Children are going online at younger and younger ages. In fact, the fastest growing group of Internet users is now preschoolers. Schools, libraries, coffee shops, and most homes now have Internet access. This can be a useful tool in helping children with homework and helping them learn. Unfortunately, access to the Internet also increases the risks that children face. Stalkers, sex offenders, scam artists and other bad guys are able to come in contact with children more easily. One in 5 children has received a sexual solicitation while on the Internet. It is not usually necessary to restrict children from the Internet altogether, but it is important to be educated and talk with your children about the risks, as well as the benefits, of using the Internet.
What are signs that my child is at risk?
Most children who fall victim to computer sex offenders spend large amounts of time on-line, especially in chat rooms. They may be latch key kids. They may be kids who go on the computer to make new friends and pass time.
Beware if your child starts getting phone calls or mail from people you don’t know or is making calls to numbers you don’t recognize.
If your child turns off the computer quickly or changes the screen when you come into the room, it may be a sign that they are seeing inappropriate images or having inappropriate conversations that they don’t want you to know about.
Children can become withdrawn from the family and other friends when they are being victimized. Computer sex offenders also work very hard to create problems between children and their parents so that they can become closer to the child.
What are some tips for kids?
Set up rules with your parents and follow them.
Don’t give out personal information. It is a good idea not to use your real first or last name in chat rooms. Discuss with your parents what kind of information you can share about yourself. Never give out your address, school, or phone number.
Never agree to a face-to-face meeting with someone you’ve met online without your parent’s permission.
Never send a picture of yourself to someone you don’t know.
Never enter online contests. These are almost always a scam. Remember, everything you read on the Internet isn’t necessarily true. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Don’t respond to messages that are mean or threatening. Let your parents know if this happens.
Be polite and kind to others online. Never use the Internet to spread rumors, gossip, or hateful messages.
Do not open email from an email address you don’t recognize. Never download an email attachment from someone you don’t know. Never talk to anyone online who has an IM (Instant Message) name you don’t know. Messages may contain viruses or be from someone who is not safe.
Do not give out your Internet password to anyone, not even your best friend! It’s only OK to give it to your parents.
Remember that people online may not be who they seem. Because you can’t see them or hear them, it is easy for a person to pretend to be someone they are not. Someone saying they are a 13-year-old girl could actually be a 50-year-old man.
What are some tips for parents?
Set up rules with your kids about Internet use. Print it out and post it by the computer. Pay attention to whether they are following the rules. Review it regularly and update it as the kids get older.
Put the computer in a common area of your home, rather than the child’s bedroom. This allows you to keep an eye on what sites your children are visiting as well as how much time they are spending on the Internet.
Sit with younger children while they are online.
Check out sites together with your kids. Determine with older children what types of sites are acceptable and what types are not. Always monitor your child’s use of chat rooms.
Use parental controls provided by your service provider. Parental controls are filters for Web content. These filters work based upon ratings, reputation, labels, and safe zones. Some services allow you to add and remove sites from the banned list so that your children will only see what you want them to see. Parental controls are most needed between the ages of 7 and 16.
Be aware that even with filters, your children may be able to gamble, buy drugs, or illegally download software. Set clear rules about what online games your children can play and keep track of any files your children download. Monitor phone bills and credit cards for unfamiliar charges.
Limit the amount of time your children can spend on the Internet. Make it clear that the use of the computer is a privilege. Surfing the Internet should come after other responsibilities, such as homework and chores, are completed.
Talk to your kids about possible problems they may find online, such as profanity, sex, and violence. Be honest and specific. This helps them know what it is when they see it. Do not punish them when they come across something that might be bad. Help them talk about what they didn’t understand, what scared them, or what grossed them out. Encourage them to share Internet experiences.
Discuss what to do if they feel uncomfortable as a result of something that happens while they are online.
Get to know your kid’s online friends just as you get to know all their other friends.
Spending a lot of time on the computer may isolate kids from their peers. It also takes away from other activities such as homework, sleep, exercise, or spending time with others. Look at your own Internet use. If you spend hours online, you are giving your children the message that it’s OK. Be a role model on balancing Internet use with other healthy activities.
What can parents do?
Contact your Internet Service Provider and ask for help if harassment or cyberbullying occurs. You can also contact your local police department. Harassment is a crime whether it’s in person or on the computer.
If your child receives any type of child pornography while online, immediately report this to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678. Also notify your online service. Work with them to set up better parental controls. It is a crime to knowingly send pornography to children under the age of 18.
While filters and blockers and parental controls are helpful and useful, they are not foolproof. Nothing is as helpful as good parental supervision.