Keeping Children Safe on the Internet

Malcolm is a ten year old boy who likes to “surf the net” and chat with sports fans who also like his favorite teams. In the course of one conversation, he was chatting with another boy who asked him his favorite hockey team. Malcolm said it was, for sure, The New Jersey Devils! The kid asked if he had ever been to a game and Malcolm said, “Are you kidding, my Dad and I go to almost every home game!” The other boy sounded envious and said, “It must be nice to live so close to an arena. I live really far away from any hockey teams. I’d like to be able to jump in the car and be at the game in a half hour.” Malcolm said, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool! Ten minutes and we are at the parking lot having a tail gate party with all my Dad’s friends!” They continued their conversation praising the Devils and their chances for the Stanley Cup this year. By the end of their chat, the adult speaking to Malcolm was able to pinpoint the boy’s exact location without ever asking for an address or a phone number both of which Malcolm would never have given because he had been warned not to do that.

This story is one of a thousand examples of how children can be vulnerable when engaging in what appears to be harmless and entertaining conversation. It also points out, quite clearly, that despite the enormous benefits associated with the Internet, children and adults need to be very sensitive to its inherent dangers.

We have spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources teaching our children how to be safe in the communities in which they live. We have taught them about strangers, peers and those they know and trust. In each case, we have given them strategies to help keep them safe, strong and free. When children log on to the Internet, they enter a new kind of community. Much like the towns and cities in which they live, the Internet is a public place. And the dangers they face there are exacerbated by the fact that they can not see or hear the person with whom they are having a conversation. Therefore, the intuitive skills their parents have worked so hard to teach them, such as watching eye contact, body language or tone of voice, are of little use. Without those factors to evaluate their safety, children and even adults – are at a disadvantage on line.

Children, who are both trusting and curious, can often stumble onto or be attracted to sites which exploit them, give inappropriate information, portray violent images, preach bias and hate centered rhetoric, show explicit sexual materials or provide other information which is dangerous or unacceptable. This inherent danger is not reason enough to keep them from exploring the limitless resources that the Internet provides, but it is a strong reminder that the adults in their lives need to learn more about computers and also closely supervise their use.

Did You Know?

There are an estimated 24 million children between the ages of ten and seventeen using the Internet regularly?

Approximately one in four of those children (6 million) has received unsolicited and unwanted exposure to sexually explicit pictures while searching for unrelated information?

As many as one in five children has received unwanted sexual advances from individuals while on line?

Approximately six percent of young people in a recent study expressed worry over someone who was bothering or harassing them on line?

These facts may come as a shock to some, but considering the anonymity of the Internet, it is not surprising. People feel they can be more forward and less careful than they might be on the street or in a phone conversation. The average user does not have the knowledge or the technical equipment to discover who is harassing him or her. Listed below are a few clues for parents to follow before their children LOG ON.

Learn all you can about computers and the Internet
Oversee your child’s use of the computer
Guidelines should be followed when your child uses the computer
Observe the sites your child visits and the e-mail he or she receives
Notify your Internet provider if your child receives unwanted and unsolicited materials

Let’s look at each of these suggestions and see how they might help protect children who go on line.

Learn all you can about using computers and, specifically, the Internet. Since the beginning of time, parents have been learning new skills and expanding their knowledge based on the interests of their children. For example, most parents may never know what an “infield fly rule” is until their sons and daughters play Little League baseball. Many do not know anything about stamp collecting or playing chess until their children come home and say, “I want to do this.” Then, the parents become experts some even become coaches of the very thing they knew so little about! Part of the reason for that is the parent’s desire to be a part of his or her child’s life and enthusiastically participate in activities together. The computer is no different from Little League or chess. It takes a little time to learn but the rewards are well worth the investment.

Oversee your child’s use of the computer. We wouldn’t think of dropping our children off in the center of a huge new city and telling them we will be back to pick them up in three hours. Yet that is virtually what happens when children go to their rooms, close the door and have an entire world at their fingertips. Though they can certainly benefit greatly from the educational materials on line, they are also easy prey to those who might deceive or endanger them. Family computers should be placed in an area where a responsible adult can pass by and randomly check on the activities that are taking place on line. In addition, it should be checked regularly for files and games that might have been downloaded. Families who carefully scrutinize visitors to their homes should insist the same rules apply to those who visit them on line. Overseeing the use of the computer can also apply to the time children spend in front of a monitor. Some families set a timer and limit the amount of time their children can spend on line.

Guidelines for going online help children feel more confident and less worried about potential problems. Some commonly suggested ideas for staying safe on line are listed below. Many parents post these guidelines near the computer.

a.) Do not give personal information in any public area on the Internet such as a website, a chat room or a bulletin board.
b.) Be aware that when you enter a chat room or an instant message session, people will be likely to see your e-mail address and can, therefore, e-mail you.
c.) Using a gender-neutral name when entering a chat room is a good idea. Make sure it does not give enough information for someone to identify you. d.) Passwords should not be shared with friends or anyone on line claiming to represent your service provider.
e.) Remember that all messages sent via e-mail can be copied to others. So, don’t ever write anything you wouldn’t want someone else to see. This is an especially important point with young people who share secrets or occasionally gossip. Some comments have been posted on bulletin boards for everyone to see.
f.) Make sure parents are aware of any contests you might enter on line. Some are not what they appear to be and allow access to your e-mail.
g.) Sending rude or inconsiderate messages (called “flaming”) creates many problems on line. It offends others and may also make you the target of unsolicited e-mail containing viruses or other unwanted materials.
h.) Be especially careful not to open any e-mail, files, pictures or games without knowing the person who sent it. Many times, these vehicles are used to transport viruses.
i.) Don’t blame yourself if you receive offensive materials. They are often sent via e-mail address books and have little to do with you or anyone you know.

Observe the sites your child visits. You can check the history function on your browser to see what sites your children have been visiting. Pay especially close attention to chat rooms because they have been the most common vehicle for offensive comments and threats. When your children first start using the Internet, consider sharing an e-mail address or give them an address which is applicable to the entire family. If your child has set up his or her own website, make sure you monitor what is on it. Look to make sure no personal information is given which might permit someone to locate or identify the child. Know who your child’s friends are online. Many providers ( i.e. AOL) have a buddy list of online friends. Monitoring that list can give you an idea about who your child is talking to on a regular basis.

Notify authorities if you or your child receive offensive mail or unwanted materials via the Internet. If your child tells you he or she received this kind of message or material, try not to be judgmental or to blame the child. Sometimes parents take away Internet privileges when the child has done nothing to invite or encourage such communication. It is more than likely that children have absolutely no clue why or how they received the message. If you punish them, the next time they may not come to you for help. Most Internet providers encourage people to notify them of such inappropriate messages. If the provider can identify the offender, it will usually terminate his or her account.

Ending on a Positive Note

Although there have been a number of cases brought to the public’s attention regarding the dangers and disadvantages of the Internet, the fact remains that reported cases of abuse are relatively infrequent. The educational benefits increase daily as more and more information and materials become available from cyberspace. Just as we have carefully monitored our children on the streets of our towns and cities, we must be vigilant as they travel on the “Information Superhighway”. Giving them strategies which will inform them, empower them and lessen their isolation will help them navigate safely.

NJ CAP is a RTC of the International Center for Assault Prevention. It partners with state, national and worldwide prevention advocates.