Protecting Children Online - Part One

By Sarah Sorensen
April 15, 2010

Kids will be kids; they will be curious, test boundaries, and do things that show less than stellar judgment. As parents, we try to guide, support and love them to keep them safe and on a productive path. Inevitably, our efforts collide- you've all seen the tween/teen TV dramas - the problem is in this digital age the opportunities for unhappy outcomes have grown.

This just means we have to redouble our efforts; we need to connect with our kids and give them the tools they need to navigate and stay safe both in the physical world and online one. From day one, we teach our kids to look both ways before crossing the street, to never take anything or go anywhere with strangers, to walk away from a fight, to speak up when someone is not being nice, to say no to drugs, etc. We need to also teach our kids to do the same things when they go online.

Sarah Sorensen is the author of The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet.

The Sustainable Network demonstrates how we can tackle challenges, ranging from energy conservation to economic and social innovation, using the global network -- of which the public Internet is just one piece. This book demystifies the power of the network, and issues a strong call to action.

We need to remove the idea that stuff online is "not real," or that it doesn't have consequences. We need to drill into them that they will be held accountable for what they do and say when they are online, just as they would be when they are at home or at school. Explain to them that they need to think before they post and they don't have a right to post whatever they want. For example, "sexting" or sending racy photos to your boy/girlfriend is not harmless, even if they are the same age as you; those messages can go everywhere and could be considered child pornography. Cyberbullying is a real problem, with real consequences - threatening someone online is just the same as threatening them on the playground.

Actually the online world opens up new ways for predators or bullys to get at their victims. Unlike the bully on the playground that your child is able to get away from when they go home, the cyberbully is able to follow your child wherever they are. They can send menacing texts to your child's phone, make hurtful comments on their Facebook page, take and post photos of them with their digital cameras, and pop up and threaten them as they interact in digital worlds and games (such as Gaia, Second Life and World of Warcraft).

We need to ensure they protect themselves; that they are aware of their surroundings and understand that they shouldn't trust anyone that they don't physically know. As I mentioned in a past blog, there are three guiding principles that can help kids stay safe:

1. Don't share any personal information
2. Remember that everyone is a stranger
3. Know there is no such thing as private

But, let's face it, even the best kids (and adults) make mistakes. It's inevitable. They get curious or drop their guard, or do something without thinking through all the consequences.

By the way there is new research that provides some insight to the question that most of us parents have asked, "what were you thinking?" - it turns out that children's brains (until their mid-20s) may not be as adept at thinking through the consequences of their actions because their brains process information differently than adults. (hmmm, what's my excuse?)

At these times, it's good to remember why kids go online in the first place. It may be they are looking to figure something out, want to fit in or belong, hope to be popular, or want to escape reality. The best thing we, as parents, can do is understand why our children are going online - are they researching for school, playing video games, chatting with their friends, exploring, etc.? We need to talk to them, get involved and know exactly what they are doing, so we can monitor their behavior and identify changes that might indicate something is wrong.

And sometimes, they find themselves in situations that they didn't intend to get into and are uncertain how to extract themselves from. At these times, we hope they turn to us, their parents, for help, so we can work through the problem together. However, they are often afraid to come to us because they:

1. Don't want to be restricted from using the computer - which may be their social lifeline
2. May not want to expose the offender (typically in cases of abuse, the victim has formed a relationship with the abuser, who has invested the time to gain their trust and be their "friend" - for a child, the average predator will talk to them for 4 to 6 months before approaching them for more)
3. Believe the threats of the offender that something bad will happen to them or their family if they tell
4. May fear punishment for their own bad behavior or participation the activity
5. Are embarrassed that they fell for the scam or were used in this way

Understanding why they may not approach a parent is important, so you can try to address these fears head on. Again, there is no substitution for ongoing communication; but research shows that only 15% of parents are "in the know" about their kids' social networking habits, and how these behaviors can lead to cyberbullying. So, talk to your kids about the dangers and look for changes in their behavior. Have they suddenly lost all interest in going online? Do they shun their phone after getting a few texts? Are they irritable or demonstrating big mood swings?

Offer them a safe environment where they participate in online activities. Make sure they know you are paying attention to what they are doing while online, and ensure they know they can confide in you and ask for your help the second something feels strange or uncomfortable. Apply the same good parenting skills and tactics that you would use in the physcial world to your child's activities in the online world to help keep them safe. And just as generations past, we should strive to ensure they have the tools they need to go out on their own and navigate the world; it's just that the world is a lot more connected now, presenting our children with both greater risks and possibilities.

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