by Larry Magid
Most of the time I write about gadgets or fun Web sites, but today’s column is about a more serious topic: Keeping your kids safe on the Internet.
While I think that some of the “online predator” dangers have been overstated, there are nevertheless risks that every parent should consider before they let their children or teens surf the Web or even carry a cell phone. No reason to panic, only a tiny number of children each year are victimized by adult predators.
But millions are exposed to cyberbullying, unwanted pornography or possible “loss of reputation” because of indiscreet postings on social network sites. Today’s net-enabled cell phones also pose a risk, partially because they’re used away from home.
There is also the danger of kids getting into trouble at school or with the cops for their own inappropriate online behavior. For example, a Florida appeals court recently upheld the conviction of two teens (16 and 17 at the time) who took sexually explicit pictures of each other and then one of them sent the digital images to the other.
The naughty photos weren’t posted publicly or distributed but somehow police found out, and the youths were arrested and convicted for producing and possessing child porn. This is far from a case of pedophilia, but it was a technical violation of the very strict child porn laws.
I’m hoping these teens get off with a slap on the wrist — it would be tragic if they’re forced to register as sex offenders — but it does send a message: “Children behave.” Besides, teenage relationships have a habit of going south and there’s always the risk that images like these could end up on the Internet.
To help your kids stay safe online, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (disclosure: I serve without compensation on its board of directors) just launched NetSmartz411.org, which has a knowledge base on a wide range of technology and safety questions. The knowledge base is surprisingly good but like any interactive resource it has its limits. The service also has an “ask the experts” button that lets you send e-mail to a trained analyst who will answer your question.
Other Internet safety sites include GetNetwise.org, NetSmartz.org and sites I help operate: BlogSafety.com, SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com.