It’s impossible to raise children today without considering the impact of technology on their lives. The digital world — with all its potential advantages and dangers — is often right at their fingertips.
The Internet is an ever-expanding resource influencing their development, safety and well-being.
How can we keep kids safe online? It’s a daunting question without a simple answer. Internet safety recommendations are always changing.
To make informed decisions, we must first understand the perils of today’s Internet.
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. Your child develops a relationship with a cyber-predator who — after gaining the child’s trust over hours, days, weeks or months — suggests, “LMIRL.” (That’s Internet speak for “Let’s meet in real life.”)
In the real world, your child would not likely develop a relationship with a much older person. But cyber criminals have the advantage of anonymity and predators can claim to be other teens.
“Parents have to be monitoring what their children are doing online, because cyber-predators are lying to kids,” says Amilyn Pierce, director of community outreach at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and a member of the Arizona Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Teaching your kids about stranger danger extends to the online world, says Detective Tanya Corder of the Scottsdale Police Department, who also is a member of AZ ICAC. Stress the dangers of a clandestine rendezvous with someone they have met online. And make sure someone — even if it’s not you — knows where your child is at all times.
Cyberbullies don’t throw punches, at least not the physical kind. They try to embarrass, threaten or intimidate their victims via online communications. Because they can remain anonymous, they can be relentless.
Anonymous messaging apps — which encourage users to hide their identity — are making cyber-bullying more prevalent.
“Cyberbullying is dangerous, because kids don’t usually disclose it’s happening to them,“ Corder says. “Parents may not notice it until grades slip, kids stop eating or start overeating, they accidentally stumble upon the app [where cyberbullying is occurring] or a teacher reaches out.”
“If a child is being bullied,” Pierce says, “let teachers, counselors, principals and law enforcement know.”
You also can contact applicable website-hosting pages, social-media sites or your Internet service provider if embarrassing photos or information have been posted online. But “don’t delete the account,” Corder advises. “It’s OK to inactivate it, but don’t delete the evidence.”
Teens don’t think twice before they text, which is why it’s so important to talk to them about sexting — the act of sending and receiving sexually suggestive photos via text messages or social-media platforms.
“Sexting is rampant,” Corder says. “Teens view it as a form of flirting; they don’t see it as a big deal.”
Teens need to know that sexting can put them in danger, damage reputations and in some cases even may be illegal. By sending, printing or forwarding these messages, your child could face child-pornography charges, “all because they sent a picture to their boyfriend or girlfriend,” Pierce says.
When it comes to sexting, Corder says, “everyone has an attitude of ‘Not my kid,’ but you have to take your not-my-kid blinders off. Teens don’t realize that once you lose control of an image, you can’t get it back.” The same can be said of posting inappropriate party pictures.
Monitor your children’s texts and teach them that if they have to think twice before sending an image, they shouldn’t send it, Pierce says.
Communication is the most effective way to keep kids safe.
“As soon as your child is online, start talking about Internet safety,” Corder urges. For toddlers, that may be as simple as choosing safe apps or putting parental controls on your devices so little ones can’t accidentally wander onto another site. As children get older, you have to help them navigate the World Wide Web safely on their own.
Be smart about smartphones
Today’s phones are like computers, says Corder, who sometimes sees parents “just hand children [this] technology” without fully understanding how the kids are using it. She has heard of 11-year-olds using such dating apps as Tinder.
To avoid temptation, children younger than 13 should have flip phones without Internet access — even if they face peer pressure from friends with smartphones, Corder says.
Morgan Kelly of Scottsdale first purchased a smartphone for her now-16-year-old stepdaughter Madison when she was 14. Much to her daughter’s dismay, “it was about four years later than most of her friends,” she says.
Kelly immediately created a detailed cellphone contract for Madison, outlining where, when and how the phone was to be used. Corder encourages all parents to do the same.
“It can be difficult to enforce rules with a 16-year-old who’s had a smartphone for years,” Corder says. “Set expectations from the get-go and let your kids know that even if they’ve done something wrong, they can always tell you if they’re scared or in trouble.”
Children should not be allowed to take cellphones to bed at night, Corder advises. “Most bad stuff happens after 11 p.m. when everyone is sleeping. Kids will text all night long.”
Even benign messaging after bedtime can be detrimental to teens, according to recent research out of Rutgers University. A study published in the “Journal of Child Neurology” links the nighttime instant-messaging habits of American teenagers to negative effects on sleep health and school performance.
Social media and app safety
Understand the rules, guidelines and privacy settings for the social-media websites and apps your child uses. Most social-media sites — including Facebook and Instagram — require users to be 13.
“If you lie about your child’s birthday, and your child becomes victimized, you’re endangering your kids,” Corder says. Once teens are using social media, insist on access to follow their accounts.
“I follow Madison on social-media sites like Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, but she doesn’t follow me,” Kelly says. “That way we don’t blur the line between parent and friend.”
“Monitor what your kids are putting on social media,” says Pierce. “Kids don’t think twice about posting where they go to school, when and where they’re on vacation or what soccer team they play for. Make sure their profile pictures don’t contain identifying marks like a high-school jersey.”
What about my child’s privacy?
Some parents are so afraid of invading their kids’ privacy that they don’t even know the passcodes to their children’s phones. But safety should always trump privacy concerns, Corder says.
“Parents own the phone, not the child. It’s parents’ job to protect their kids, keep them safe and ensure they can get a job someday,” she says, noting that colleges and employers are getting really good at data-mining applicants.
That’s exactly how Kelly and her husband view online safety rules for Madison.
“It’s our job to keep her safe. She’s not able to protect herself right now. If parents aren’t checking kids’ phones, kids will push boundaries,” she says. “Technology is awesome, but it does make it harder on parents. You have to pay attention and work that much harder.”
Parental controls and filters built into computers, phones and routers make it easier than ever to keep kids from going astray on the Internet. Keylogger software, such as WebWatcher, allows parents to furtively monitor their children’s online activities from any computer.
“Kids will say, ‘Yeah, you can look at my Facebook account,’ but you may not know about their second account,” Corder notes.
For parents who aren’t tech savvy, “there are YouTube and eHow videos with step-by-step instructions” for monitoring Internet use, she says.
And remember: Long before your children post photos and information about themselves online, you will. Be mindful about what you choose to share and remember that you are your child’s best example.
General guidelines to impress upon your kids
- Be extremely skeptical about what you read on the Internet, especially from someone you don’t know.
- Do not meet someone in person that you met online.
- Be very careful about the kind of information you share about yourself online, especially information that someone could use to find you.
- Do not download a file a stranger has sent you or view the webcam of a stranger. It could contain inappropriate material or viruses.
- Make social-media accounts and blog entries private.
- Don’t share passwords — even with a BFF.
- Be smart about what information you share publicly.
—Sources: Independent interviews and tips from the Arizona Attorney General’s Internet Safety and Substance Abuse Guide for Parents
10 Internet acronyms every parent should know
Internet acronyms are constantly changing, so it’s important to stay up-to-date with the language your child uses online. If you see an unfamiliar acronym, Google it.
KPC: Keeping Parents Clueless
LMIRL: Let’s Meet in Real Life
P911: Parent Alert
PAW: Parents Are Watching
PIR: Parents in Room
POS: Parents Over Shoulder
RUO18: Are You Over 18?
WYCM: Will You Call Me?
WYRN: What’s Your Real Name?
—Source: Arizona Attorney General’s Internet Safety and Substance Abuse Guide for Adults
Resources to keep kids safe online
Arizona Attorney General
The Arizona Attorney General’s Community and Education Outreach Division will set up an Internet safety presentation for your school, church, moms’ group, Scout troop or other organization. 602-542-2123.
The website, an educational program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, provides interactive, age-appropriate resources in the form of presentations, videos and games to teach children about safety online.
This Scottsdale nonprofit offers youth-education presentations on Internet safety, bullying and unhealthy relationships, along with such other topics as drug/alcohol abuse, eating disorders and depression/self-injury. Presenters range in age from 18 to 30 and complete at minimum a 20-hour training program. 602-652-0163.