When discussing marriage and family, the majority of my conversations center on keeping the marriage strong and healthy. Yet, here, I would like to focus on a couple’s most precious gems and a family’s most vulnerable members – The Children.
Being a parent who has had the honor of raising three phenomenal children of my own, plus contribute to the parenting of two that I didn’t give birth to, one thing that none of them or those who knew my parenting style would challenge is my vigilance in protecting them from the world. No doubt, the internet has become the number one window to the world. And while it is not possible to protect your precious little angels completely from the things they are bound to experience in life as they grow and mature, we can as parents most definitely do our part in keeping them safe while online.
The internet has revolutionized the way we live, work, and play. Unlike times of yore, today, we can connect to people in other countries in real-time, making our communications easier and faster. Companies are able to effectively engage in international business and increase their bottom line by building global relationships. Families are able to save money, save time, and expand their sphere of entertainment opportunities. Let’s face it, modern technology has forged a way for us to earn more money, obtain a college degree, and establish work-life balance all from the comfort of our own homes. It certainly has done wonders for those who would otherwise be at risk for social isolation. A growing number of people meet their spouse online.
However, with the menace of child pornography, sexual predators, social media, and “cool” web or mobile applications, parents have questioned whether or not the benefits outweigh the negatives, especially where their children are concerned. According to an article in USA Today, entitled Apps, social networks pose new threat to kid, “There was a rising threat to kids who habituate the internet.” Byron Acohido explains that trendy mobile devices and web applications that companies target youth in their advertising campaigns with, are actually bait for more technologically clever identity thieves and pedophiles who prey on kids fascinated with these internet-connected mobile devices. (Acohido, 2011).
Several consumer protection groups had been working to revise COPPA rules that would allow for more parental control with respect to mobile devices, and require verified permission from caregivers before children can use certain apps. Other child safety watchdog groups are working to ensure that there are increased measures of safety for children using the internet, and more accountability for those who violate them. Presently there is a movement, “Share Aware” where more and more parents are having discussions with their children on what to share and what not to share on social networks, apps, and games.
The whole digital craze can be overwhelming for some parents. In the article, Mr. Acohido points out a survey that suggested that children between the ages of six and nine who use the internet to communicate with friends, over half of their parents have little or no knowledge of social networks. This is scary, because caregivers share in the responsibility of protecting the children in their care, and this includes while on the internet.
There was a time when we could easily get the message across to our children about not speaking to strangers, about not opening the door if they were not sure who it was, about not giving personal information to an unfamiliar caller on the telephone, and being sure to tell us if someone touches them inappropriately. However, in a world of modern technology, moms and dads must be a lot swifter in order to keep their children safe. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Kidzworld make it very easy for strangers to become “friends” with your child and build online relationships with them.
It’s not enough to avoid giving personal information. Adults have to be proactive. The New York Times published a story about mothers and fathers who are aggressive in protecting their kids using the power of digital intelligence. These vigilante parents are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect their children, including even spying on them or secretly befriending them online and subscribing to their You Tube channels and other sites where videos and photos are posted. It’s important to know your children and how they think. While some may believe that these tactics undermine trust, others feel these are risks worth taking to keep their child from being a victim. According to Somini Sengupta’s article, ‘Big Brother’? No, It’s Parents published in June of 2013, an app designed for flirting, was linked to three sexual assaults involving children in America when it was newly launched. (Sengupta, 2012).
There were also growing concerns about the over seven million youths under the age of 13 who were using Facebook, despite the minimum age requirement. Yet, the social network’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, at that time was considering opening up the site to pre-teens arguing that doing so better allows parents to monitor their children because the accounts would be linked. However many advocates, watchdog groups, and lawmakers were seriously opposing the idea. Rep. Ed Markey (D), Massachusetts, in an interview with MSNBC, alluded to the possibility of stock value being a motivating factor for Facebook targeting younger age groups. (MSNBC News, 2012).
Regardless of the semantics, children deserve to be safe while on the internet and the first line of defense is the parents. So, how can you as a parent, more effectively protect your teens and pre-teens online?
15 Safety Tips to Help Parents Protect Their Children
- Communicate openly with your child about the dangers of the internet and establish clear boundaries on how to remain safe.
- Create a safe communication environment where your child clearly understands that he/she can talk with you about anything.
- Keep the computer in a common area of the house or allow internet time on personal laptops only in the open, rather than in the bedroom.
- Pay attention to what your child’s interests are, and what activities he/she engages in.
- Use parental controls and blocks to prevent the invasion of inappropriate content.
- Monitor access to certain sites including those your child frequents, along with the amount of time he/she spends on the computer.
- Utilize safe parent and child social networking sites that encourage family online socialization.
- Gain full access to your child’s online accounts, web applications, and mobile devices, and help them to understand the importance of openness and their cooperation.
- Create internet-use rules and agreements together as a family, and consequences of misuse.
- Do not hesitate to use caller I.D. and other monitoring or tracking devices when necessary.
- Take note of authentic friends from the neighborhood, school, and church versus online friends.
- Join an advocacy group.
- Get your child involved in helping to keep their peers and younger children safe.
- Do more things online together to facilitate a family culture of openness within the family unit.
- Keep up-to-date photos of your child.
Warning signs to be aware of include:
- Too much time online or in chat rooms, especially at night
- Withdrawal or increased need for time alone
- Pornography pop-ups on the computer
- Strange telephone calls and/or sudden gifts and packages coming in the mail
- Child becoming more secretive
- Increased irritability or frustration
If you or someone you know have concerns regarding a child’s internet activity or suspect an unsafe situation, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for more information on how to keep them safe online.