by Patrick Atkinson
Imagine a rocket that takes off to an entirely new world. This place is beautiful, exciting, and filled with unexplored wilderness, vast riches, and perilous dangers all at once. Would you allow your children to make that journey alone?
Welcome to the Internet. It has revolutionized our world unlike anything that came before it since the beginning of time. And it happened in our lifetime.
Created in concept at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in August of 1962, the first online message sent between two computers was transmitted linked by ordinary telephone line from Massachusetts to California in 1965.(1) Today more than three billion people, nearly 43% of the world’s population, use the internet on a regular basis.(2)
Children today were raised on the internet. They didn’t know the world before the internet existed, and they’re completely at home with its technology. Regardless, whatever the age of your children, it’s important to keep them safe when browsing websites, using social networking services like Facebook and Twitter, and meeting and chatting with friends.
The threats of identity theft, online bullying, illegal downloads, and predatory introductions and hard-core pornography are real. As parents and caretakers, we need to understand enough about the internet to help keep our children safe. We can’t afford to simply hope that everything will be okay.
Even if you haven’t personally seen much evidence of it, the web is jammed full of things you don’t want your children to see. Pornography is the most obvious; in 2012 Americans searched for sex-related internet sites nearly 276,000,000 times.(3) In addition, there are tens of thousands of gambling sites, and many others that promote the manufacturing and sale of drugs, including date-rape drugs, illegal weapons, and home-made explosives.
Illicit ‘dark net’ internet sub-structures exist as vast black markets for drug trades, child pornography and open criminal activity, hidden from what the ordinary internet user sees while browsing the web.
In addition, most fringe websites quickly and quietly download spyware and malware into the user’s computer. Sometimes even the most innocent of websites, emails and in-document links are ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing,’ trying to get you to click on them. If you do, that single click begins a software download into your computer which you can’t stop because you don’t know it’s happening. The pirate software sits quietly in the background of your computer and secretly records your passwords, banking and credit card accounts, social security numbers, and other identifying information.
Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Match and eHarmony, and hundreds of other social networks are great places for meeting others, sharing photos, updating friends, and chatting. They are also large public rooms filled with prowlers looking for opportunities of crime. Predators look for children, the recently widowed, individuals with alcohol and chemical addictions, and other vulnerable people.
The innocent-sounding message coming from that innocent-sounding name on an otherwise-innocent chat room may in fact be a pedophile looking to ‘groom’ your child. Once trust is established, or a sympathetic ear given to an understanding of your child’s life, loneliness, or isolation from his/her family, the trap has been set and real-world meetings occur where anything can happen.
If it’s fair to say that the internet is the world’s largest playground, it only stands to reason that the greatest amount of bullying, character assassination, and social isolation is also going to happen there.
When I was a small child and frequently attacked by two older boys who found sport in waiting for me to walk home from school, I learned I could thwart their plans by choosing different routes each day.
Today, however, it is a different world for our children since the simplest of internet searches goes across all paths and into all social networks, sites, organization lists, and school activities to find the targeted child’s name. It is ridiculously easy for today’s bullies, whether they live next door or on the other side of the world, acting in name or anonymously, to bully someone else through social networks, instant and all-group messages, and general posts.
Unflattering photos and videos taken in a bathroom, locker room, social setting or while two people are dating, or otherwise ordinary photos that have been digitally altered, can be posted online for the world to view. This may lead to taunts, fear, shame, isolation, and, tragically, suicide.
Because there’s nothing physical for the parent to see, online bullying can easily go unnoticed by parents if their children don’t say what is happening. Even at that point, it may be difficult to identify, apprehend and stop the bullying.
What Can You Do?
The online threats are very real but so is the good news that you can prevent most of them from happening without too much time, effort, or money. Good communication, common sense, basic supervision, and prevention software go a long way towards keeping safe the innocent and unsuspecting.
When you help someone who is vulnerable (i.e. a child) to go online, talk to them in an age-appropriate way about all the good and bad things the internet might bring to them. Talk with them about how most online porn is basically rape; the filmed exploitation of vulnerable, chemically-addicted, underage, or date-drugged women and teens.
Encourage them to tell you whenever they see something that upsets them or makes them feel uncomfortable… and they will find it through even innocent browsing. Follow-up and occasionally ask them about this; don’t just wait for them to come to you.
Encourage them to tell you immediately if they receive a threatening, uncomfortable, or unwanted stranger communication. If you feel someone has contacted your child or teen for exploitative purposes, call the police immediately. No predator targets just one child; by calling the police, you may give them an investigative insight that will save dozens or hundreds of innocent children.
For years I’ve suggested that parents not put computers in their children’s bedroom. You wouldn’t invite a total stranger into your child’s bedroom unaccompanied, would you? Then don’t do it digitally.
Place your online computer in a family room with a screen that faces into the room. Your teen may object, but that’s okay. As parents we are tasked with keeping our children safe.
Make it clear what is acceptable and not acceptable in our children’s online activity. Your child needs to know that it’s never a good idea to post their address, phone number or other personal details online in an open forum, or why letting everyone know when they are traveling or no one is at home is a really bad idea. Nothing posted online is ever really deleted; it can be recovered.
Give each child their own user account so you can customize the rules of their online activity to each child. You might tell your child they’re not allowed to download files without your permission. You can also set rules about what chatrooms, social sites and free email programs they can belong to, and when they can be online.
Almost all up-to-date browsers (i.e. Windows, IE9, YouTube, ITunes) have parental controls and safety modes that can be turned on and password-only accessed. Use these.
In addition, there are dozens of high-quality and inexpensive parental control software packages out there, including NetNanny, WebWatcher, and SafeEyes. These should be used with all children, and set with expanding age- and responsibility-appropriate limits that grow as your child ages and shows increasing online responsibility.
Remember that your child or otherwise vulnerable person also has access to the internet through their smartphone and friends. All the technology in the world will never improve upon good, positively-focused age-appropriate communication with your child that is ongoing.
Parents worldwide may, at different times, scream and say they can’t control or monitor what their children do online. While that’s partly true, we can control a great deal of what they do, or at least make every effort to try.
This is why we are parents.