Talking Bits and Bytes

Educating children about Web safety.

It’s June. If it hasn’t already, school will soon end, leaving your children free to roam— and in need of entertainment. Traditionally, camping trips, swimming pools and sleepovers filled summer break. For today’s young generation, however, online entertainment is just as likely to define summer fun.

As the Internet is becoming more and more accessible to families, an increasing number of parents are introducing their children to online culture at a tender age. After all, there are virtual games and toys— think Webkinz, Club Penguin and Barbie Girls— aimed at every age, from tween to toddler.

With this growing online awareness comes a new set of dangers for parents to consider. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in five children is inappropriately or sexually solicited on the Internet, and one in 17 is threatened or harassed.

Parents often feel overwhelmed by the complications that high-tech interactions pose. How can parents protect their children from online threats when parents can barely keep up with their cyber-savvy children?

Giving “The Talk”

To teach young children about safe Internet habits, engage in a “bits and bytes” conversation with all children venturing online. Though elementary school children are not yet ready to learn about the “birds and the bees,” they risk being exposed to unwanted, explicit content each time they surf the Web. Therefore, advocate the following principles when educating children about proper Internet usage.

  1. Keep it private. Make sure your children know how important it is to remain anonymous on the Internet. This means kids should never give out personal or private information of any kind. Encourage your children to tell you if anyone on the Internet pressures them to reveal personal information.
  2. Don’t connect in the real world. Remind your kids how dangerous it is to have a real-life face-to-face meeting with someone from the Internet.
  3. Play by the rules. Consider creating household rules governing when your children can use the Internet and what they are allowed to do online.
  4. Keep it real. Remind your kids that not everything they read online is true. Although official news sites like www.cnn.com and www.msnbc.com can be trusted to post credible news stories, many sites created by “average Joes” contain gossip, rumors, misleading information and outright lies.
  5. Be wary if it seems too good to be true. Let your children know that advertisements appearing too good to be true, such as Web sites and e-mails offering free toys and electronics, are usually a trick of some kind.

Controlling Online Content

Even the most intelligent, well-informed child can still succumb to the temptations of the Internet. To best protect children, practice these five measures.

  1. Remove computers from your child’s bedroom or any places where the Internet can be accessed in private. Instead, put household computers in an open area, like the family room or kitchen, where you can supervise online activities.
  2. Keep an eye on the Web sites your kids visit. And don’t hesitate to read their e-mail messages if you’re concerned about your children’s safety.
  3. Use parental-control software to filter Web and chat-room content. Find such software at any major computer store.
  4. If you or your relatives have a personal Web site, do not post pictures of your children on it. In addition, inform your children that they should not post photos online.
  5. Learn what safety methods are used to protect your children outside the home. Other places children might use computers include school, the local library, and houses of friends and relatives.

Understanding Instant New Language

Instant messaging and text messaging have spurred a new language by which kids communicate. And this cyber-talk is generally incomprehensible to parents!

Though many of us are familiar with some Internet slang, or txtspeak, such as “brb” (“be right back”) or “lol” (“laughing out loud”), there are other phrases that are less innocent, including “asl,” asking for “age, sex and location,” “pal” for “parents are listening” and “ipn,” meaning “I’m posting naked.”

Maintaining Privacy

Sending electronic communication can be a healthy way for children to keep in touch with school friends over the summer. However, there are several rules your kids should follow to protect themselves and prevent their private information from being snatched by criminals. Here are some tips regarding how to protect your children.

  1. Block strangers. Configure your children’s IM program to block messages from anyone who is not on their contact/buddy list. For instructions on doing this, consult the help menu in the IM software.
  2. Guard their identity. Tell your children they should never give out or post personal information such as photographs, real names, parents’ names, addresses, phone numbers, school and day camp names, and social-security numbers. Unless your kids encrypt their IMs, criminals could intercept and read them. Unfortunately, children get their identity stolen this way every day.
  3. Help kids stay private. Your children need to understand that they have no control over what happens to the IMs they send, which means they must be very careful about the private or sensitive information they transmit. For example, the recipient of the IM could copy the text from an IM and forward it to other people, thus publicizing your children’s private information.
  4. Encourage your children to tell you about scandalous images and language. If an IM contains pictures or words that are rude or pornographic, your children should close the message and let you know immediately.
  5. Caution children about using auto log-ins. When sending IMs on a public computer, such as at school, your children should not turn on the “automatic log-in” feature, which saves their user name and/or password. Avoiding this option prevents someone from accidentally or purposefully logging onto your child’s IM account.

After taking these easy steps, you can enjoy the summer months knowing your children are playing safely on the computer. Even when kids head to a friend’s house to surf the net, you’ll feel comfortable saying “ttfn” (“ta ta for now”)!