlogSafety by Internet journalist Larry Magid, which also is connected to SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com. The Cyber TipLine is the nationally recognized place to report cyber stalking and on-line crimes. It is also an excellent source of information for parents and young people, too.

WiredSafety.com   A non-profit Web safety site loaded with resources for parents, teens and children. About the best I’ve seen.

BlogSafety.com   Founded and edited by Larry Magid, a highly respected Internet journalist.

StaySafe.org   A non-profit educational site dedicated to on-line safety. Funded and hosted by Microsoft and other sponsors, all without ads.

The Cyber TipLine     Run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Use this site to report on-line incidents (in addition to calling the police).

(Revised, December, 2010)

Author: Kevin Lee

In a nutshell, Kevin fesses up to the following: He’s a retired youth advocate-counselor, a blogger, writer, photographer, rower, Friends Minister, grandpa of six and married to a terrific woman for 43 years and counting!

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