Just as you teach your child how to confront dangers in the real world, you need to prepare them for life in the online world.
Prepare Your Child for the Real World and the Online World
When kids rip the wrapping paper off the box and a new computer emerges, it's all smiles.
But before you set up that new computer and head online, parents and guardians should already have a plan for managing online access. Although the Internet provides tremendous access to educational resources for children, it also harbors a lurking danger: sexual offenders use the Internet to mask their identities and cultivate relationships directly with children.
Just as you teach your child how to confront dangers in the real world, you need to prepare them for life in the online world. You wouldn't think of letting your child rollerblade for the first time without safety pads, and you wouldn't dream of letting him or her give out your home phone number to someone they didn't know on the street.
Yet many parents and guardians set up a home computer without considering online safety basics. Keep your gift-giving memories happy and your child safer by following these practical tips provided by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Take the Threat Seriously: Action Step # 1—Get Informed
The reality is that a computer opens up your home to the world. "Although the Internet offers many benefits to youth, it gives offenders access to children when they are supposedly 'safe' at home," said Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
"Using the word 'stranger' with a child does not carry the impact you might think."
One in five children is sexually solicited online, according to Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth, issued by NCMEC, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. Researchers talked to 1,501 children ages 10-17 and published their results in June 2000. They found that 70 percent of inappropriate solicitations of children occur while a child is using a home computer. Yet only 25 percent of children receiving a sexual solicitation told a parent or guardian.
Parents and guardians of girls should be especially concerned. Two-thirds of these solicitations are aimed at teen girls. Your daughter may not associate the seemingly friendly, flattering, and supportive older guys online with someone who means her harm. And she may not think it can happen to her.
Like many other parents or guardians (read one family's story about how monitoring software is not always enough) you may think you can keep your children safer from online threats by telling them to avoid "strangers." But using the word "stranger" with a child does not carry the impact you might think, said McBride.
"Children don't think about a 'stranger' the way a parent does," said McBride. "A child thinks a 'stranger' is someone scary and ugly who they don't know." To a child who may have swapped photos with someone online and spent hours "getting to know" him or her – that person is no longer a "stranger."
"It is important for parents and guardians to be aware of the dangers children may face online," said Christine Loftus with the NetSmartz Workshop, a free online interactive workshop for youth about Internet safety. "These dangers include exposure to inappropriate material, sexual solicitation, harassment, and bullying."
Cyber-bullying can make your child feel miserable and involves children spreading online rumors or gossip about each other. Unlike online solicitation of children where the aggressor seeks to lure the child into inappropriate sexual behavior, cyber-bullying attacks a child directly and can be as emotionally destructive as face-to-face teasing and physical intimidation.
To jolt parents and guardians into action, NCMEC created the "Help Delete Online Predators" campaign in 2004 with the Ad Council, which sent public service ads to more than 28,000 media outlets. A second wave of ads were issued in 2005 targeting teen girls and urging them to hear the message about online predators,"Don't Believe the Type."
Don't Pull the Plug: Action Step #2—Put the Computer in a Public Area of Your Home
You may be tempted to return that newly-purchased computer or to pull the plug on the Internet completely, but experts say that banishing the Internet from your home is not the answer. "That's not going to work because your child has access to computers in so many places," said Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Don't be afraid to ask questions. It's okay to ask who your child is talking to online.
Public access can be key to nurturing a safer online environment in your home. NCMEC recommends that you put your family's computer in a public area, such as a family room or living room.
When the computer is in a high-traffic area, parents and guardians are more diligent about checking on its usage. Easy access allows a parent or guardian to monitor activities and how much time children spend online.
Internet filters and blocking software can be helpful tools for parents and guardians, according to McBride. "But just like in the real world, they are still no substitute for a parent's guidance and supervision."
And don't be afraid to ask questions. It's okay to ask who your child is talking to online. After all, you wouldn't allow your child to go to another person's house without knowing who the person is – the same rules apply online. "Your child should have no expectation of privacy on a computer," said McBride. "The computer is not their personal diary."
The point is not to be overbearing and nosey – it's to be as informed about your child's online life as you are about his/her "real" life. You should know who your child has on his/her buddy list. Find out their favorite online hangouts and websites. Set rules and guidelines for what they can and cannot do online.
Preparing Your Child for the Online World
Overcome Your Tech-Phobia: Action Step #3—Understand Technology Basics
According to a 2004 study by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) partner ADVO,
"The reality is that your children need your guidance online, just like in the real world."
one in five parents and guardians do not know any Internet codes, passwords, instant message handles or e-mail addresses that their children use online. Less than 5 percent of parents and guardians are familiar with the most commonly used Internet chat abbreviations, like "POS," which stands for "parent over shoulder."
Because parents and guardians may feel like their children are leaps and bounds ahead of them when it comes to technology, they often don't know how to help their children address online safety.
If you're one of those parents or guardians who does not feel confident in the technology arena, Nancy McBride, national safety director for NCMEC, recommends you take a class or read a book to learn the basics. She also suggests that you ask your children to show you what they know about the computer. Use the tutorial as a time to talk about setting some rules for Internet use.
It's also important not to assume that your child knows more than you do. Research by NCMEC for its national public service advertising campaign which talks to teen girls about the risks they can encounter online, found that children viewed themselves as super-surfers online, and were overconfident about their abilities to handle online threats.
"The reality is that your children need your guidance online, just like in the real world," said McBride. "Parents and guardians need to be as knowledgeable of today's online world as they are about the mechanics of crossing a street or driving a car."
Preparing Your Child for the Online World
Talk With Your Kids About Online Safety: Action Step #4—Set Basic Rules for Internet Use
Talk with your child before setting up and logging onto his or her new computer. Setting basic rules for Internet access can go a long way toward building a nurturing online environment in your home.
"Emphasize that it's not their fault if they see something that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable."
These rules can include when and how often your child may go online, how to keep his or her identity private, not responding to communication that makes them scared, uncomfortable, or confused, talking to a parent or guardian before meeting someone he or she first met online, and respecting the rights of others while online. NetSmartz, an interactive, educational safety resource from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), provides safety pledges tailored to a child's age that you can adapt for use with your family.
A fun way to learn safety rules is to visit www.NetSmartzKids.org. It's a safe website loaded with interactive activities, games and music, that teaches the dangers to watch out for online and how to avoid them.
For example, in "Who's Your Friend on the Internet," Nettie and Webster, two NetSmartz characters, introduce children to three mystery guests behind doors on a stage. Two of the voices sound like children. One sounds dangerous. Children are asked to pick which door hides the person who could be their "friend." When all the doors are revealed, children find out that all three voices are the same "WizzyWig" (WizzyWigs are characters representing possible dangers to children online). The activity teaches children that people online may not be who they say they are.
It's also important that you talk with your child about what to do if they find something online that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. You don't want your child or teen to hesitate to come to you about something scary or upsetting because they are afraid that you will pull the plug on their Internet privileges.
Instead, says Christine Loftus from NetSmartz Workshop, show children how to turn off the power switch on the monitor if something such as pornography or an instant message upsets them. Shutting off the monitor enables the child to block the image but does not shut off the computer, and enables you to hit the ON button to look at the screen and find out why your child is upset.
"Emphasize that it's not their fault if they see something that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable." If your child does come to you with something disturbing, report it to the proper authorities, such as your Internet service provider or the CyberTipline.
Article courtesy of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children