It’s easy to be overwhelmed with concern about keeping children and teens safe on the Internet. Some of the news stories may leave you with a panicked feeling that makes you want to block your kids from everything online. Or you may feel like you don’t know enough about everything you can see and do on the Internet to even begin to protect your kids adequately.
The good news is that you already know a great deal about keeping your children safe, and it’s easy to apply that knowledge in the online world. (Keep in mind, too, that the majority of people online are as good and well-intentioned as you are.)
So, read on for advice about how to help your child stay safe online, warning signs that he or she may be at risk, and what to do if you suspect your child is communicating with a predator.
You’ve taught your children about who they share personal or family information with – for example, that it’s inappropriate to shout out your phone number to random people on the street or to tell callers that their parents aren’t home. You know to stop the newspaper delivery (or have a neighbor collect it) when you’re on vacation so your house doesn’t become a target for thieves. Applying this same caution and good sense online will go a long way to protecting your young Internet adventurers.
Learn how to use the tools your kids are using-blogs, e-mail, instant messaging, and so on. If this seems overwhelming, its a great opportunity to ask your kids to show you how they work. Let them help you to set up your own blog, get started with instant messaging, play with searches, or teach you whatever it is you don’t yet know how to do.
Once you’ve got a sense of how the tools and services work, evaluate them for safety. For example, consider these questions:
- Does the service easily allow you to report abuse?
- Does the service provide clear instructions for how to be safe?
- Are there a range of options that let you make your information as private-or as public-as you like? For example, can you control the privacy of your blog, or specify who can see your instant message contact information?
Learn More Teach yourself about online safety:
- Familiarize yourself with the info on this Web site. Take time to practice spotting the risks.
- Check out other great resources like http://www.netsmartz.org/, http://www.wiredsafety.com/, and http://staysafe.org/.
Internet safety isn’t something you can effectively impose on anyone over the age of ten. Effective safety is something we do together because everyone has a vested interest in being safe. If youth don’t buy into your safety goals they’ll quickly find ways around them.
Fortunately, youth have a basic sense of self preservation most of the time. They don’t want to be had or ripped off or abused by some scammer, thief, or predator. When they realize their actions may place not only themselves, but their family members or friends at risk, they pay considerable attention.
So use the following tips as guidelines to help your kids have fun on the Internet-safely.
- Talk to your child about potential risks online through their computer, game console and cell phone. (To get up to speed on the risks of gaming, read Chapter 13, “Use Common Sense When Gaming with Others” in Look Both Ways.
- Spend time online with your children. See where they surf; understand their interests.
- Keep the computer (and Xbox) in a central location such as the family room or kitchen.
- Check out and use family safety software (parental controls) to help monitor, manage, or even block your kids’ Internet use.
- Make it clear that together you will randomly check their communications and blogs to help ensure that their safety and the family’s safety is not at risk
- Check out the safeguards on other computers your child uses-at his or her school, the public library, and the homes of your child’s friends.
- Teach children and youth the basics of online safety. Set clear usage guidelines and consequences if the rules are broken. You might find an Internet Safety Contract for Families helpful in setting these boundaries.
- Never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online.
- Never post pictures of themselves to people they do not personally know.
- Never give out identifying information such as address or phone number.
- Never download pictures from an unknown source as there is a good chance they will be sexually explicit.
- Never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing.
- Be suspicious of information you see online-it may or may not be true.
- Your child spends long periods of time online, especially at night. (Note, this is also fairly typical teen behavior.)
- You find pornography on your child’s computer.
- Your child receives phone calls from men you don’t know or is making calls, sometimes long distance, to numbers you don’t recognize.
- Your child receives mail, gifts, money or packages from someone you don’t know (or even someone you do know at inappropriate times).
- Your child turns the computer monitor off or quickly or changes the Web page when you come into the room.
- Your child becomes withdrawn from the family.
- Your child is using an online account belonging to someone else.
- Check out what is on your child’s computer and who he or she is communicating with.
- Talk openly with your child about your suspicions. Tell them about the dangers of computer sex offenders.
- Use Caller ID service to determine who is calling your child. Telephone companies also offer a feature that rejects anonymous incoming calls.
- Monitor your child’s access to all types of live electronic communications such as instant messages, e-mail, and especially social networking like chat rooms, blogs, and spaces.
- Immediately contact law enforcement if any of the following occur. Keep the computer on but turn the screen off, and follow the directions of your law enforcement agency.
- You believe your child is at risk.
- Your child or anyone in the household has received child pornography or abusive images.
- Your child has been sexually solicited or receives sexually explicit images.
One final and very important point: as with all sexual crimes, there is only one person at fault— the predator.
Sexual acts with minors are illegal and exploitive, and as a society, everyone must be committed to protecting minors, even when they act against their own best interests. Yes, they might have done things that put them at greater risk, but they are the victim, not the abuser.
Understand that sexual predators frequently try to make a child believe that the abuse was the child’s fault or something they wanted because if the child feels guilty or ashamed they will be much less likely to report it. Predators may say, “You wouldn’t have contacted me if you didn’t want it,” or “I only did this because I thought it was what you wanted.”
If a parent or authority figure says to an abused child or teen something like “What were you thinking?” or “What was your part in this?”, the child or teen may see that as siding with the predator. If the adult in any way reinforces the predator’s message of guilt, they remove the last shreds of hope from the child that they will be believed, nurtured, and protected by those they need support from the most.
Get more advice for parents in the following chapters of Look Both Ways.
Chapter 3, Thinking Like the Enemy: Predatory Behavior
Chapter 17, Use Common Sense When Gaming with Others
Chapter 18, Get Savvy About Financial Scams and Fraud
The Internet is a public place and I am responsible for using it safely to help protect myself, my family, and my friends.
- I will only use safe contact names—in e-mail, IM, blogs, etc.
- I will never use the Internet to bully or harass anyone.
- I will not post content to a public site without my parent’s permission.
- I will not expose my personal information or the information of my friends or family (name, address, phone or cell numbers, school) in text or through pictures.
- I will never meet in person an Internet “friend” without telling my parents and having someone I trust with me.
- It is my responsibility to browse safely. I will not look for inappropriate content, and I will tell my parents if I see something that upsets me.
- I will only download programs from the Internet that my parents have approved.
- I will not register to use Web sites or take surveys or quizzes that ask for personal information.
- I know that information posted on the Web can live forever.
- I will think about who I am sharing information with and decide what is appropriate to share.
These are Web sites maintained by organizations, governments, and companies around the world to help you educate yourself and your children about online safety, and report abuse when you encounter it.
- The online safety Web site of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for kids, teens and their parents.
- Dedicated to protecting children from online exploitation, WiredSafety is the largest Internet child safety non-profit organization in the US. Their sites offer online educational material for children, youth, and adults.
- NCH, The Children’s Charity is the leading online child safety non-profit organization in the UK. Its Web site provides online safety education, sponsors safety research, and offers opportunities for activism.
- Video Game Ratings: What Do They Mean? Check here for a guide to understanding the meanings of U.S. and international online gaming ratings.
Sites for reporting abuse of a child
- Report a missing child or abuse of a child within the U.S. to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. This site also offers safety information and opportunities for activism. The Center also sponsors The CyberTipline which gathers leads on instances of sexual abuse.
- Report a missing child or abuse of a child outside the U.S. to The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. This site also offers safety information and opportunities for activism.
- The International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE) is a European Union-supported organization with 23 member hotlines in 21 countries that responds to reports of illegal content.
Sites for reporting online scams and fraud
- Take the Phishing IQ Test to learn more about phishing and test your skill at spotting fake e-mail messages.
- In the U.S., you can file a complaint of online financial scams and fraud or identity theft with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Kid- and teen-oriented sites
- The NetSmartz Workshop is an interactive, educational safety resource sponsored by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) to teach kids and teens how to stay safer on the Internet.
- Stoptextbully.com offers children and teens great advice about dealing with cyber-bullying and other online safety issues.
- StaySafe.org is a site that aims to teach kids and teens about Internet safety and security. (Teachers and other adults will also find good advice there.)