This past winter I taught a successful workshop on Internet safety to a group of inner city moms (thanks to D.S. for helping to prepare for the workshop!). In the workshop, we went over Internet safety tips, how to sign up for web protection, how to speak the ‘language’ of text messaging, and how to start a discussion with kids about online predators and cyber bullies. We ended the workshop by discussing an Internet Safety Pledge, an important set of rules developed and signed by both parents/caregivers AND kids.
I’ve decided to modify my workshop and share it with readers of this blog in a three-part series. After all, being travelers, parents and global citizens makes it tough to deny our kids free range of the web. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t keep them safe.
Enjoy Part 1 of Parental Controls and Internet Safety and please, if you get anything out of what you read, subscribe to my blog so that you won’t miss the next installment of the ‘workshop’. C’mon, it’s free! You’ll have nothing to lose!
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND INTERNET SAFETY: PART 1
Well, just when I thought my blogging was starting to get out of control, Anevay jumped on the bandwagon. She plans to use her new blog, Brooklyn Girl on the Go, to detail her adventures, summer and just the sheer enjoyment she gets out of this life.
Fun, right? Absolutely. But a child’s Internet use must be safeguarded against the risk of predators and cyberbullies. Kids are going to be kids. One way or another, they’re going to ignore the fact that there are age restrictions on many social networking platforms. Hell, I would’ve disregarded all of that crap if the Internet had been en vogue in the 80′s.
My kid graduated in June from the 4th grade. Last year she was one of only a few kids in her class not to have a cellphone or Facebook account, and yet she still became aware of cyber bullying not through conversations with adults, but by the actions of some of her peers. She heard the term “porn” because some of her buddies talked about it in class (we had an interesting conversation that evening on the way home). I wish I could say that I was shocked over 4th graders cyberbullying and sharing dirty comments, but these days, it’s all too common.
The world is a different place from when I was a kid. Jeez, I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true. Although the Internet didn’t create child predators or bullies, it sure has increased the opportunities for predators to meet victims or for bullies to pick on people while minimizing detection.
So what is a protective parent to do?
1. Get to know your enemies.
Don’t wait until something bad happens. Unfortunately, with one-third of online teens between the ages of 12 and 17 having been cyberbullied (although the National Crime Prevention Council reports that it is a problem that affects half of all American teens!!), there’s a high chance it could happen to one of our kids. Regarding predators, the FBI estimates that with over a million pedophiles online on a single day, our kids have a one in four change of being approached via instant message or in a chat room.
Online stalking (considered ‘cyberstalking’ when an adult is harassed, being ‘hunted by a predator’ when it is a child) at its best occurs online, but we’ve all heard the horror stories of it being taken into the ‘real world’.
Cyberbullies and predators use different methods of harassing victims:
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children writes:
Cyberbullying is just what it sounds like – bullying through Internet applications and technologies such as instant messaging (IM), social networking sites, and cell phones. It can start easily—with a rumor, a photo, or a forwarded message—and just as easily spiral out of control. An embarrassing video posted to a social networking site by someone in Kansas tonight may be watched by someone in Japan tomorrow. Cyberbullying victims may be targeted anywhere, at any time.
Who fits the profile for a bully? Kids have reported being cruel to each other online as early as second grade. I’ll bet it starts, in some communities, even younger. What makes cyberbullying most unlike other forms of bullying? A cyberbully often never has to face his or her victim. A cyberbully can be the quiet kid in the back of the class, the damaged kid who all the parents talk about, the one who kicks and yells at recess, or, and I know you won’t want to read this, but a cyberbully can even be one of our own kids. Kids bully- and not just cyberbullying- because they want to be accepted by their peers, because they are being bullied at home, or, because there is no formula to bullying, a thousand other reasons. It takes all sorts to rock the ‘mean’. Also, and this is important: kids who are aware of acts of cyberbullying without telling grown-ups become a part of the problem.
Although the Internet did not create child predators, it has significantly increased the opportunities predators have to meet victims while minimizing detection. They can communicate with children anonymously through instant messaging, social networking sites, chat rooms, message boards, and even cell phones. Online predators do not fit any one mold or stereotype; seemingly upstanding citizens have been caught enticing children for sexual acts. Contrary to popular belief, most online predators are not pedophiles. Pedophiles target pre-pubescent children, while online predators typically target adolescents who engage in risky online behavior.
-David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak, Online Predators and their Victims: Myths, Realities, and Implications for Prevention and Treatment, American Psychologist 63 (2008): 116.
Now that we have a little background on cyberbullies and predators, let’s move on to the most important way we can help our kids stay safe:
2. Start and MAINTAIN a dialogue.
Knowing the issues our children are being faced with can’t be found in a book, and they certainly can’t be read on this blog posting. Talk with our kids. Be impartial listeners. What does this mean? Give our children reasons to feel safe coming to talk with us without the fear of being reprimanded or judged. I might bitch and moan over my kid not cleaning her room, but if she comes to be with a concern, listening and not getting upset with her means that she’ll continue to talk to me. Letting her make mistakes and helping her assuming responsibility for them in a constructive way without punishing her has made me her go-to person when she’s facing a difficult issue.
Also, and I think this is shocking, often times grown ups will have a very different view from children about bullying and even predators. Ask an educator or parent where bullying falls in their school on a scale of one to ten (ten being the worst) and they might say a three. A child, however, will often rate bullying as being much higher, say an eight. This means there is not only a gross disconnect between what is being communicated between children and the important stakeholders who serve them, but that safety is compromised. Fortunately, a divide such as this can easily be crossed by giving children a safe, nonjudgmental space in which to speak, and listening, truly listening, to concerns- however small they might seem to us ‘old’ people.
A great resource where one might learn more about bullying is BullyBust, a nationwide bully prevention awareness program launched by The National School Climate Center that teaches adults and children to become part of the solution by arming themselves against harassment. I’ve had the pleasure of working before with Jonathan Cohen, the director of The National School Climate Center, and can vouch 100% for the programs he has spearheaded. I imagine that the methods of fighting bullying with BullyBust (which teaches people to become “upstanders”– people who stand up against bullying to become part of the solution) might also be applied to arming people against online predators.
3. Provide a vocabulary to arm our kids against dangers.
In addition to make ourselves available as safe go-to persons, talking to our kids about the dangers that are out there will help inform how they interact with the world. Give them a vocabulary. It’s up to each of us to decide how we speak with our kids. I felt most comfortable talking with my kid at a very young age about sex and the fact that her body belongs solely to one person: herself. As she grows older and opens herself to empathy, intuition and dreaming big, we also discuss sex crimes, bullying, manipulation and the fact that there are some people out there who are doing some pretty awful things. I feel that being forthright with my child will arm her against difficult and potentially dangerous issues.
Especially in regards to predators, I’ve asked my kid difficult questions about predators, and haven’t let her use the Internet without me until she was able to discuss them in a mature and thoughtful way. My daughter got her first email account last year, at a time when I thought she was ready. I have not, however, allowed her to open a Facebook account or have a cellphone (on which she’d be able to text message). Nor is she allowed to Instant Message people on her Gmail account besides the people I’ve approved. Yesterday she started a blog, opening her email to comments, but, as I I track all of her movements on on Internet (more on this in a subsequent post), I’ll be made aware immediately of any suspect activity.
Again, we all talk to our kids in different ways. Some of you, for example, might not be comfortable talking about sex in the forthright way I have, and some of you might have felt comfortable talking about a heck of a lot more. At the very least, if your kid is using the Internet for ANY activities, I would urge you to ask your kid the following questions (taken directly from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Website):
- What do you know about online predators?
- Have you ever met anyone online who asked you to meet face-to-face?
- What would/did you do if someone asked to meet you in person?
- Has anyone ever tried talking to you online about inappropriate or sexual things? What did you do?
- How might someone online try to gain your trust?
- Why might someone online want to gain your trust? What are the possible risks of trusting them?
- Why is it important that you come to me if someone makes you feel uncomfortable online?
Because of the ways in which I’ve helped my kid feel safe talking to me (which includes providing her with a vocabulary to describe some of the more dangerous situations that are out there), she has made a beeline towards me every time she has been made to feel uncomfortable or hears a term with which she is not yet familiar.
4. Provide parameters for using the Internet
Giving our kids safety guidelines empower them to make the right decisions. Again, what works for me might not work for others, but below are some relatively generic tips that I think work for every family:
- Never reveal your real name, where you go to school, what your phone number is, your parent’s personal info/email or where you live.
- Always use the Internet in a common room. Do not bring your computer into your room (for obvious reasons this would never work with a teenager- use your own judgment).
- Always to tell your parent/caregiver when you receiving ANY email, instant essage, Skype message or chat that they find even makes you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable, whether it be from a friend, family member or stranger. Know that even if you weren’t following the Internet rules of the house that in a situation such as this, you will NOT get in trouble for breaking rules (i.e. talking in a chat room). The greater concern is safety.
- Never respond to a threatening email or message. Not ever. Let your parent or trusted adult in on this big bad terrible message right away. You didn’t do anything wrong to deserve it, and the situation needs to be fixed right away. If the message came from a classmate, the right thing to do is still to tell an adult. It is the brave thing to do, and, even if the message isn’t about you, could save someone else a whole lotta heartache.
- Make sure that the pictures do not reveal any information in the background that might give an online predator a clue as to where your child lives or what school they go to. Well, some of this is virtually impossible. We live in an Internet age, and have (or many of us do) online identities. This goes for our kids, and even for their schools (many of which post pictures, names, etc.). But we can, at the very least, make sure that our children are not posting inappropriate pictures or content.
- Never agree to meet anyone that you have met on the computer in real life. I told my daughter that she wasn’t to play any interactive games on the computer in which there was a real person on the other end. And I meant to scare the shit out of her when I told her that if she DID choose to go against my wishes, that she needed to know that the ‘child’ she thought she was playing with could be a 40 year old man who wanted to have sex with her, or worse. Too much info? In this day of age, I don’t think so. I told her that she should never believe anyone online. PEOPLE LIE. The Internet is largely fantasy- people can be whoever and whatever they want. And, unfortunately, they can take advantage of people who believe what they say.
- Never share password or login info with anyone besides ME. Also, change passwords often and again, reiterate, reiterate and reiterate that these new passwords should be given only to ME.
- Never accept an Instant Message from a stranger or open an attachment without first asking me. There could be either an asshole or a virus on the other side.
- My kid now has a blog, opening up a world of comments. She can bet that I’ll be going into her blog and email daily to read what people have written. Using a blog is, I told her, for grown ups and grown ups in training. If I see that she is not following the rules I set for this new way to engage with the world, then I’m closing down the blog and her email and throwing a big fat book into her hand.
- Tell me every time the computer is being used. I want to know what she’s looking at and when. If she’s at a friend’s house, I want her to use her brain.
5. Have our kids develop healthy relationships with MANY other adults
There will come an age when our kids might not want to talk to us and, *gasp*, may even rebel. I have a friend whose daughter didn’t talk to her for an entire year during high school. I was so horrible to my parents it’s a wonder any of us survived. Yes, we all hope drama with our kids won’t happen to us. I have a feeling, however, that all of us, in some shape or form, will undergo some angsty moments. My daughter is already showing some interesting colors, and she’s not even officially considered a ‘tween’ yet!
Yikes, what are we supposed to do if our kids eventually no longer think we’re the bees knees? How does one handle this during the Internet age? Well, besides hoping that we’ve instilled amazing values in our kids, we need to make sure early on that our kids build friendships with plenty of great adults. This way, should the time come when we don’t see eye to eye, they’ll have plenty of sounding boards to choose from. My kid, for example, spends a lot of time with my adult friends, and has form a bond with many of them independent of my relationships. They attend dance and school events, go with us to the beach, take her for the day to museums or skateboarding, and just generally are available to be her friend. More recently, as my kid has become more Internet savvy, she shares emails with my adult friends. Yet I can’t hold my kid responsible for all of the dangers that are out there. She can only be responsible for the things within her control. This is why I’ve turned to keeping watch over my daughter’s email account, seeing exactly who she speaks with on Skype, not allowing her a Facebook page (not yet, although she’ll eventually get one on her own, I know it), keeping an eye on her new blog and, most importantly, keeping watch over her entire online presence by using strict parental controls.
Again, stay tuned for the my next posting on Parental Controls (subscribe to this blog!), in which I’ll walk you through how to set up web protection on your child’s computer and also explain how to come up with an Internet safety pledge that works for both parents/caregivers and kids. I’ll provide links and resources that will help inform the ways in which you speak WITH your kids and choose which parental control features work best for you and your family.
In the meanwhile, I’d ask that you consider some important questions:
1) What worries you most about Internet safety?
2) What features would you most like to see in a parental controls program?
3) Have you spoken with your child about Internet safety, cyberbullying, predators, and social networking?
4) Is your kiddo mature enough to handle using the Internet? What sort of relationship do the two of you have? Does he/she talk with you about the things going on? Does he/she get embarrassed easily if bullying has occurred? Would he/she approach you with concerns?