I believe strongly in the potential of the network - heck, I wrote a book about it - however, I also understand the same connections that can be used for good can also be used for bad. And the reality is they can be downright dangerous for our children, who can be bullied, stalked and targeted online.
How prevalent is it? The statistics are alarming. One in five teenagers in the US have received an unwanted sexual solicitation online acorrding to the Crimes Against Children Research Center Child pornography is one of the fastest growing businesses online. The National Crime Prevention Council suggests that more than half of American teens are exposed to some sort of cyberbullying and the Kids Helpline found as many as 70% were harassed online.
Unfortunately, these statistics became more personal for me when I learned of a recent incident in our local middle school. And if you are thinking, "Well that's there, it's not happening in our school district," you may want to check with your city's police or even just search your local news; you will find these crimes can and are taking place everywhere. So what can you do?
As a parent, it's natural to want to remove the threats and simply shut down your children's access to the Internet. But are you really prepared to not only cut off access to their computer, but also their cell phone, digital camera, iTouch, video game consoles (Wii or PlayStation), etc.? Let's face it, we live in a digital age and the network is embedded in almost everything we do; so rather than ban it, we need to teach our children how to use it safely and effectively.
I think the following three principles are a good start. Every parent should make sure their kids:
1. Do not share any personal information - Most obvious is name, age, school, hometown, etc.; less obvious, but no less telling for someone who is paying attention and motivated to figure it out are photos with a school jersey, the name of your local park, the location of your vet, the theater you are going to be at on Friday night, etc. Don't reveal anything that could enable someone you don't know to figure out who you are and find you.
2. Remember that everyone is a stranger - Unless you actually know them, meaning they are a family member, a neighbor, someone you go to school with or know from clubs and extracurricular activities, they are not your "friends," they are strangers. You should not talk to them, take any gifts they may offer, or agree to do anything for them. Unlike the stranger in the mall, where you can at least see them; when you meet someone online you have NO IDEA who they really are. Don't engage.
3. Know there is no such thing as private - When you are online, the information you put out there can be found and accessed by almost everyone. This goes for texts, photos, videos, etc. Think before you post anything - is it something you want to see on the front page of a newspaper? If not, don't do it.
And of course, the most important thing that our children need to know is that they can come to us, no matter what, and we will help them. As in the physical world, there is no substitute for being involved in their lives and that goes for their online activities. Make sure they know you are there and that should anything uncomfortable or threatening arise, you will support them.