Although the Internet offers much useful and educational information, there are also risks online. It’s very important for parents and guardians to be aware of these risks and communicate with children about online safety.
When online children may encounter:
- Exposure to inappropriate material, such as sexual explicit content; graphic violence; hate or racist websites; information about satanic or cult groups; promotional material about tobacco, alcohol, or drugs; recipes for making bombs or other explosives
- Sexual predators seeking to build relationships with children
- Theft of personal information
- Cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and harassment
Unfortunately, sexual predators can target children online while maintaining relative anonymity. The nature of online interaction allows predators to hide their identity, age, and intentions. Sexual predators may frequent online chat rooms and social networking sites looking for children. These predators target likely victims, make contact with them, and work to develop friendship, emotional reliance, and interest in sexual topics. He or she may initiate offline sexual relations quickly or spend months “grooming” the child toward a sexual relationship. Sexual predators may use gifts to build relationships with children. In several cases, predators have traveled to meet children or sent them bus tickets or money to cover travel costs.1
Sometimes it is difficult for children to understand that their online actions can have real world consequences. Children can victimize or harass others online. They can post pictures of themselves or their friends engaged in illegal activities like drinking or taking drugs. They might illegally reproduce or distribute copyrighted music or movies.2 All of these actions can carry serious consequences. It is common now for schools, colleges and employers to screen online websites and search for information about students, admission applicants, and job seekers.
Children of all ages have a lack of emotional maturity that can make them more susceptible to manipulation, intimidation, and victimization. They have a strong desire for attention, validation, and affection. Children may not be cautious or concerned about self-preservation. Children are taught to obey requests and demands from adults, and may not know when it is better not to comply with an adult. They are also naturally curious about sex and other “forbidden” topics. Children may also be hesitant to tell a trusted adult if they are approached in an inappropriate way or are scared by something they encounter online, because they fear losing their Internet privileges or worry about being called a “tattletale.”3
What you can do
Parents, guardians, and educators need to supervise children and help them learn how to behave and interact with others online. Be intentional – discuss online safety regularly with your child. Keep communication lines open so that your children or teens know they can come to you if something they encounter online makes them feel frightened, upset or afraid.
Here are some more tips for keeping your children safer online.
Keep your family’s computer in a common area of the house and do not allow children to use it when you are not home.
Sit down with your children frequently to talk about their online activities; view their profiles or blogs together
Set guidelines for Internet use; make sure everyone in the family understands them; and post them next to the family computer
Know each of your child’s passwords, screen names, and all account information.
Make sure your child understands that once an image is posted on the Internet (even with a profile with private settings), it may never be completely erased, even if it is deleted.
Talk with your child about the public nature of the Internet. Children should not post information that would embarrass them if someone else were to read it.
Remind children to never give out any personal information, such as names, school, city, or e-mail address
Familiarize yourself with the social networking site’s features and safety tips.
Warn children about the risks of communicating with people they first met online. Remind them that people on the Internet are not always who they say they are.
Use privacy settings and restrict your child’s profile, blog, or website to those individuals they know in person.
Tell your child to talk to you or another trusted adult if he or she ever feels threatened or uncomfortable about something that happens online.
Go to www.NetSmartz.org for conversation starters and videos about real-life experiences of Internet exploitation to watch with your children
Report any illegal content to the appropriate law-enforcement agency, the CyberTipline (www.cybertipline.com) your Internet service provider, or the site’s webmaster.
1Internet Safety. Atlanta, Georgia: Boys & Girls Clubs of America, 2001, page 13.