While laptops, smart phones, iPhones and iPads have become physical extensions of our kids, it’s crucial we’re aware of the possible pitfalls of the latest technologies, and that predators are sometimes lurking online and that cyberbullies are ready to attack 24/7.
But before you close your kid’s laptop for good, here are a few simple steps to saying “yes” to technology.
First, be sure to keep an eye on who your child contacts and how much time they spend online. Don’t forget to monitor other points of Internet access too, like cell phones and gaming consoles—these devices are much more powerful than making a phone call or playing Space Invaders.
Second, stress to your children that they should never physically meet anyone they’ve only become friends with online.
Third, talk to your kids about the types of information they post online and how it can impact their reputation and future. Kids can unknowingly give out personal details about their life that could be maliciously used. Web-based mapping applications like Google Street View allow anyone with Internet access to digitally cruise neighborhoods and view 360-degree street-level photographs of homes, schools and parks. This makes it really easy to plan nefarious actions if the person in question has an address they got off of your child’s onlineprofile. And embarrassing and inappropriate photos and comments can stay with you forever. While former Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggested that young people can one day “change his or her names” to escape “youthful hijinx” stored on the Internet, that’s not the solution parents want to hear. Keep in mind, companies sometimes collect information you might not even realize your kids are giving out. Google collected social security numbers as part of an online “Doodle for Google” art contest. The FTC just levied a $50,000 fine against the gaming software company W3 Innovations for collecting information from children under 13 years old, like email addresses, without first gaining parental consent.
It’s also important to know the effects of cyberbullying, thepractice of kids insulting one another online in chat rooms, social networking sties, virtual worlds and through text messages. More than half of American teens are affected by cyberbullying, according to the National Crime Prevention Council. Yet most parents are largely unaware of theproblem as few teens report incidences of bullying to their parents
Signs that your child is the victim of cyberbullying include becoming withdrawn, avoiding friends or wanting to skip school and activities they once loved. In extreme cases, victims become depressed and consider or attempt suicide.
If your child is being bullied, take action. By filtering email, instant messages and text messages, you can cut off many of the ways the bullies contact your child. By having your child avoid the sites where the cyberbullying occurs, he or she can avoid the bully. But if harassment continues, change your child’s email and user names on Internet accounts. If that fails to stop the bullying, contact the parents of the bully and school administrators, and involve law enforcement if necessary.
Experience and common sense suggest that education and good old-fashioned parenting are better approaches to addressing bullying than trying to regulate speech and behavior as called for by some state lawmakers. Of course, when name-calling and taunting cross the line and become harassment and intimidation, authorities rightly need to step in with tough penalties.
In the end, you don’t have to be an expert in technology or the latest gadget; you just have to remember to keep a vigilant eye on what your kids are doing online so you and they can have a safe online experience.
Stacie Rumenap is the executive director of Stop Internet Predators.