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Helping your child stay safe online is of paramount importance in the age of digital technology

  • Written by Deborah Stone

corie
Timbercrest Junior High student Corie Leib, 13, and her mother Tami share a computer which is located in their home’s family room. Photo by Lisa Allen
The sky’s the limit when it comes to technology options these days.

Kids, who are quite savvy at all the various devices available, spend much of their waking hours cruising the Web, checking MySpace and Facebook, using Twitter or texting on their phones.

The world is at their fingertips, ready and accessible. But, it is important to note that all this information and conduits of communication come with inherent risks.

Stefanie Thomas, victim advocate for the Seattle Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, wants kids to be more aware of the impact of their online behavior.

Over the past two years, she has given 315 presentations on the subjects of cyber bullying, social networking, online postings, sexting and tips for staying safe online, reaching close to 30,000 children, teens and adults.

“I think the biggest problem with kids is that they have a complete disconnect with how they act online, as opposed to their behavior in real life,” says Thomas. “They use different rules and standards online because they don’t believe they’re going to get caught if they do something inappropriate. They don’t perceive there will be any long term consequences to their actions. What they don’t understand is that they really don’t have any control over what they put out there. They believe if they establish their privacy settings, no one else can see what they post. This is just not the case. In the world of copy and paste, nothing is sacred anymore.”

Increasingly younger children have access to computers and other forms of technology. The younger the child, however, the more impulsive and immature he/she is when it comes to dealing with conflict. They lack the necessary skills to resolve their problems independently. They act without thought or caution, assuring themselves that nothing will happen to them as a result of their behavior.

In their narrow view, bad things only happen to other children, not them. “It’s a boost to kids’ egos when they can say they have hundreds of online friends,” comments Thomas. “In reality, they don’t know this many people, yet they so readily share tons of images and personal information with these ‘friends.’ And as soon as they hit send or post, they physically lose all control over what’s done with those pictures or data.”

Thomas warns kids that they need to be aware of not only the content they’re sharing, but who is getting access to it. She notes that the images are not kept between one or two people. Rather, they’re sent out via mass texting, which can cause embarrassment, humiliation and potentially ruin a person’s reputation.

She adds, “And then there’s the content on Facebook postings, which can return to haunt you later on when it’s accessed by colleges or potential employers.”

Two of the most serious problems among kids and teens today are cyber bullying and sexting, according to Thomas. “We’re seeing cyber bullying occurring at the elementary school level now,” she notes. “By middle school, it’s rampant. It is happening every day in every school.”

To combat the issue, she stresses that schools, parents and law enforcement must each have a “buy-in.” The schools need to have an aggressive policy to hold kids accountable while parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing and keep the communication lines open. Law enforcement’s job is to investigate cases and see that the laws are carried out.

Sexting, which Thomas describes as sending any image of anyone under the age of 18 in a state of partial or full nudity, is common in middle and high school. She says, “These kids and teens view sexting as not real life,” explains Thomas. “They’re using it as a way to discover themselves and experiment sexually, but they forget that no one their age can keep their mouths shut about anything. And so, things get forwarded and it all goes viral.” She adds, “The latest problem is ‘sextortion,’ or blackmailing for the pictures. An individual threatens to forward the photos to everyone he/she knows if the victim doesn’t comply by providing more pictures.”

According to Thomas, parents can contribute to such problems by being naïve about technology and the pitfalls it can present to children. She notes that for some, the cyber world is overwhelming and they accept that their kids are so more knowledgeable than them when it comes to digital devices.

“They also trust their kids, thinking that problems happen to others, but not to their own children,” adds Thomas. “They are unwilling to accept that their kids could be involved in certain risky behaviors and are blind to the situation.”

So, what can parents do? “They need to educate themselves on how the Internet works,” emphasizes Thomas, “and then they need to keep tabs on their children’s computer use.”

Experts suggest parents create a written Internet safety plan, setting rules for usage, email and texting, as well as establishing strategies for handling inappropriate communication.They advocate reminding kids regularly about not disclosing personal information online or sharing passwords, warning them that anything they write can be forwarded or printed for distribution.

“It’s also a good idea to keep the computer in a common area in the house,” adds Thomas.

Local parent Leanne Christensen took this advice to heart with her two daughters. She set up a homework room, which also serves as the family computer room.

“I made the mistake initially of letting my older daughter do her work in her own room,” explains Christensen. “For one year, I basically never saw her and I didn’t really know what she was doing. I decided to change that when we moved to a new house. Now, we’re all together and I can monitor the situation. I also found that when you do this, kids are more likely to share the messages they receive. And if they get derogatory comments on Facebook, which has happened before, they are more apt to tell me and it can then become part of a discussion.”

Experts additionally urge parents to save or print inappropriate messages and pictures that their kids receive and to contact parents of others who sent those emails.

Your Internet service provider should be contacted and a complaint filed if you think the messages violate the Terms and Conditions of your contract.

Finally, Thomas urges parents to contact the police if their children receive violent threats or pornography, or are harassed in any way. “That’s when we step in and investigate,” she says. “Our taskforce takes this work very seriously and we do charge kids for these crimes.”

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