As a parent, you would never leave your house unlocked with your beloved youngsters inside. Unfortunately, many homes still have one door that swings wide open that could put your kids at risk: the internet.
It is a useful and convenient tool, but like anything else, a malicious person could use it to hurt your children. The best protection begins by communicating with your youngsters, talking to them in an age-appropriate way about the breadth of the internet's reach, the fact that nothing posted is completely private and anything posted can last forever. There is no need for scare tactics, but pointing out a few news stories about how a criminal used the internet to cause harm could open your child's eyes. And be sure to listen to what they have to say.
Here are five practical tips to help you keep your kids safe on the internet:
Use Parental Controls
First step: set your rules and explain to your kids why they are important. Determine how long youngsters can stare at a screen, discuss the kinds of websites you consider safe, and tell your children what is and is not acceptable to post. This may sound simplistic, but even innocent announcements about when a youngster is home babysitting an infant could be an invitation to trouble. You can also install internet filter software that lets you monitor the websites your children visit and their social media communications, and you can block harmful sites. You also can protect your devices from a wide variety of problems using antivirus software.
Online Predator Awareness
Without frightening them, let your children know how predators stalk kids online: They scour social media sites, look for indications of where a child lives and attends school, and spy on sports, theatrical and other youth events. They lurk in chat rooms posing as children and appear to be sympathetic sounding boards. Make it clear that a "friend" in a chat room might not be trustworthy and that meeting in person is extremely dangerous. Once again, web filter software can keep you apprised of where your child is heading in cyberspace and what, if any, discussions are occurring.
How to Stand Up Against Online Bullies
This is a tough area, since it can involve real friends, schoolmates or acquaintances of any age who decide to harass a child. Your internet content filtering can help, and you might need to intervene with school officials or even police if you spot anything truly ugly that could damage your youngster. It is smart to explain to your child how "sexting" is a crime in many areas and that pictures of foolish behavior could sabotage scholarships and future jobs. Make it clear your child can come to you with any fears.
Avoid Identity Theft
Children often do not understand the scope and power of the internet, and could easily start to download a fun new game or try to win a prize without realizing that they are giving out more personal information than is safe. Make sure your child avoids using full names and addresses, does not ever include even the last four digits of a Social Security number for anything online, uses a secure password, and does not have security questions that involve information someone could gain through a public site. That "free" game could produce years of personal and financial headaches if someone steals your child's identity.
A Pennsylvania State University study showed that 93 percent of boys and 63 percent of girls who participated said they saw online pornography during their adolescent years. The study noted that boys started younger and saw "more extreme images," including rape and child porn. The study drew no conclusions, but it called for more research into how this could affect young people. Given the prevalence of porn, it is a good idea to not only check your child's internet activity and use a porn blocker, but also talk about your values regarding sexuality. Once again, keep communication lines open so your child feels free to talk to you about sex.