Parents purchase car seats for their infants, helmets for bike riding, and outlet covers for the home. They enroll their kids in swimming lessons to help reduce danger around water and teach their children to never go anywhere with a stranger. Keeping their children safe is a priority for modern parents. However, as the internet has become more of an integral part of life at younger and younger ages, parents have had to learn about the dangers the internet can pose to their children. Fortunately there are many common sense steps parents can take to ensure their children can use the internet safely.
Bullying isn’t limited to the playground anymore. Today’s tech-savvy kids are using modern devices in a very old-school way. Cyberbullying can be anything from posting negative comments about a child or teen on a social media website or sending hurtful texts to posting embarrassing photos of the child online. Some kids even pretend to be someone else via chat room to harass a classmate.
A parent whose child is being cyberbullied needs to take proactive steps to help the child or teen, since he is unlikely to know how to deal with the situation. First, help the child establish boundaries. Help the child set up a “white list” of email accounts he can accept emails, instant messages, or texts from. Some social media sites, like Facebook, allow users to choose who can see and post to their personal accounts. Help the child to set up these sites so that only positive influences can interact with him there.
If cell phone calls are a problem, call the provider and have them block the phone calls of the harassing individual. Another important protection anyone who uses the internet needs to be aware of is passwords. Help the child or teen to set up strong passwords. Many people use easy-to-crack passwords like birthdays and names, which other kids could easily hack. Teach the child to delete any messages from a bully without reading them. Sometimes, just ignoring a bully is enough to make him go away.
In the end, there’s no substitute for parental oversight and involvement. Just like parents want to know where their kids are going when they leave the house, they need to know where the kids are going on the internet. Have internet-capable computers in public areas of the home. Be aware of any chat room, website, forum, or other place the child frequents. If outside help is required, the links below provide more information about how to get help with cyberbullying.
The National Center for Victims of Crimes defines cyberstalking as “threatening behavior or unwanted advances directed at another using the Internet and other forms of online and computer communications.” Just as traditional stalkers follow their victims around physically, cyberstalkers use online media tools like forums, chat rooms, blogs, and social media to continually threaten them or to entice them into some behavior, from sexual to criminal. Extreme forms can include computer hacking, where the stalker targets his victim’s computer accounts and files. Some cyberstalkers even steal their victims’ identities as a way to manipulate them.
For a parent who suspects their child might have a cyberstalker, it’s vitally important to talk to the child or teen. Find out as much about what has been going on and document it. This is especially important if the stalker is known to the child in real life. Make copies of all emails, messages, and take screen shots of anything online that is from the cyberstalker.
If it is feasible, especially in cases where the stalker is known to the child, send the person a written cease and desist letter, keeping copies as part of the file. File a complaint with the perpetrator’s internet provider. In some cases, a complaint needs to be filed with law enforcement, especially if bodily harm is threatened. Sometimes changing email accounts, internet providers, and cell phone numbers can help curtail the stalking. Computer stores can also help increase security on the family’s computers by installing encryption software. Also ask them how to set up a “white list” on the email account.
Stalking, no matter the form it takes, is a very scary situation to be in. Most young people are not going to know how to process the myriad of emotions they’ll experience as a cyberstalking victim. Keep talking to the child, and if necessary seek professional counseling either from the school or private sources. For more information on detecting and preventing cyberstalking, visit the links below.
Avoiding Sites Unsuitable for Children
While cyberstalking and cyberbullying are statistically rare, all children on the internet could easily stumble onto websites that aren’t appropriate. Of course, how a parent deals with this will vary depending upon the age of the child, as a seven year-old needs different structures than a 16 year-old. However, there are some basic guidelines that experts advise parents to follow. The goal of these is to protect the kids online while gradually teaching them how to use the internet responsibly as they grow into adulthood.
The most important thing a parent can do is to take the time to set up the rules for their household, explain them to the kids, and then enforce them. Some of these rules could include:
1. All computers connected to the internet stay in public areas. This will discourage kids from going to sites they know their parents would not approve of.
2. Set time limits for computer usage. This will vary from family to family and from child to child. Often older kids need internet for homework purposes. If enforcing these time limits is an issue, there are time limiting software products that can be easily installed on the computer.
3. Use a family-safe browser. Some browsers are automatically set up to disallow known pornography, gambling, and other sites that are not appropriate.
4. Know the kids’ passwords. Many experts suggest not allowing the kids to have accounts on social media sites unless the parent also has the password so that communication can be monitored.
5. Consider limiting instant messages or texts to people that have been preapproved. Again, this probably is more appropriate for younger kids and may need to be revised as the child matures.
6. Occasionally check the browser history on the computers the kids use. This will tell you what sites they are visiting.
7. Many cell phones and cell phone providers have parental control functions. Consider using these on their mobile devices.
8. Teach the kids to never give personal information to anyone on the internet. This would include name, age, address, phone numbers, email addresses, parents’ names, etc.
Of course, this is not a complete list, but rather a starting point. The main point experts agree on is that parental involvement and supervision is key. Online safety is not something that parents can be lax on and just expect their kids to know what to do and what not to do. Just as parents wouldn’t turn over the keys to the car without first teaching a teen how to drive safely, parents need to teach safe use of the information highway.
Phishing, Malware, and Viruses
All computer users, regardless of their ages, are susceptible to phishing, malware, and computer viruses. Phishing is the act of sending emails posing as something or someone official in order to entice the victim to disclose information like social security numbers, bank account numbers, or credit card numbers. Malware stands for malicious software. Malware is any code or script designed to harm you or your system. This would include trojans, viruses, and computer worms. Sometimes these slow down the system and interrupt the normal operations of your computer. At other times, they are intended to either spy on your computer time, or to steal personal and financial information.
The FBI advises all computer owners to take steps to protect your computers and your information on them. Have a firewall and use it all the time. This acts as a barrier to people trying to hack in to the system. Always run an antivirus program, and make sure you keep it updated. As new viruses are written, these programs are constantly being updated to combat them. These programs scan emails and downloads to prevent the virus from infecting the computer. There is even antispying software that can be used to detect malware that is siphoning information off your system.
However, it is also important to teach kids ways to reduce the risk of falling prey to these attacks. Teach them to never open an email from someone they don’t know. The “white list” of email contacts mentioned previously can also reduce phishing and spam emails. It’s also a good idea to never click on a link in an email from a company. Always go directly to the company’s website independently, as sometimes the phishing emails look like ones from real companies.
Young children should always ask an adult before downloading anything off the internet. No antivirus software can catch everything, so it’s a good idea to have an adult verify the content. Some operating systems even require a password before anything can be installed or downloaded. Activate this feature if it seems appropriate.
Also instruct them to never click on a pop-up of any kind. Teach the children to turn off the computer when not in use, as this not only saves energy, but will reduce the time the computer is at risk. Finally, have some sort of way to back up information on the computer, either onto another computer or online back-up company. This way important documents and information aren’t lost if malware does cause a computer crash.
Scams and Fraud
While the internet is a great source of information, it’s also an easy way for scam artists to reach victims miles away. Usually the news is full of scams targeting the elderly, but children are just as vulnerable since they aren’t as able to make judgment calls as adults. In addition to doing the things listed in the previous section, it’s important to talk to the kids about scams and frauds. This requires parents to educate themselves about the types of scams and frauds that the children can face.
Then discuss the fact that some people will try to trick them online. Stress that they should never give personal information to anyone online. Don’t forget to tell them to never post pictures of themselves online without parental permission. Sometimes kids accidentally go to a website that is inappropriate; talk to them ahead of time about what to do if this happens to them. They are more likely to come forward immediately if they know what to do and aren’t afraid of getting in trouble.
General Computer and Internet Safety Resources