In today’s technological world, it is rare to see a child without access to the internet. From computers to IPods to cell phones, the internet is no longer a special tool used only for occasional school assignments; it is instead a part of our children’s everyday life. So with all of this technology at their fingertips every single day, how do we keep them safe?
Most parents don’t give much thought to internet safety. They instead rest their faith in the fact that they have a “good child” or a “great and open relationship” with their child. Yet frightening statistics continue to rise. First, let’s tackle online child predators. We have all seen an episode of, “To Catch a Predator”. Most have read the headlines about children missing or found dead after agreeing to a date with an unknown online predator; still many parents continue live under the illusion that it will never happen to them. According to a recent report by ABC News, 1 in 5 children who use the internet are approached online by a sexual predator. These predators typically conceal their identities by posing as a teenager or a child of a similar age. They connect with the child on a regular basis in chat rooms on sites such as Google, Yahoo or TextPlus. Many even approach children through instant messaging or through Skype or social media sites like Facebook. They begin building a trust with the child through basic conversation and then eventually suggest a meeting. If the simplicity of their approach were not scary enough, consider these statistics: 75% of children in a recent survey said they were willing to share personal information (including addresses) with strangers on the internet, only 25% of children surveyed said they would tell a parent or other adult if sexually solicited online, 22% of the children targeted by online predators are between the ages of 10 and 13, and 30% of children who become victimized by a sexual predator are young boys. Scary statistics for situations that the majority of us feel we will never have to experience. Even if a child predator is not your biggest concern, the amount of adult material available for children to view these days is quite alarming. Nearly every search engine available will lead a child to pornographic photos or websites, and even Yahoo’s parental settings can be removed by simply clicking a button agreeing that you are 18 years of age or older. In fact, according to a recent study by Crimes Against Children Research Center, 25% of children have been exposed to unwanted pornographic material while surfing the internet. According to Faye Rogaski founder of socialsklz, despite some parent’s efforts to install protective software, it is still quite easy for predators and pornography to reach our children. “Kids sites, games, and technologies are among the largest growth markets and most of our kids spend more time connected to digital technologies than they do sleeping,” she says. “New viruses and dangerous sites are popping up every hour despite the very best safety filters.”
On the other side of internet safety is the protection our children require from cyber bullying, which is quickly growing to be an even bigger problem than online sexual predators. According to statistics from The i-SAFE Foundation, more than 1 in 3 children have received cyber threats, over 25% of adolescents have been repeatedly bullied through their cell phones or via the internet, and more than 50% of the children being bullied have not and will not tell their parents or another adult that the bullying is occurring. Even more disturbing are the studies showing that more than 50% of the estimated 4,400 adolescent suicides committed in recent years were because of cyber bullying. Unlike the bullying we remember from our school days, there is little escape from cyber bullying. Children are now being attacked 24/7 via text messages, photo shopped pictures of themselves, sexting, YouTube, Facebook, and many other forms of social media.
Much like issues with online predators, one of the biggest contributors to this growing activity is neglect by the parents. Of course it is typically not a lack of concern by parents but instead a lack of knowledge. “Parents are not very tech savvy these days,” says AsktheJudge.info creator Tom Jacobs. “With a new device or app out nearly every day, most parents just can’t keep up with technology the way their kids can.” He claims, “It is just easier to look the other way or to assume that when you ask a child what they are looking at or who they are talking to that they will tell you the truth, than it is to take the time to learn the technology and keep tabs yourself.”
Dr. Cheryl Rode, Director of Clinical Operations at The San Diego Center for Children agrees. She claims that, “Preventing our children from being online is nearly impossible, as it is everywhere; in the home, the schools, on their telephones and even games. It is the parent’s job to talk to their children about the pros and cons and the dangers of the internet.” Dr. Rode says parents should also feel comfortable setting boundaries. “Allow your children to have access to certain sites and social media, but only if you have the password to check and monitor their activity.”
So what other steps can we be taking as parents to protect our children? Being engaged is the first step. “Talk to your children on a regular basis,” suggests Dr. Rode. “Discuss articles about children who have been a victim of predators or cyber bullying, and keep the discussion open. Let your children know that they are free to ask you any questions and tell you anything; and reassure them that they will not be in trouble.” Creating a safe environment seems to be among the most important steps, as a child who fears they will be in trouble will be less likely to tell a parent about an event or even partake in the discussion. Faye Rogaski suggests monitoring from a distance if your child feels your questions are an invasion of privacy. She suggests, “Setting up IM programs so that they log all conversations on the computer. Or you can check the history section of your internet browser to see viewed websites.” Tom Jacobs suggests paying closer attention to your child’s behavior. If your child becomes depressed, withdrawn or secretive, there may be something going on much more serious than just being a teenager.
Of course even with open conversation, password knowledge and weekly checks, it is always a good idea to install some type of protection on all internet devices in the home. I say “all” because while many parents think to install protection on the family computer, they forget about devices such as IPods, IPads, and cellular phones which all provide our children with internet access. For optimal protection, Faye Rogaski suggests some of the following software: SoftForYou, iProtectYou, CyberSieve, and Chronager.
All in all, we must remember that our children are just that; children. Their minds, morals, and ideas are not well developed and all children are prone to occasional bad decisions. It is our job as parents to open their eyes to the world around them, even if that world terrifies us. Use books, movies, or televisions shows to open up the discussion on topics such as sexual predators and cyber bullying. Begin these discussions with your children as early as pre-school and let them develop in depth and detail as your child grows older. Most importantly, remember to be a parent first. We all want our children to like us, to enjoy our company and not to be angry. However, it is our jobs as parents to be the bad guy sometimes. It is our job to check on our children, to monitor behaviors, and when necessary, invade their privacy. It is our job to protect them from anything and anyone who could harm them, and we should arm ourselves with every tool necessary to do so.
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