Online safety: protecting your kids

Originally published on clarionledger.com on 8/26/2013

PDF: Online safety – protecting your kids

With school just having started across the country, a lot of kids are meeting new friends, discovering new things, and using new technologies. It’s an exciting time, full of rich possibilities. Many schools have embraced technology, and many are including Internetbased tools and services to help teach. Some schools are already replacing traditional textbooks with tablet computers and websites.

But with all of the good that’s done by technology such as the Internet, there are also a lot of bad things as well. The Internet is a virtual Wild Wild West, where just about anything is possible. In recent years, problems such as cyber bullying, “sexting” (sending inappropriate photos via text messaging) and online sexual predation have exploded onto the scene.As a parent, I sometimes find it seems overwhelming. But, just as with protecting your kids from other types of crime, your best ally is information.

Among those fighting to catch the bad guys and help stop cybercrime is AttorneyGeneral Jim Hood and his staff of investigators. In the 9 1/2 years of Hood’s tenure in the office, stopping cybercrime has become a major part of his work.

I sent him some questions, and here I’ve summarized some of his responses.

Social networking can lead to dangers. Hood noted that the biggest threat to kids is rooted in the explosive growth of social networking, which provides avenues for threats like cyber bullying to exploitation of kids. “The inherent dangers are that children tend to overshare information on these sites and accept friends or chat with people they have only distant links to,” he said. “The Internet is a forum where people are not always whom they present themselves to be. Today’s technology allows people to see your real time location, which makes kids more vulnerable to potentially being located by someone up to no good.”

Photos can reveal location clues. Posting of photos can allow predators to get clues to the child’s location. “You have to consider that allowing your kids to roam the Internet with no boundaries is very similar to letting them loose on the street or leaving the front door of your house wide open,” he said.

Parents need to be involved. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of parents in protecting your kids, Hood noted. That may mean being nosy. “Parental involvement is key,” he insists. “Don’t let technology get in the way of your interaction with your kids. If your kids are using Instagram, you should use Instagram and learn about it. Have discussions with your children about the good and the bad on the internet.”

There have been many cases in recent years of “cyber bullying”, the practice of using the Internet to harass, threaten or intimidate peers. In some tragic cases, suicide or other types of violence have resulted.

“Caution your children not to share certain information over the Internet,” he said, and teach your children not to react or retaliate to cyber bullying.”

Other tips include showing your kids how to delete and/or block harmful messages before they read them, teaching them about respect and privacy and about the consequences of cyber bullying, and report abuses or threats to the Attorney General’s office and your Internet Service Provider.

Security begins at home. How can parents know if their kids are seeing things they shouldn’t? “Check your internet history logs,” advised Hood. “Place computers in — and restrict use to — general open view areas in your home. Look for warning signs such as closing the lid on the laptop when you come in or putting the phone away quickly.”

Finally, I asked Hood whether he believes parents are generally naive when it comes to policing their kids on the Internet.

“This is more of an education issue,” he said. “Parents who have become familiar with the technology are comfortable discussing issues about the internet with their children. Parents who don’t understand tend to distance themselves and do tend to be more naive about what their kids are doing on the internet. The more we educate parents about the dangers and the benefits of the internet the more we can prevent cyber crimes related to children.”

Here are a few other resources to help protect your kids:

  • Cyber-safety brochures are available at the Attorney General’s website at http://www.agjimhood.com.
  • Netcetera is a really good comprehensive resource, posted by the Federal Trade Commission, about keeping your kids safe online.
  • Cyberbully411 is a resource site specifically designed to provide resource related to the growing threat of cyberbullying. Safekids has good general information about the topic.
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