Every parent has heard the warnings: the internet is a jungle. Kids must be taught safe online behaviors. More than that, parents should supervise their children, monitor their online activity and limit access to potentially dangerous sites and the people— predators—who frequent them.
But how serious, really, is the online threat? Consider some statistics—they are frightening to be sure, but it's important to understand the seriousness of this problem:
- 40% of children in grades 4 through 8 say they have connected or chatted online with a stranger.
- 82% of 5- to 7-year-olds, 96% of 8- to 11-year-olds, and 99% of 12 to 15-year-olds are active on social media.
- Most online sex crimes originate from social networking sites that predators use to gain information about and insight into their victims.
- In cases where a face-to-face meeting follows initial online contact, some form of sexual activity occurs 89% of the time.
- 75% of children are willing to share personal information about themselves or their families online in exchange for goods or services.
Clearly, the danger is out there, and it behooves all of us to do everything we can to help our children be careful when online and to protect them from the consequences of reckless Internet behavior.
But our kids are clever – often more clever than we are regarding the plethora of new apps, games, social platforms and communications channels that appear with dizzying regularity month after month, year after year. It's incredibly hard for parents to keep up with the pace of innovation, much less to know which of these platforms are fashionable and preferred by our kids and their peers at any given time.
Is social media dangerous for kids?
It can be. Social platforms, forums and chatrooms are the main online locations where predators troll for kids, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such sites. Even intelligent, naturally cautious children are curious, and kids will stick a toe in the water by visiting such sites just to see what all the fuss is about. But many sites are not well-curated, and in addition to solicitations from possible predators, children may be subjected to posts containing nudity, obscene language or other inappropriate content. Some sites, even gaming sites ostensibly intended for young people, have chatrooms where they can be vulnerable to trolling adult predators. Many have webcam functionality, and the FBI warns that webcams can sometimes be activated remotely, so children can be watched without their knowledge.
How can parents keep kids safe online?
First, and most importantly, talk with your kids about online safety. Do your research, explain to them what you've learned and urge your children to share with you what they know, in addition to discussing incidents and examples of things to be wary of. And don't just have "the talk" once and let it go. Revisit the topic regularly, and ask your kids to check in with you about anything new they learn as well.
Check your kids' devices for apps that utilize automatic location-sharing features, and turn them off. Consciously revealing where they live may be the last thing on earth a child would do for a stranger, but unintentionally and unconsciously communicating such information will make it that much easier for a predator to meet a potential victim. Don't let your kids make it easier.
Set ground rules about what your child can do online, sites they can visit, the information they should and should not post, who their friends are on social media and who they chat with. Learn the language your kids use on the computer and their cellphones. Explain to your child that sexual predators often falsely represent themselves as someone your child's own age, a fellow student or a new girl down the street. Emphasize to your child the absolute need NOT to share ANY personal information with anyone they don't know. And when your child comes to you with a problem or question, don't overreact. Listen to them. Many kids don't tell their parents when they have a negative online situation because they are afraid they will be punished.
How do schools keep kids safe online?
Even the most conscientious parents will find it difficult to sufficiently caution their kids about their online vulnerability and comprehensively protect them from negative online experiences. But now they can enlist their schools' help in combatting the dangers.
Find out about the protection your children's schools are using with school-issued devices. More and more schools are issuing take-home laptops and tablets to students, and sending devices home means schools must use some sort of web filter that can work seamlessly even when disconnected from the school network. Products such as those developed and offered by Lightspeed Systems are helping schools protect students while they are online.
One underage victim of an online predator, bully or pornographer is one too many. But by arming ourselves with knowledge and speaking to our children and our children's schools, we can go a long way to maximizing educational effectiveness and safety for every child.