There are roughly 30 million children using the Internet today, according to The Pew Internet & American Life Project. While it's a valuable resource for schoolwork, communication, recreation--and learning essential computers skills--there's a dark side. Sexual predators use it to locate and lure victims; identity thieves lurk; kids bully other kids online. But involved parents can minimize the risks to keep their kids safe.
As part of an undercover operation, an FBI agent recently posed as a 13-year-old girl in an online chat room. Within 40 seconds after she signed on--using a typical teenage-girl-type screen name and mentioning her (fake) age--close to 10 older men had responded, working quickly up to sexually explicit conversations. Sadly, this isn't unusual. The Internet can pose serious dangers for children.
Does this mean you should forbid your children to go online? Absolutely not, says Arnold E. Bell, unit chief of the FBI's Innocent Images Unit, Cyber Division, Calverton, Md. "The 'Net is a necessary tool for success in life today--you have to have cyber skills."
The risks are real, Arnold emphasizes. "People can pretend to be anyone online. A 49-year-old man might post a picture of an 18-year-old surfer on his Internet profile and say it's him." Predators gain children's trust, and then may send sexually explicit material, request nude photos, or even convince children to meet them--alone.
When accessing a Web site, one wrong keystroke can send a child to a sexually explicit site. "There are also hate group or racist Web sites; graphic violence; information about satanic or cult groups; advertising for alcohol, tobacco, and drugs; even recipes for making illicit drugs and bombs," says Joan Haznaw, professional trainer, LifeMatters/EAP (employee assistance program) and WorkLife Services--NEAS Inc., Waukesha, Wis.
"Kids may unknowingly divulge too much personal information on networking or chat sites that make them vulnerable," adds Danielle Yates, communications director at GetNetWise, Washington, D.C. If they mention their school's name and that they're on the track team, it wouldn't be too hard for a predator to find out their practice schedule, for example.
"Peers can create another problem," Yates notes. "There's cyberbullying, sending pornography to friends, or using sexually explicit language."
Add to these the dangers any online user faces, like phishing e-mails that look like they're from legitimate businesses, but ask readers to provide information that criminals can use to commit identity theft or other fraud. It all seems daunting, but you can use a combination of active parenting and technology to minimize the risks.
"Whenever I talk with parents, I tell them to balance their fears with thoughts of the wonderful opportunities the Internet opens up for kids," says Haznaw. "I don't want to scare my own kids about the Internet as something evil; and if we preach, it just becomes more attractive to them. But stay involved and take an interest."
First and foremost, she advises, parents need to communicate openly and honestly with their kids. "Let them know of the potential dangers and why it's necessary for you to be involved, and set limits on their online activity."
Particularly with younger kids, make computer use a family experience, recommends Bell. "Don't drop kids in front of it and walk away--you're basically leaving them with who knows who. Sit there and work through things with your kids."
This will help you learn the technology, too. "Most parents didn't grow up using a computer, unlike our kids," says Yates. "Actively understand what they're doing online, whether it's instant messaging or e-mailing friends. Establish trust with your kids so they can come to you if they see something they're uncomfortable with--and don't go ballistic and take away their computer if they do."
You also can use parental-control tools that can help eliminate unwanted e-mails, block sexually graphic and violent content, monitor kids' Internet use, limit their time online, and prevent them from giving out personal information. "Many of these tools are available as free downloads from your Internet service provider (ISP), or from Web sites like ours, GetNetWise.org," says Yates.
Haznaw offers other tips for keeping kids safe online:
By educating your children early on, you're providing them with tools to keep themselves safe. And, says Bell, "by the time they're teens, hopefully you'll have a good barometer about how your kids normally act," and you'll easily identify unusual behavior. "I don't browbeat my kids any more," he adds. "They're very Internet-savvy."
Home & Family Finance® Resource Center
Copyright © 1997-2013 Credit Union National Association Inc.