Stranger Danger Online

Protecting youth who use social media and other websites.

Before the Internet, a parent’s worry was that a stranger might approach his or her child in a park, while they walked home from school or hung out with friends at the mall. Today, parents have the added concern that strangers may not only lurk in the physical spaces where their children meet, but that they also find and approach their children in the cyber world. Unfortunately, statistics back those fears. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, it is believed that more than half a million pedophiles are online and may be trying to “friend” your child. What’s more frightening is that they don’t have to “friend” kids to find out enough basic information, including your child’s home and school addresses or their interests, to manipulate their way into your child’s cyber space and possibly beyond. Aside from blocking access to the Internet entirely, what can parents do to protect their kids online?

Researchers agree that parents are a critical part of the process and must be actively involved in teaching their kids about online safety. Conversations and rules about web guidelines should be applied to all tech devices that kids use, such as tablets and cell phones. When children are young, parents should establish that technology usage is a privilege, not a right, and if they misuse this privilege, there are consequences. “Parents can and should moderate sites, but they have to give kids the opportunities to figure out what it means to be digital citizens, and allow kids to be empowered. They need prompts and supports to develop guidelines together,” says Carrie James, who works on the qualitative survey of kids and social networks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Here are a few suggestions for developing such guidelines.

Keep communication lines open.

Parents should talk openly to their children at age-appropriate stages regarding the possible dangers of Internet use. If something confuses or makes your child uncomfortable, let him know he can talk to you about it. Opening the lines of communication when kids are at a young age encourages regular conversations that will continue as they get older.

Use safety controls.

Programs are available that allow parents to customize their family’s cyber experience. Such programming can block inappropriate content, set time limits, and provide activity logs and live streams. Parents should monitor their children’s Internet use, including online video gaming, an area where pedophiles are increasingly operating.

Prevent sharing of private information.

Be clear about what information is potentially dangerous, such as sharing addresses, photos or broadcasting when young users are home alone. Also warn kids to approach all friend requests on social networking sites with caution.

Sign a contract.

Signing a contract is a great way to help kids commit to what is acceptable and stick to it. Look for a contract that can be customized to fit family’s needs. These are available online.

Warn kids of potential ramifications.

Children need to know that all content on the Internet lasts forever and becomes a part of their digital footprint. Inform older kids that when the time comes to apply for college or a job, items on the Internet that seemed funny or cool when they were 12 could later have social and professional ramifications.

Be aware of shell game tactics.

Not surprisingly, tweens and teens are not always completely honest about what they are doing— online or not. A common trick among young users is to let parents “friend” them on social networking sites and then establish another space online that is hidden from parents, leaving mom and dad in the dark on what’s really going on.

Respect platform age minimums.

Did you know that it is illegal for kids under 13 to join Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest? Yet, an estimated 7 million kids under 13 are illegally on Facebook alone. Of those 7 million, seven in 10 of their parents helped them sign up for accounts, breaking federal laws and going against the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). If a child wants to join a site for which he is too young, parents should explain why it’s not appropriate and find an alternate site for them to visit, such as Everloop.com, a COPPA-compliant website for kids ages 8-13.