Computers and the Internet have become an important part of our lives, and our children’s lives. An estimated 77 million American children and teens are now online, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Kids spend time online messaging, chatting, searching, and surfing. Although most of these Internet experiences are likely positive, parents need to be aware of the dangers to better protect their children. Children and teens can become victims through online chat rooms, according to the FBI. A computer-sex offender can be any age, male or female, and kids often don’t realize the potential danger of these contacts.
How can you tell if your child might be in contact with an offender? Here are some possible warning signs:
- He spends a lot of time online, particularly at night. This is especially true for kids who are in chat rooms for long periods.
- You find sexually explicit material on your child’s computer. If the computer is used by other family members, your child might try to hide the material.
- Your child receives phone calls from adults you don’t know, or receives mail or packages from someone you don’t know. Some computer-sex offenders have toll-free numbers so potential victims can call them without the phone calls showing up on the family phone bill.
- Your child quickly changes the screen on the monitor when you come into the room.
- If you suspect that your child is communicating with a predator online, talk to them and share your concerns. Look at the files on your child’s computer, including e-mails. Use Caller ID to find out who is calling your kids; you may also be able to block specific numbers.
Here are some ideas from the FBI on how to limit the chances that someone online will take advantage of your child:
- Talk to your kids about the potential online dangers.
- Spend time with them online and have him or her show you favorite Web sites and online destinations.
- Keep the computer in a room used by the entire family, not in their bedroom.
- Use the parental controls that your Internet service provider offers, as well as blocking software. Monitor chat room use.
- Maintain access to online accounts and randomly check e-mail and instant message histories.
- Find out what safeguards are in place at other places where your kids may use a computer: school, public library, friends’ homes.
- Talk to your teens about avoiding sex talk online. Research shows that teens who don’t talk about sex with strangers online are less likely to come in contact with predators. In fact, researchers have found that predators usually don’t pose as children or teens, and most teens who are contacted by adults they don’t know find it creepy. Tell your kids not to hesitate to ignore or block them and report any such contact to a trusted adult.
- Tell your kids never to arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they’ve met online; send photographs to strangers; or give out identifying information such as name, address, school name or telephone number.
- Tell your kids that what they might be told online may or may not be true.
KIDS AND ONLINE SOCIALIZING
Social networking sites, chat rooms, virtual worlds, and blogs are how teens and tweens interact online; it’s important to help your kids learn how to navigate these spaces safely. Among the pitfalls that come with online socializing are sharing too much information or posting comments, photos, or videos that can damage a reputation or hurt someone’s feelings.
Following are some tips to help your kids apply real-world judgment and minimize those risks:
REMIND KIDS THAT ONLINE ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
- The words kids write and the images they post have consequences offline.
- Kids should post only what they’re comfortable with others seeing.
- Their profile may be seen by a broader audience than you — or they — are comfortable with, even if privacy settings are high. Encourage your kids to think about the language they use online, and to think before posting pictures and videos, or altering photos posted by someone else. Potential employers, college admissions officers, coaches, teachers, and the police could see their posts.
- Remind kids that once they post it, they can’t take it back. Even if they delete the information from a site, they have little control over older versions that might exist on other people’s computers and could circulate online.
- Tell your kids not to impersonate someone else. Let your kids know that it’s wrong to create sites, pages, or posts that seem to come from someone else, such as a teacher, a classmate, or someone they made up.
TELL KIDS TO LIMIT WHAT THEY SHARE
- Help your kids understand what information should stay private. Tell your kids why it’s important to keep some things — about themselves, family members, and friends — to themselves. Information such as their Social Security number, street address, phone number, and family financial information — say, bank account or credit card numbers — are private and should stay that way.
ENCOURAGE ONLINE MANNERS
- Politeness counts. You teach your kids to be polite offline; talk to them about being courteous online as well. Texting may seem fast and impersonal, yet common courtesies like “pls” and “ty” (for please and thank you) should be included where relevant, just like offline.
- Tone it down. Using all caps, long rows of exclamation points, or large bolded fonts are the online equivalent of yelling. Most people don’t appreciate a rant.
- Cc: and Reply all: with care. Suggest that your kids resist the temptation to send a message to everyone on their contact list.
LIMIT ACCESS TO YOUR KIDS’ PROFILES
- Use privacy settings. Many social networking sites and chat rooms have adjustable privacy settings, so you can restrict who has access to your kids’ profiles. Talk to your kids about the importance of these settings, and your expectations for who should be allowed to view their profile. Set high privacy preferences on your kids’ chat and video chat accounts, as well. Most chat programs allow parents to control whether people on their kids’ contact list can see their status, including whether they’re online. Some chat and email accounts allow parents to determine who can send messages to their kids, and block anyone not on the list.
- Create a safe screen name. Encourage your kids to think about the impression that screen names can make. A good screen name won’t reveal much about how old they are, where they live, or their gender. For privacy purposes, your kids’ screen names should not be the same as their email addresses.
- Review your kids’ friends lists. You may want to limit your children’s online “friends” to people they actually know.
TALK TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT WHAT THEY’RE DOING ONLINE
- Know what your kids are doing. Get to know the social networking sites your kids use so you understand their activities. If you’re concerned about risky online behavior, you may want to search the social sites they use to see what information they’re posting. Are they pretending to be someone else? Try searching by their name, nickname, school, hobbies, grade, or community.
- Ask your kids who they’re in touch with online. Just as you want to know who your kids’ friends are offline, it’s a good idea to know who they’re talking to online.
- Encourage your kids to trust their guts if they have suspicions. Encourage them to tell you if they feel threatened by someone or uncomfortable because of something online. You can then help them report concerns to the police and to the social networking site. Most of these sites have links for users to report abusive, suspicious, or inappropriate behavior.
Southwest EAP can provide this and many other resources aimed at helping you and your family stay safe and healthy mentally and physically. We have provided employee assistance programs and risk management solutions to companies since 1978. Our commitment to excellence is founded on the belief that active partnership with our clients and delivering face-to-face services produces the best results. Visit us online at http://www.southwesteap.com.