Internet safety is an oxymoron. By default, the internet is a free-for-all that leaves all users, especially children with little real-world experience, at risk for fraud and abuse. The biggest fear for parents is that their child will be sucked into the world of online chatting with strangers as this 13-year-old Houston girl was this week. This is a very real possibility, with potentially dire consequences (running away, being lured into prostitution, etc.), and one that parents need to combat at every level.
Unfortunately, there aren't enough hours in the day to monitor your child's online activity, especially since most of them are now carrying their "computers" in their purses and pockets. Gone are the glory days when the family's one computer could sit in a public area of the house and parents could easily monitor every keystroke. Today, parents are left to try and stay one step ahead, and hope that they'll at least be able to keep pace. New social media sites pop up constantly, and children are prone to creating user accounts on multiple sites, so it's very easy for them to "hide" their online life from their parents.
I wish I could give you a golden rule for internet safety, but it's impossible. Here are a few helpful suggestions, though:
- Trust your instincts. If your child's behavior changes in any way, if he or she seems to spend more time online than before, or continually tries to block you from seeing the phone or computer, that is a red flag.
- Tell your child that you need all passwords and usernames for all sites. Your child may or may not comply, but do your best. Also, if your child has passcodes or security keys to lock his or her devices, it should be a rule that you have access. Check the browsing history regularly as this can tip you off to sites that your child may be hiding. Of course, our computer-savvy children also know about browsing history, so they may delete it before you check it.
- Friend or follow your child on all of the sites that you know about, and routinely check the activity. Watch for communications, comments, tags, etc. from people who are not familiar names to you. If you see one, search that person and see what you can find on that site, but also on other sites online. Google the name and see what comes up. It's also beneficial to Google your child's name periodically, sometimes this will pull up user accounts on social media sites. Be sure to put your child's name in quotes when you Google it.
- "Stalk" your child's friends online. Many children (whose parents aren't as tuned in as you are) have their sites set to be public….not safe for them, but quite useful for you. See what they're doing, where they're going and who they're hanging out with. This can help you get an insider view of your child's world if your child doesn't communicate with you.
- ASK YOUR CHILD if you see interaction with a name that's not familiar. Your child's reaction will be a good indicator to you…does it seem like your child is making up an answer, or is the information freely flowing and plausible?
- Don't forget that the chat function on Facebook, Kik, etc. is not something you can see, and predators often know this. They will leverage this function to have "live" conversations with your child that don't leave a paper trail.
- Trust is over-rated. We all want to believe that our child is the angel he or she appears to be, but we need to be realistic, too. Children lie, children hide information, and children do it cunningly. Your child WILL look you in the eye and tell a bold-faced lie and be incredibly convincing about it. Don't believe for a second that it won't happen. Back to the first point in this article, trust your gut. If your child is lying to your face about something, you'll know it, even if he's completely convincing, your little voice will tell you that something doesn't add up.
- Children are impulsive, and conflict at school or at home can be a catalyst for a predator. If a child feels lonely, ostracized or unloved, that child is an easier target.
Make it your job to remind your children every day that you love them, and always be present with a listening, non-judgmental ear. If you fill that need, then your child will not have a desire to fill it with someone online.