The Internet can be a wonderful place. Full of information, it can be a child's best resource for school and a fun place to keep in touch with friends. Unfortunately, it can also be a haven for cyberbullies, predators and scam artists. Parents need to take precautions. While there is no easy 1-step solution, we have assembled these simple preventative measures that can greatly reduce a child's chances of becoming a victim or running into trouble.
Children are going online at a younger age these days. Use that to your advantage. Talk to them at a young age so the lessons you teach and rules you set become ingrained as they move forward in their digital lives.
Be honest with them about the dangers of the Internet and tell them what they need to know. It's about communicating and guiding them. Emphasize that dangerous predators use the anonymity offered by the Web to lure child victims. Instruct your child to ignore emails and instant messages from people they do not know and report it to you. Children should also come to you immediately if they see something online that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. Have them turn off the monitor, but leave the computer on, so you may view the page for yourself. Emphasize that it's not their fault if they see something upsetting. Stress that the rules you set are to protect them, not to control them. Make sure your children understand they need to be careful online. Children who understand the risks posed by the Internet are more likely to cooperate with their parents in safeguarding their own Internet activities.
It's time to have the cyberbully discussion. First and foremost, tell your child that if anyone threatens them or is harassing them, they are to come to you immediately. Explain to them that you are there to help them resolve any situations that might need defusing. But, as a parent, it is also your job to be proactive and make sure you child does not become the bully. Make it very clear that you have a zero tolerance policy for any bullying and that your kids are only to be nice to others online. Relay to them the golden rule: "if you have nothing nice to say, don't say it."
If they do experience a problem online, you want them to feel comfortable coming to you. DO NOT get mad at them with what they may show or tell you - they may not come to you the next time something questionable happens.
As the web has grown into a user-oriented 2.0, everyone and anyone has a voice online - and they like to exercise that voice! Unfortunately, people, especially tweens and teens, can say stuff in the heat or excitement of the moment that can come back to haunt them later. Explain to your kids that what they say here and now on the Internet is there forever and can come back later. Talk to them about their digital citizenship and stress to them that being both civil and conservative online is the best thing they can do. Don't give out too much personal information and be nice to others. It's as simple as that.
Do your research. Become informed about computers and the Internet. Know that kids use their own language in cyberspace. Become familiar with it so you can recognize inappropriate and/or potentially dangerous strangers that may have befriended your child. For example: POS is short for "parents are looking over my shoulder" and LMIRL means "let's meet in real life." (A handy chat lingo list)
...like the family room or kitchen. It is highly recommended that children do not have computers in their bedroom. However, as more and more teenagers become net smart and are trusted with their own computers, parents are urged to walk in and out of the room frequently when the child is online.
This includes any Internet connected device you give to your child, especially a computer. Install an operating system that makes you the administrator. Create a password that will allow only you to control the computer's Internet settings, online content, and software that can be installed. This is an important step in monitoring your child's online activities, even when you are away from the home.
Closely related to the previous item is making sure that Internet accounts are in your name and that you have the primary screen name, controlling passwords, and use of blocking/filtering devices. Children should not complete a profile for a service provider and children's screen names should be nondescript so as not to identify that the user is a child.
Do not allow your child to have multiple e-mail or social networking accounts (within the same website) or create accounts without your knowledge. Insist that your children give you their e-mail and and social network passwords.
Write up clear, simple, easy-to-read rules and place a copy by the computer so your child can refer to them while surfing the Internet. You may want to have the child sign an Internet Safety Pledge that everyone can live by and stick to. Here is an example of an Internet safety contract from the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI). The pledge can be signed by you and your child and should be periodically reviewed.
Have your child show you not only what they do online, but also what they know how to do. Visit and become familiar with their favorite sites. For example, if your child is into online role-playing games, sit with them while they are playing the game and become familiar with what takes place while playing. See exactly what's happening, so if something does happen you can understand the context and where it came from. Try to keep them to child-friendly sites, but also allow freedom to grow and explore. For parents of older children, it is important to know how much time your kids are spending on social networks and what they are doing on there.
Know who their friends are online. Learn real names, screen names, buddy lists and email addresses. In addition, supervise any activity that may put them into contact with someone you or they don't know. Ask them if they can identify their Internet friends with their real-life friends. Make sure they know to NEVER AGREE TO MEET ANYONE THEY MEET ONLINE IN PERSON.
Set time limits on computer use. Also, set aside specific time for using the computer to do homework and equal time for fun. Make sure your child is sticking to educational and homework-related sites during homework time and not chatting (send Instant Messages) with friends. In the same respect, allow the child's online playtime to be 100% fun!
Chances are your child uses more than one computer. If they have a cell phone, they have another connected device in their hands. Whether it be at school or a friend's house, you should know when and where they are going online.
They are often used by online predators to solicit sexual activity. If you do have a webcam in your house, make sure you maintain full control of its use.
It is a good indicator for finding out what personal information may be out there. You should "Google" your child's name and your own from time to time to make sure there is nothing posing a threat to your family online.
Report potentially dangerous and/or threatening communication. When you see something you suspect is inappropriate, do not delete the offensive or dangerous e-mail, contact local law enforcement and your Internet Service Provider - especially if you suspect online "stalking" or sexual exploitation of a child. In this same token, be smart and educate yourself on what a threat looks like. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has a system for identifying online predators and child pornographers and contributing to law-enforcement investigations, called the CyberTipline®. Leads forwarded to the site will be acknowledged and shared with the appropriate law-enforcement agency for investigation.
We have put this at the bottom of the list, not to diminish or downplay the importance, but rather to stress the fact that a great parent can do everything on the list above and still have no clue what their child is doing online.
Programs like PC Pandora can be your most effective tool in protecting your child. Not only does it create a visual record of everything your child does, but it also allows you to set filters that limit access to potentially harmful online content.
Parents, it is your house. It is your Internet connection and it's a safe bet you bought that computer. There is no reason you should not have full knowledge of how your child is using that powerful tool you have placed in their hands, how they are using the internet connection you pay for, and how they are both representing themselves and treating others in the digital community. Talk to your child about being monitored. Make sure they understand that there is a reason why they are being monitored and that you are actually doing it to protect them from dangers.
This is 21st century parenting.