Talk with your kids about being safer online

Although there are plenty of tools that can be used to try to control or monitor what your kids are doing online, the best approach for most parents is that oldest of tools called conversation. Having an occasional chat with your kids about how they’re using technology can go a long way towards  them safer, and learning more about actual risks can help keep you saner.

The Kids are (probably) All Right

There’s no need to panic. The vast majority of kids — probably yours included — are not in any particular danger as a result of their use of technology. Despite all the alarm about predators, every credible study has found that the number of children actually harmed by online “strangers” is very low. After reviewing the research, the Internet Safety Technology Task Force in 2009 found that “bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most salient threats that minors face, both online and offline.

Yet, even bullying and harassment are not as prevalent as some people fear. There are all sorts of reports about an “epidemic” of bullying but most credible surveys say that fewer than 20% of kids have been cyberbullied or have cyberbullied others.

A 2011 survey conducted by Knowledge Networks for GFI Software reported that 11% of teens say they have been bullied online or by text messages. Girls report a higher incidence of bullying (15%) than boys (7%). Only 4% acknowledge cyberbullying others.  The survey has a 5% margin of error.

Reputation and Sexting: Think Before You Post

The same is true for sexting.  A 2009 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey found that about “4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos of themselves.”

Most kids who do send such images intend them for a single person — usually a romantic partner or would-be partner but, as former Congressman Anthony Weiner found out, they can sometimes get into the wrong hands. That can be by accident (the pictures Weiner Tweeted were meant for one person but a typo caused them to go public) or because the person who receives them sends them on to others.  Whatever the reason, inappropriate digital images of yourself can come back to haunt you so it’s best to remind kids not to take them in the first place.

Sexting isn’t the only way kids can harm their reputation. Talk with them about anything they might say that could embarrass themselves or others including posts that are mean or hateful or ones that make them look reckless or just plain stupid.  Bottom line: Whether you’re a middle school student or a U.S. Congressman, it’s wise to think before you post.

Bullying

If kids are bullied, it’s important for them to talk about it, but not necessarily with an adult. Sometimes the support of other kids can have a bigger impact than getting adults and authorities involved. The most effective antidote to bullying is a peer attitude that it’s not acceptable, not funny and not cool.  But if your child does come to you, listen carefully, be supportive and don’t overreact.  And, of course, if the child is in danger take whatever actions are necessarily to stop the bullying.

If you suspect that your child is bullying others, make sure that they get the help they need.

Security

One of the biggest threats to youth (and adults too) is cyber security. In addition to cyber thieves out to steal your money, compromised web and mobile accounts can also contribute to bullying, sexting and impersonation.  Make sure your kids know that it’s a bad idea to share their passwords with anyone — even their best friend — and that passwords should be hard to guess but easy to remember and that it’s best not to use the same password for multiple accounts.  Here are some “Tips for Strong and Secure Passwords.”

Also, be sure that you are using good security software and that your PC and mobile operating systems are up-to-date and beware of “phishing” attacks where legitimate looking rogue websites trick you into handing over user names, passwords and other confidential information.

Mobile

Don’t forget that kids who are using smart phones and even some regular cell phones have access to the web, texting, email, social networking sites and everything else that they can access from a home PC or a laptop. And because they have their phones with them 24/7, you can’t possibly monitor everything they’re doing. That’s all the more reason to talk with your kids about their use of technology.  At the end of the day, the only person who can really protect your child is your child.

Tools

As I mentioned at the start, there are a growing number of tools and services designed to block your kids from accessing certain sites or inform parents where there kids are going online. There are even programs and services designed to alert parents when their children or teens are bullying others, being bullied or interacting with strangers. While these tools have their place, they are not for everyone and they’re not panaceas.  Although some are quite good none are perfect. The biggest limitation of such tools is that they can’t be a substitute for parental involvement and critical thinking.

If you do use a tool, I highly recommend that you don’t use it in stealth mode but talk with your children about what you’re using and why you’re using it.

Make it a conversation starter and think about how you will wean your child off of it over time.  What makes sense for young children may not make sense for them as they get older

And remember, you can’t bubble wrap your children and you can’t monitor them forever. The best tool is not the one that runs inside a computer or a phone but the one that runs in the CPU between their ears. That’s the filter that will last a lifetime and adapt itself over time.

Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org and founder of SafeKids.com

Click here for more resources on bullying and sexting.

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